Lawmakers ‘baffled’ by state of DHS’ human resources IT

The Homeland Security Department told lawmakers last year it successfully migrated to a single performance and learning management system (PALMS), but following a harsh review by the DHS inspector general, a pair of committee members have added their voices to the criticism.

In a letter to Acting DHS Secretary Elaine Duke, Reps. Scott Perry (R-Pa.) and J. Luis Correa (D-Calif.), the chairman and ranking member of the committee’s oversight and management panel, expressed their “continued frustration” with the department’s rollout of a unified system to track employees’ training and performance.

“While the information provided by OIG’s recent report is alarming in itself, we’re baffled that the Department continues to fail in its implementation of PALMS, especially considering the program’s shortcomings have been highlighted numerous times,” the congressmen wrote.

The frustration surrounding PALMS reflects the Government Accountability Office’s ongoing concerns over DHS’ management of its human resources information technology systems. DHS spent more than $180 million on HR IT between 2004 and 2016.

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In a June 30 audit, DHS Inspector General John Roth said the PALMS program “literally meets GAO’s textbook definition of ‘waste.'”

When DHS first signed a five-year blanket purchase agreement, valued at $95 million, with vendor Visionary Integration Professionals in 2013, the agency estimated it would save $52 million over those five years. But two years after the software-as-a-service program was supposed to have launched department-wide, major components — including the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency — report that the program doesn’t meet their operational requirements.

As of October 2016, the agency has spent more than $5.7 million on unused or partially used PALMS subscriptions, and $11 million to extend contracts for some of the nine redundant learning management systems it was looking to shutter.

During a February 2016 committee hearing, DHS Deputy Undersecretary for Management Chip Fulghum told lawmakers that PALMS was being implemented across the department and spearheaded by Chief Human Capital Officer Angela Bailey and former Chief Information Officer Luke McCormack.

Former DHS CIO Richard Spires, who served from 2009 to 2013, came into the organization with the goal of improving its ability to deliver large-scale programs. Having spearheaded IT modernization at the Internal Revenue Service first as an associate CIO, then later as CIO and the deputy commissioner of operations support, Spires told Federal News Radio that he saw a significant amount of duplication in systems, which he saw as a reflection of DHS coming together from other agencies’ components.

“One of the things I was really trying to put in place was to improve the ability of DHS to deliver programs, particularly IT programs,” Spires said. “PALMS is another example of the department still needing to mature its ability to effectively manage large-scale IT programs.”

Before PALMS, DHS had nine learning management systems through four different vendors. Spires and former Chief Human Capital Officer Jeff Neal worked closely together and pooled their offices’ resources to consolidate and rationalize the department’s HR IT systems.

“We knew if it was done correctly, we could save a lot of money and provide better service throughout the department,” Spires said. “Essentially we had some dedicated IT staff that was working closely with the CHCO’s organization to drive the HR IT,” Spires said. “I felt like we had a good approach to this. I felt like we were making real progress.”

The letter from Perry and Correa asked DHS to respond to a series of questions about the future of PALMS, including whether it anticipates any future cost overruns or delays in meeting operational standards. The letter requested answers from DHS by Aug. 22, but a committee spokesperson told Federal News Radio that the department did not respond by the deadline.

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