DHS puts the kibosh on saying ‘pilot’ as it deals with new congressional reporting requirements

There is a new unwritten rule at the Department of Homeland Security these days: Don’t use the word pilot or demonstration program in public or in official documents.

Seems a little odd?

Calling something a pilot in government is like shaking someone’s hand when you first meet them. It’s a well-worn and appreciated custom.

But at DHS these days, the words are verboten thanks to a little noticed provision in the Department of Homeland Security’s...

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There is a new unwritten rule at the Department of Homeland Security these days: Don’t use the word pilot or demonstration program in public or in official documents.

Seems a little odd?

Calling something a pilot in government is like shaking someone’s hand when you first meet them. It’s a well-worn and appreciated custom.

But at DHS these days, the words are verboten thanks to a little noticed provision in the Department of Homeland Security’s section of the fiscal 2022 omnibus spending bill.

Yes, Congress included in new language that requires DHS to submit a report on any pilot or demonstration program that “uses more than 5 full-time equivalents or costs in excess of $1 million.”

That requirement has caused a lot of consternation across DHS during fiscal 2022, according to multiple sources.

“This caught a lot of folks by surprise. It wasn’t seen until mostly after the fact that this was going to be problematic for the department after reading it,” said Chris Cummiskey, the former acting undersecretary for management at DHS and currently CEO of Cummiskey Strategic Solutions. “This is going potentially stifle the innovation that you often get with pilots to test out different approaches. It will apply limitations on advancing the pilots without approval from appropriators and that will make it difficult to operate these programs.”

To be clear, lawmakers aren’t forbidding any pilots or demonstration programs, but they do want a lot more data from DHS than they had been getting.

“Congress doesn’t know if there are a lot of programs. It had become apparent to some members of Congress over time DHS was doing things that were pilot in nature and they would ask questions like what are the metrics or goals or time frames, how many personnel are involved and at what point will it go from a pilot to regular operations,” said a source familiar with the provision, who requested anonymity to speak about the House Appropriations Committee’s thinking. “Very consistently, Congress would not get the responses and that there didn’t seem to be a lot of forethought or a lot of documented language about the pilots.”

So House appropriators added a host of new requirements for DHS to address in their reports that are due 30 days before the pilot or demonstration program begins, including:

  • Objectives that are well-defined and measurable;
  • An assessment methodology that details — the type and source of assessment data; the methods for and frequency of collecting such data; and how such data will be analyzed;
  • An implementation plan, including milestones, a cost estimate, and schedule, including an end date; and
  • A signed interagency agreement or memorandum of agreement for any pilot or demonstration program involving the participation of more than one Department of Homeland Security component or that of an entity not part of such department.

The source said DHS shouldn’t have been surprised by the provision. Lawmakers included similar language in the 2021 appropriations bill, but it ended up being only in the statement language versus being statutory in 2022.

“The department ignored it in 2021. Now it could’ve been a new administration coming in late and not having access to transition stuff when they should’ve and it stopped them from hitting the ground running. But lawmakers also wanted to make a point that this was something they wanted DHS to do,” the source said. “There were a lot of conversations in 2021 about the statement and lawmakers didn’t get a lot of feedback from DHS about the 2022 language. They seemed to say they could execute on the request.”

Multiple requests to DHS for comments about the provision and its impact were not returned.

Senate Appropriations Committee spokesman said the provision originated in the House.

“Its purpose is to provide oversight of ‘pop-up’ pilot programs at DHS, which typically did not track performance and impacts but largely acted as a justification for expanding the pilot itself,” the spokesman said.

Threshold for pilots is low

Cummiskey and other former DHS executives say the data call and putting together the reports shouldn’t be a huge lift for agency leaders.

Rafael Borras, the former DHS undersecretary for management and now president and CEO of the Homeland Security and Defense Business Council, said Congress created a low threshold for reporting and it will cover quite a large number of programs. But, at the same time, he said it shouldn’t too difficult to pull that information together.

“If you own the pilot or demonstration program, you should have that information available. The bigger question is why does Congress want the information and how will they use it,” Borras said. “Congress may not look at 100 reports, but they will look at the one or two and that may create some challenges for DHS.”

Cummiskey estimated it could be as many 40 different pilot or demonstration programs across the entire agency.

Troy Edgar, the former CFO for DHS and now a partner for federal finance and supply chain transformation with IBM Consulting, said another concern is how these requirements will slow down pilot work, which, in turn, can slow down departmental transformation and modernization.

He said the five full-time equivalents and $1 million thresholds seem low for an agency with a budget of over $82 billion.

Provision not about stopping innovation

Borras added that his big concern is adding this to the dozens, or even, hundreds, of other reporting requirements DHS already has to deal with.

“The department must uncover what is root of this and then address the root problems Congress is worried about,” he said. “If it is because they are not transparent and open enough, the DHS must deal with that. A simple report from the undersecretary for management doesn’t get at the root issue.”

The source said lawmakers want DHS to be innovative and to transform, but have the discipline and rigor associated with spending millions of dollars.

“It’s the kind of discipline that the department needs to make sure it has when it does a pilot. It has to make sure these pilots are effective in way DHS can learn whether or not the pilot achieved the goals intended,” the source said. “It’s beside the point if lawmakers look at all of them, but if it’s hundreds I think we all would be surprised. But lawmakers will look at some of them and ensure the requirements are institutionalized in a way that will result in better pilots going forward.”

The fact that the language isn’t “punitive” or a reaction to something DHS did, as some experts surmised, is a positive thing.

The question Borras, Cummiskey and others asked is whether requiring reports will have the intended affect Congress wants, which is better oversight, accountability and general management of pilot programs. It’s unclear whether new reporting requirements, by themselves, in any federal management realm really changed agency behavior.

 

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