DHS’s Unity of Effort seeds the roots of change

The joint requirements council is one of the best examples of just how much the Homeland Security Department has changed over the last year. The council is one of several Defense Department-like management approaches that Secretary Jeh Johnson has brought to DHS under his initiative to create a more cohesive agency.

Christian Marrone, the DHS chief of staff, said as the agency marks the one-year anniversary of the Unity of Effort initiative, the structural and management improvements are clear.

He said for a long time the department went without a joint requirements council despite the fact that components buy similar products and services.

“Having a joint requirements council whereby we are doing our requirements together in a joint way allows us to be more efficient and ultimately allows the acquisition be more cost effective,” Marrone said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “We are seeing this in particular on the aviation side where we’ve done extensive work already. We’ve had a number of legacy issues over the years that we are working through in terms of how we sustain and we operate our aircraft both from the Coast Guard perspective and from the Customs and Border Protection. We are starting to see just how this one council that we put together is bringing together in a unified way a more cohesive and integrated way to do these things.”

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Marrone said DHS tried before to create a joint requirements council, but it didn’t stick.

DHS has been on a track to buying more as a unit over the years. It’s commonly pointed to as a model for how strategic sourcing of commodity products or services can meet mission, socioeconomic and budget goals. Since 2006, DHS has saved more than $2 billion from strategic sourcing across a host of product and service areas.

But the joint requirements council is more than just a coordinating body for volume buying.

Lifecycle buying

Marrone said the council also focuses on how the agency sustains what it buys and tracks those operating costs.

“We are doing this together and building things we have not had before, the metrics and ability to look the costs and really try to get the best and lowest costs at the end of the day,” he said. “What we found through the joint requirements council was a lot of the initial work we had to do was get a common set of data. Then, we can compare to and build from. So that has been a struggle for this department of the years because of the way it was built and where everyone came from. But now when you have a unifying effort, we are starting to bring that all together, synthesizing it and at the end of the day we are comparing apples-to-apples, which has not been necessarily the case in the past and has been a concerted effort of ours so we can track the costs across components and look at things across the board as opposed to here’s how it is at one component versus this component, and try to make these decisions.”

Marrone said the ability to see across the department about like needs and spending helped DHS develop a different type of budget request for fiscal 2016.

He said DHS completely overhauled its budget process, in part, because of the coordination from the joint requirements council.

“We looked it in terms of mission areas, which is how we operate,” Marrone said. “It’s shown tremendous value because now we can see across the spectrum where we are deficient in terms of where we need to put more resources, and where we are willing to take some risks. With the fiscal situation we are living under, we can’t fund everything, but now we are doing so knowingly and it really has improved our ability to make decisions at the end of the day. That has made for a much better budget, which as we’ve gone up to the Hill and talked about our 2016 budget, both Democrats and Republicans have been very pleased with how the budget has been structured and, more importantly, with the budget itself.”

An ugly process to fund DHS

Secretary Johnson went before Congress three times this week defending his budget request.

The House’s version of the DHS spending bill for 2016 is $2 billion less than what President Barack Obama requested, and $350 million less than what the agency received this year. The White House requested more than $42 billion in discretionary spending for next year.

Johnson told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee that the House spending levels could mean delays in DHS headquarters construction, border security and detention capabilities and fewer new hires for the Secret Service.

“It would be an ugly process to have to fund the department at that level,” Johnson said.

Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.), the ranking member of the committee, and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) piled on to Johnson’s concerns.

Carper said a $2 billion cut could hurt national security. McCaskill called for Johnson to ask DoD and the White House to include DHS in the overseas contingency operations funding that Congress likely will pass again this year.

“I think the time has come if OCO is going to be used in a fairy tale like fashion to do what should be done in the base budget, I would think it would be time for you to discuss with the President and the leadership at the Defense Department that you have every justified right for you to be in OCO if we are all going to talk about the border being about our defense, then we have to make sure you are in that slush fund too,” she said.

While Congress and the administration hash out the 2016 budget, Johnson said management reforms with the Unity of Effort initiative front-and-center are part of his New Year resolutions.

Aim to improve industry relationships

As part of the one-year anniversary of the Unity of Effort program, DHS launched a new program called Acquisitions Innovations in Motion (AIiM) initiative.

Marrone said the goal of AIiM is to more widely open the channels of communication with industry about contracting.

“The whole initiative is set around getting industry feedback around a number of different areas,” he said. “Take for instance our RFP and RFI processes, where are some of the issues that industry runs into all the time, the things that they find that don’t make sense and things we can improve on? We then take that input and then create action from that whereby we make the necessary changes.”

Marrone said AIiMs first event was the industry day DHS held in February to explain in more detail what the agency’s contracting goals are and where they are going under the Unity of Effort program.

“Since that time, we’ve developed working groups in different areas comprised of a good cross section of industry, in particular we have small businesses, medium sized and large sized, some of the associations that are out there,” he said. “We’ve well developed this and will begin to implement this. We’ve been in contact with a lot of our industry partners, in particular a number of the different trade associations, who really can help us as we move forward.”

For the last 12 years since Congress stood DHS up, acquisition management has been a challenge. A recent House Homeland Security Committee hearing found major DHS programs routinely face cost, schedule and/or performance problems.

Marrone said on the whole the Unity of Effort is about leaving DHS in better shape than how they found it.

“The key lesson is you need to have a sustained focus on these, and often times when you get into a period of time when an event occurs and it shifts everyone’s focus away and so one of the things we’ve done here is we have a group that focuses on this 24/7,” he said. “It’s their job to drive this effort. It’s comprised of a bunch of senior leaders across the department. We meet once a week. We have a number of goals and we are measuring progress in different areas, and we will continue to drive this.”

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