Four words — empower, collaborate, innovate and procure — are at the center of the Homeland Security Department’s new acquisition strategic plan.
Paul Courtney, who became the new chief procurement officer for DHS in August, is challenging the agency’s procurement community to embody all of these concepts.
Courtney said these four simple words will make DHS a premier acquisition organization.
“It’s just much about the customer having a great experience as it is about improving the experience of the procurement professional. So it is really the all encompassing experience both for our staff and for the customer as they work with us,” Courtney said in an exclusive interview with Federal News Network. “Both Soraya [Correa, the former DHS CPO] and I had the same philosophies on leading an organization, and that was mainly people first. You hire and retain the right people, give the staff the tools and empower them, whatever they need to be successful. In the end, the result will be incredible for the procurement workforce of DHS and how it is ensuring the mission needs of DHS or obtaining products and services in the most efficient and effective manner.”
The strategic plan, released in December, offers high-level objectives for each goal area to create the basis for which initiatives likely will grow from.
The first goal is empower, which speaks directly to Courtney’s philosophy of putting the workforce first.
“How are we working to make sure we have the best people and are retaining and recruiting the best and the brightest? What are the challenges we’re facing? The world’s changed in the last 18 months and looking back on my career, I’ve never telework up until the last 18 months. It has changed the mindset,” he said. “I think as we look to retain and recruit folks, we have to continue the flexibilities that allow us to have some important people first priorities to help them accomplish the mission of DHS. How do you make sure you bring the good people, retain the great people that you have and still meet the mission? You have to continue to offer these flexibilities as we continue forward.”
Courtney said many acquisition professionals, including himself, realized that working remotely was easier than expected and that type of flexibility will be important going forward.
The other area Courtney said needs to continue to evolve is training. He said the days of going to a classroom for three days or however long are over, at least in the short term.
“I think we’ve all taken classes online where you just kind of click through, get through the very end, or at least a test and just move on. You’re not really learning there. We don’t want to go to that learning model, so we really are switching to make sure we have interactive models using technology,” he said. “It was great to be in a classroom having those breakout sessions, so how do you have the same look and feel when we are actually training folks online? We have a great mentorship program here and we want to keep that going and make sure we have those conversations. I think it’s even more critical now than ever to have those relationships as you’re not having the hallway conversations anymore. How are you reaching out to employees? How are you keeping that interaction going?”
DHS recently got dinged by the Government Accountability Office, which found in its annual report on the agency’s major acquisition programs that DHS was struggling keeping major acquisitions on track, particularly cost and schedule.
Courtney said while DHS has a small number of programs in breach of cost, schedule and performance goals, most are on track and the agency is addressing those problem areas.
“We have taken a hard look at our acquisition programs and we believe that our programs within a portfolio are in compliance with established processes and policies. We actively manage them, and oversight is in place to continually monitor program cost, schedule and performance against DHS approved baselines,” he said. “Along with our Office of Program Accountability and Risk Management (PARM), we partner with them to effectively manage our acquisition procurement policy, governance and oversight by doing several things. First, they closely monitor programs in breach. Next, requiring program documentation to get through any potential issues and problems. Third, they continuously monitor program health. That’s obviously important to make sure the program is healthy. And lastly, they are enhancing program data quality and availability to ensure strong governance and oversight. My office is a partner in this effort working very closely with Deb Cox, who leads the PARM office. We’ve got to make sure we have the right contracts under these programs, It’s so critical ensure that we mitigate cost schedule and performance issues.”
For Courtney, dealing with struggling programs, managing DHS’s relationship with industry or with component acquisition leaders and so many other tasks aren’t entirely new. He served as the deputy CPO for two years before taking over for Soraya Correa in August. He is building on and expanding the progress, successes and struggles Correa faced during her six-year tenure.
“The one thing that Soraya said to me during her last days as a CPO, and it was pretty funny but also some good advice, she said, ‘You know, Paul, I wear high heels and you wouldn’t look good in them or even be able to walk. So don’t try to walk in my shoes.’ So I’m definitely walking on my own. It’s funny but true,” he said. “It’s hard to walk in anybody’s shoes, especially somebody like Soraya Correa, who was just a powerhouse in the procurement community. I’ll use the analogy of a great chess player: she always seemed to be a few moves ahead of everybody, and clearly understood like the second and third order of effects or consequences of a decision. Working with her for the last few years, she was just a phenomenal mentor to me.”
The biggest change, Courtney said with a little bit of a laugh, has been all the paperwork he needs to review and sign as the CPO. But in a more serious moment, he said the transition has been mostly smooth thanks to the close working relationship he had with Correa and based on his experience with the FBI and at the Defense Intelligence Agency, where he worked before coming to DHS in 2019.
Courtney said his messages to industry and the DHS acquisition workforce are similar.
“I’ll keep stressing that we really do want the best and the brightest here at DHS. We’re not looking for lowest price technically acceptable. We really are looking for best value,” he said. “When you come to submit a proposal to DHS, please keep that in mind because, and I’ll keep stressing this, we want the best and brightest to help us meet the important mission here at DHS.”