As the Department of Homeland Security marked its first decade of existence in March, Secretary Janet Napolitano said its much-derided acquisition system had turned a corner.
It is “one of the largest evolutions in the last few years,” in the department, she said at a panel discussion that included its first two secretaries, Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff.
“The undersecretary for management has put good governance around acquisition, which is what you want,” she said at the event, sponsored by Politico.
Napolitano did not mention by name any of the department’s high-profile failures, which have cost taxpayers billions of dollars. Transportation Security Administration explosive sniffers and scanners, Secure Border Initiative sensors and nuclear-radiation monitors for shipping containers are some of the more notable ones.
But she alluded to one of the chief problems: technology was fielded before it was ready.
“What you want to do is have an acquisition program that allows you to ascertain as early as possible whether something is really going to work or not. And to cut it off as quickly as you can once the decision has been made,” she said.
DHS now has an intra-department acquisition review board that looks at every new program of $1 million or more. There has also been extensive training for acquisition personnel.
“When you are dealing with new technologies in a new domain that have to be scalable to something as large and complex as the United States — when you are pushing the envelope — you are bound to have some failures. That happens,” she said.
As far as the early years, she referred to Ridge’s comments that “the nuts and bolts of the department didn’t exist when it was being knit together.”
Acquisition management was part of that, she said.
A DHS Office of Inspector General year-end review for 2012 said there have been improvements in the procurement of new technologies.
With 160 acquisition programs totaling $144 billion, DHS has “made progress in improving program governance, increasing insight into program performance and building acquisition and program management,” the report said.
There are still hiccups, it said. Border procurement continues to be a problem, it pointed out. For example, the mismanagement of a steel contract for border fencing cost taxpayers $69 million.
An effort to find savings by coordinating the purchase of aviation assets between the Coast Guard and Customs and Border Protection has not come to fruition. It noted that in 2012, CBP was planning to purchase an information technology system for its aircraft that would be unable to share information with other DHS components. Photo Credit: Department of Homeland Security