Though it remains troubled by untracked spending and a sometimes-unclear mission, the Homeland Security Department marked its 10th anniversary with rare kudos from longtime critics.
At a March 21 hearing at the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, several top DHS officials listened to the head of the Government Accountability Office and a former inspector general document progress in moving some of the department’s components off the high-risk program list and improving auditability.
“DHS has made considerable progress in transforming its original component agencies into a single department,” Comptroller General Gene Dodaro testified. “As a result, GAO narrowed the scope of the high-risk area and changed the name from Implementing and Transforming the Department of Homeland Security to Strengthening the Department of Homeland Security Management Functions.”
He said the department still needs to “further strengthen its acquisition, information technology, and financial and human capital management functions. Of the 31 actions and outcomes GAO identified as important for this area, DHS has fully or mostly addressed 8, partially addressed 16, and initiated 7, Dodaro said.
Former DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner also confirmed progress in efforts to streamline the department’s acquisition management. But he recommended continued effort to improve monitoring of preparedness grants to states under the Urban Areas Security Initiatives program. “The department still does not have a system in place to determine the extent its preparedness grants have enhanced the states’ capabilities to prevent, deter, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks, major disasters, and other emergencies,” Skinner said. “The department does not require states to report progress in achieving milestones as part of the annual application process.”
Effusive praise came from committee chairman Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., who noted that in the early days of DHS, management “took a backseat” to efforts by both the administration and the department to focus on moving quickly to prevent another 9/11-type attack on the homeland.
“When the department was stood up 10 years ago, there was no framework for accountability. There was also no guidance on which responsibilities lay with headquarters, and which responsibilities lay with the various components that made up the department,” Carper said. “Now, the department has made clear who is in charge of what. This new, more disciplined environment will better enable the department to control costs at the various components and better ensure that all of them operate as a more cohesive, effective and accountable agency.”
Deputy DHS Secretary Jane Holl Lute spoke of the department’s good working relationship with GAO. “Over the past four years, the undersecretary for management led an effort to improve the department’s overall acquisition process, including reforming the early requirements development process and enhancing our ability to manage the implementation and execution of acquisition programs,” she said. “Since the beginning of the administration, DHS made an unprecedented commitment to efficiency to support our frontline operations by building a culture of fiscal discipline and accountability” that has identified more than $4 billion in cost avoidances and implemented more than 45 efficiency initiatives.
A more skeptical tone came from Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., the panel’s ranking member, who would later offer a floor amendment to the Senate budget resolution to tighten controls on preparedness grants to focus more on national security. “The recent budget sequester is a valuable test of whether Congress and DHS can work together to focus DHS’ mission and resources on… national security priorities,” he said. “I strongly believe there are plenty of wasteful and low-priority areas to cut the agency’s budget before we cut its core missions.”