WASHINGTON – A decade after its creation in response to the September 11 attacks,the Department of Homeland Security is making significant strides to improve the “Wild West” and reckless environment that plagued the agency in its early years,according to testimony at a Senate hearing Thursday.
DHS advances include reducing spending on noncompetitive contracts by 89 percent,consolidating massive data centers and being more rigorous in assessing the costs and efficiency of border security solutions.
But even with those improvements,the agency still faces problems.
The Government Accountability Office’s new “High Risk List,” which is the result of audits of fiscal abuses and management challenges,found a mix of management issues hindering DHS.
Sen. Tom Carper,D-Del.,chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs,acknowledged the obstacles facing DHS,but said the organization is “moving the needle” and overcoming past errors.
“In those early days at the department,the focus of both the administration and Congress was on moving quickly to prevent another 9/11-type attack on the homeland. Management took a back seat to those efforts,” Carper said. “It has taken years to dig out of the hole that the initial lack of a strong management foundation left.”
DHS has the lowest workforce morale of any major department and lacks a comprehensive financial management system that provides real-time visibility over spending. In 10 years,the department has never passed a financial audit,although it is inching closer to doing so,according to the GAO report.
“I don’t know how you can obtain that accountability if you can’t pass a basic audit,” Sen. Ron Johnson,R-Wis.,said.
Johnson said DHS,and all government agencies,should be held to the same standards as private businesses,which are subject to criminal charges if they can’t pass an audit.
Eugene L. Dodaro,comptroller general of the U.S.,noted DHS shortcomings in management of information technology,financial and human capital. But overall,he was optimistic about the direction DHS is heading. Dodaro commended the department for being receptive to GAO recommendations and for working to remove its name from the High Risk List.
“Every organization has a policy. The question is whether they have the will to implement the policy,” Heitkamp said. “These numbers,at this point,aren’t numbers I can defend in North Dakota.”
DHS has a lot to improve on,Holl Lute conceded. But,she added,DHS is a $60 billion a year agency with half a million employees scattered across 22 departments. Despite those challenges,she said DHS has made tremendous improvements both by its internal standards and those of the GAO. This,she said,is reason to believe things will continue to improve.
Carper likened DHS’s task to being as arduous as “turning an aircraft carrier,” and said he shared Holl Lute’s positive outlook.
“The administration and Congress need to work together to resolve these remaining High Risk areas,and we will,” Carper said. “The road to improvement is always under construction.”
Reach reporter Amer Taleb at [email protected] or 202-326-9867. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire.