The Homeland Security Department’s new science and technology chief says he has a plan to turn around an organization that outside auditors say is out of touch with its customers and has numerous duplicative projects, poorly-tracked investments and rock-bottom workforce morale.
Dr. Reginald Brothers, who took over as the Homeland Security Department’s undersecretary for science and technology in April, outlined an agenda Tuesday that would reduce the department’s overall number of research programs and make the remaining ones more impactful and more strategically focused.
For starters, he has come up with a definition of what research and development actually means within DHS, addressing a critique that the Government Accountability Office has leveled against the DHS S&T organization for years.
DHS is legally required to supervise and coordinate all of the research activities of the components it absorbed when Congress created the department 11 years ago. But until two months ago, there was no common agreement on what constituted R&D or how DHS components should report their projects to headquarters.
“That meant that different people could have different definitions of what R&D really is,” Brothers told the House Homeland Security Committee Tuesday. “We’ve used the same type of nomenclature that OMB, DoD and NASA use for basic and applied development. That will allow us, going forward when we do data calls, to understand who’s doing what and where it lies.”
No R&D line of sight
A general lack of understanding of who’s doing what within DHS S&T has been a persistent problem for the organization, and one of the key reasons DHS’ overall management challenges have earned a spot on GAO’s high risk list.
In the watchdog’s most recent review of DHS S&T, it found that the department’s headquarters not only wasn’t tracking the individual research projects DHS components were conducting, it couldn’t tell auditors the total amount of money its components were spending on R&D.
“That makes it difficult to oversee activities across the department,” said David Maurer, GAO’s director for homeland security and justice issues. “The report we issued last year found that DHS S&T lacked a process to follow up with the end users of its deliverables. S&T customers were also very likely to report that S&T’s work did not meet their component’s needs. And in some cases, we were unable to even locate an end user for S&T’s projects.”
Brothers told lawmakers he fully intends to build stronger bridges between the central S&T office and DHS components. He said he’s met with the directors of each of those components at least once in the last four months.
As one way to build more coordination, DHS has established interagency groups that mirror some of the mechanisms the Defense Department uses to communicate ongoing projects and needs among the military services, including a joint requirements council and a deputies’ management action group.
Beyond encouraging more discussion at the leadership level, Brothers said his office also needs to do a better job of building more communication between its technical experts and the field staff who will eventually use the products DHS is cooking up in laboratories.
“Part of science and technology is that you can have smart engineers who come up with an idea, but because they don’t understand the context and don’t have a relationship with the end user, it’s not relevant,” he said. “Our job is to reach out, help them understand the art of the possible, and at the same time we need to understand what their needs are, both short-term and long-term. We’ve started that with the Transportation Security Administration. We really are working hand-in-hand now.”
Researchers into the field
Beginning in November, DHS plans to start a pilot program, in which it will temporarily assign researchers from its central S&T office to work in the laboratories of component agencies.
“What I’d like to see is a model that’s based on what I’ve seen in industry, where you have a central research facility, but you also have some research capabilities in the business areas,” Brothers said. “In industry, where that’s been successful is when they embed their laboratory staff into their business units. That gives the technical staff members the ability to understand the context in which they work. So you’re not designing something that an engineer thinks might be useful — you’re designing something that a Customs and Border Protection agent thinks is useful.”
Brothers also told lawmakers he plans a new look at the DHS’ overall portfolio of research investments.
Last month, his office released four “visionary goals” intended to help focus the organization over the next couple of decades. From there, and after getting more input from industry and other stakeholders, the department plans to build a new strategic plan to help set its research priorities over the next five to 10 years.
The central S&T office’s spending plans already are subject to an annual review by a panel of experts, which evaluates projects based on factors like how much interest customers might have in them, their technical approach and their feasibility. But Brothers said the approvals that process has yielded in recent years appear to have been biased toward projects that promised near- term payoffs. He said he would like to create a more “balanced” research portfolio, which also leaves room for investments in “game-changing” capabilities for homeland security.
Simple steps to improve morale
“I think it’s important, as we navigate our portfolio review process, to look across all the areas of technology,” he said. “The Coast Guard is also using the portfolio review process, so that means it’s scalable. We can use it not just to understand where our portfolio is, but to try to influence where it should go in the future.”
Brothers said the high competency of the DHS S&T workforce is one factor that gives him confidence that the department will be able to produce capabilities that are more relevant to end-users in the years ahead.
But however competent the workforce is, it is not a happy one, based on employee feedback on the annual OPM employee viewpoint survey.
The Partnership for Public Service, which publishes an annual scorecard of the best places to work in the federal government based on those surveys, ranked the DHS S&T office at 299 out of 300 in its latest report.
“We’re going to do a formal root cause analysis, but in the interim, what I’ve been doing recently has been simple steps: walking around a lot and talking to people, trying to understand the concerns that have been there in the past.” Brothers said. “We’ve been trying to do more in terms of empowering our workforce in the decision making process, but it’s a challenge, and it’s something I’m very concerned about and putting a lot of time into.