Watchdogs: DHS still struggles with overlap, fragmentation

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Despite receiving nearly 10,000 recommendations from congressional watchdogs on how to tackle fragmentation, duplication and overlap, the Homeland Security Department continues to wrestle with weaknesses in these areas, according to a panel on Capitol Hill.

An April 26 House subcommittee hearing highlighted the challenges DHS has faced since its inception a decade ago, particularly in the area of wasteful spending. The Office of the Inspector General alone has made more than 8,000 recommendations over the past 10 years, finding more than $2.6 billion in questioned costs, unsupported costs or funds that could have been better used, said Anne Richards, assistant inspector general for audits at DHS.

“Approximately 15 percent of these recommendations remain open, representing about $650 million,” she said in her testimony.

A December 2012 report from DHS OIG divided the department’s most serious management challenges into areas of intelligence, transportation security, border security, infrastructure protection, and disaster preparedness and response; and accountability issues of acquisition management, financial management, IT management, grants management, employee accountability and integrity, and cybersecurity.

While DHS and its components have made strides in tackling the shortcomings in these high-priority areas, improvements – particularly in the long term – do not come quickly.

“[I]t takes time to develop plans, revise and update guidance, and implement and disseminate new policies and procedures,” Richards said. “This can be particularly time-consuming when, as is usually the case, such plans, policies, and procedures require coordination and concurrence among multiple entities, including some outside of DHS and its components.”

For example, DHS has attempted over the years to improve and integrate its financial systems, but “for various reasons, it has not yet successfully completed this complicated task,” Richards noted.

Similarly to the DHS OIG, the Government Accountability Office has previously issued nearly 1,800 recommendations aimed at bolstering DHS programs and operations. In early April, however, a GAO report examining government duplication found yet another six areas where DHS components could take action to address fragmentation and redundancies.

So far, DHS has only partially adopted the recommendations. The department now “must take action to implement these recommendations in a timely manner to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the department,” said Rep. Jeff Duncan (R-S.C.), chairman of the subcommittee said in his remarks.

Cathleen Berrick, managing director of homeland security and justice issues at GAO, echoed Duncan’s sentiments in her testimony, saying DHS has implemented about 60 percent of GAO’s recommendations and much work remains to be done.

“[T]he department has more to do to ensure that it conducts its missions efficiently and effectively while simultaneously preparing to address future challenges that face the department and nation,” she said.

DHS’ first decade “clearly … was one marked with challenges, mistakes and growth,” said Henry Willis, director at RAND Homeland Security and Defense Center.  “The challenges to the nation that the department is responsible for addressing in the near future are strikingly complex,” he said.

Willis suggested DHS and Congress collaborate to institute a new approach to enhanced use of integrated strategic planning that entails bolstering DHS’ internal analytic capabilities, greater transparency surrounding analysis and the data supporting it, and simplified congressional oversight of the agency.

Meanwhile, the watchdogs said they will continue keeping a close eye on DHS to ensure it is moving in the right direction and taking steps to eliminate wasteful spending.

“We understand that our recommended corrective actions will strengthen DHS only if they are implemented,” Richards said. “Therefore, we will also continue our efforts to follow up with the department to make certain that it carries out its mission as effectively and efficiently as possible.”

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Congress, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Departments, Government Accountability Office (GAO), Government IT News
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