The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is charged with acting as a guardian of its citizens, but is it possible to protect Americans completely in an ever-changing world?
For Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), a non-partisan government watchdog group, the answer is murky. “DHS has spent hundreds of billions of dollars and increased security measures at our airports, ports and the borders as well as increased communications with state and local governments and first responders,” he says. “It’s impossible to be completely protected and very difficult to measure how much safer we are, but the hope is that the government keeps us one step ahead of changing threats.”
Since its creation in 2001, Homeland Security has spent close to $175 billion for everything from new ships for the Coast Guard to airport body scanners. But there is considerable debate about whether all this spending has made Americans safer. Complicating matters further, mundane accounting and accountability issues have absorbed taxpayer dollars.
The Government Accountability Office reports that “acquisition management weaknesses have prevented major programs from meeting capability, benefit, cost and schedule expectations.” Additionally, the DHS Office of the Inspector General issued a report in early 2010 on problems with suspending and barring contractors from work with the Department.
“The department is reluctant to apply the policies and procedures against poorly performing contractors. … Reluctance to pursue suspension and debarment could put the department and the government at risk of continuing to conduct business with poorly performing contractors and may result in decreased productivity and increased cost,” the Inspector General’s report stated. DHS did not respond to an inquiry regarding whether these practices had been modified since the report was released.
Incorrect procurement procedures are another way DHS has been losing money. In testimony this July, DHS Acting Inspector General Charles K. Edwards cited several examples of improper procedure that resulted in huge additional costs for DHS agencies. In one example, the Inspector General’s office was unable to determine the actual cost of creating a database that Customs and Border Patrol had contracted.
Further examples of mismanagement surfaced during the same hearing. Amey described two failed projects that had received billions of dollars. One of these, the Coast Guard’s Integrated Deepwater System Program, was originally contracted to a Lockheed Martin-Northrop Grumman partnership and was projected to cost $17 billion. The program was supposed to modernize the Coast Guard’s ships and planes, but Amey says the contractors produced boats that did not float.
A federal site publishing spending data reports that DHS has spent more than $100 billion on contracts since 2001. While this represents a significant volume of work, Amey’s testimony pointed out that “DHS’s estimate of its service contractor employees was off by 100,000, and I have not heard about any DHS efforts to streamline, reduce, or cut services that are not needed or that were or are wasting taxpayer dollars.”
As a step toward rectifying this, Amey recommended that DHS “confirm that contractors are not performing inherently governmental functions, which must be performed by civil servants.” He also suggested re-instituting oversight measures into the contracting process such as “requiring contractors to provide cost or pricing data to the government for all contracts.”
The Department of Homeland Security’s press office did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
Despite a volley of criticism, some see DHS changing for the better. Marc Pearl, president and CEO of the Homeland Security & Defense Business Council, also testified in July. He explained that the agency’s lack of a long-term acquisition plan was problematic for business and government alike because short turnaround times mean less time for planning and discussion about how to best meet needs.
In an early September interview, Pearl said that he saw DHS striving to become more cost effective by handling purchasing better. ”I can tell you that we’re moving in the right direction. There are still gaps, there are still things that need to be worked on, but we’re moving in the right direction.”
A recent Washington Post article also pointed to improvements in the agency’s purchasing and negotiations.
These changes in process may save money, but the question remains whether these expenditures are worthwhile. Pearl says they have been. “Inevitably things will happen. A terrorist will potentially get through. A bomb might go off. A port might be infiltrated. A natural disaster will happen,” he says. “But I think that we’ve come a long way in making sure that our people, physical facilities and digital networks…are safer and more secure than they were