Acquisition reform bill could mean better record-keeping at DHS

The Homeland Security Department’s procurement workforce could be getting a lesson in good housekeeping following a dismal report card last year.

The House Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 2 passed a bill that would require DHS subcomponent heads to complete annual “snapshot” reports of major acquisition programs whose life cycle cost estimates exceed $300 million. 

The bill, sponsored by subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency Ranking Member Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) comes a year after...

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The Homeland Security Department’s procurement workforce could be getting a lesson in good housekeeping following a dismal report card last year.

The House Homeland Security Committee on Feb. 2 passed a bill that would require DHS subcomponent heads to complete annual “snapshot” reports of major acquisition programs whose life cycle cost estimates exceed $300 million. 

The bill, sponsored by subcommittee on Oversight and Management Efficiency Ranking Member Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.) comes a year after a Government Accountability report found a lack of basic documentation in most DHS acquisition programs.

In its first annual assessment of DHS’ major acquisitions programs, GAO found that six programs lacked an approved baseline schedule or cost estimates.

“Anything less than complete, accurate, and up to date acquisition documentation increases the risk of cost and schedule overruns, delays in the delivery of capabilities needed by the department to perform critical missions, and causes a depletion of resources needed to address future requirements,” Coleman said in a statement. “This bill takes vital steps to address existing deficiencies and prevent future issues.”

GAO has a history of conducting audits on big government buyers like NASA and the Defense Department. In fiscal 2015, DHS spent nearly $11 billion on its major acquisition systems on programs like aircraft and ships for the Coast Guard, TSA baggage screening equipment at airports and FEMA logistics management equipment.

“There’s no question that documentation is critical for transparency and accountability for any agency or program. Many of the oversight reports demonstrate that there’s often times a lack of documentation to explain what happened rather than a problem with what happened. DHS also often suffers from that lack of documentation,” Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council, told Federal News Radio. “To the extent that this bill puts into law good program management practices, we support it. It’s regrettable that agencies have to have Congress direct them to follow smart program management practices, like establishing baselines, holding those baselines and documenting changes, but that’s what this bill does and that’s what the department or any agency should be doing.”

Programs can fall behind schedule or over budget for any number of reasons. Chvotkin said staffing reductions, underfunding from Congress and changes in program requirements could all play a role in an acquisition program to deliver on time and on schedule.

However, agencies, he said, should still have accurate baseline documentation.

“This is not a simple task. It might sound easy to just develop documentation. It starts at the very outset of a program with an agreed-upon baseline, usually in the business case, but an agreed upon baseline,” Chvotkin said. “The better practice around program management is once that baseline is established, it doesn’t change —it is what it is.”

Even with better documentation, acquisition program status reports can only tell so much of the broader picture. Chvotkin urged Congress consider the ups and downs of a given acquisition program before making judgments.

“You not only take a snapshot view of a program, but you have to be willing to take a step back and look at the history of that program. That’s where documentation is important,” he said. “Unfortunately, too many in oversight, including on the Hill, only look at the instant program and say, ‘Well, it’s over budget,’ or ‘It’s underperforming’ without asking the questions why.”

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