Homeland Security Department Secretary Janet Napolitano coined the phrase “One DHS” with the idea of ensuring the 22 components worked more closely together and moved toward a common goal of securing and protecting the nation.
And nowhere is this concept more accepted and tested than with the back-office functions of the department.
Rafael Borras, the DHS undersecretary for management, has spent the last two plus years chipping away at silos built up over the last decade to change the culture of the department.
Borras said while DHS is far from fully transformed, the progress is real and measurable.
“I’m most pleased about the way the organization has responded to the challenge and really stepped up,” Borras said Tuesday during an exclusive interview on In Depth with Francis Rose. “We are a different place today than we were several years ago, not just because of the prioritization and not because of my tenure. I think there was a real hunger or a real thirst to turning that tide and get things right.”
He said DHS is a “more interdependent organization,” and that has increased the probability of success and decreased the risk the agency faces.
“We behave differently,” Borras said. “We established an acquisition review process where an interdisciplinary board meets regularly to review acquisition programs. We now have a standard way we look at those programs. In the beginning, these reviews were much more undisciplined and less focused. Today there is a core set of issues that we want to look at, every program is looked at the same way. It’s less anecdotal and more empirical in its conversation.”
Three levels of PARM
Borras said the review process is called Program Accountability and Risk Management (PARM). It includes three levels: one for programs worth more than $1 billion; one for programs worth $300 million to $1 billion; and one for programs worth less than $300 million.
Over the last two years, he said between 80 and 90 programs have gone through the PARM process.
“We want our programs to be accountable and focused on risk management,” he said. “There’s another thing that’s really important. We take a different orientation that is not driven by compliance and regulatory responsibilities, but we put in place a process to diagnostically look at the programs and determine if they are healthy or not.”
The approach Borras is taking with acquisition is part of his management priorities to address human capital and financial management in much the same ways.
DHS may not have review boards in human capital or financial management, but the goal in each of those back-office areas is to institutionalize change by empowering employees to lead the efforts.
“There is a relationship between all of my priorities,” Borras said. “That I think is the essence of what we’ve tried to focus on is the integrated nature and the holistic nature of improving management in the department, and recognizing that there are relationships and interdependencies between all the different facets of management financial, procurement, IT, etc.”
A qualified workforce is key
Across all of those priorities are people. Borras said having a well-trained and well- motivated staff is as important, if not more important, than the right systems and processes.
“We spend a lot of time talking about human capital surveys and morale, and it’s very important, but it doesn’t quite capture the excitement and enthusiasm of the people in the field,” he said. “Our people are so passionate about what they do. That’s why it’s so important to get a hold of the human capital community in the department.”
To that end, Borras and former Chief Human Capital Officer Jeff Neal decided to turn the CHCO position from political to career.
Borras said DHS had suffered from a revolving door of CHCOs, estimating eight in eight years.
“It was time to provide stability to the human cap organization,” Borras said. “Upon Jeff’s departure, we converted the position to a career position to provide so much stability to plan and execute our human capital plans.”
Borras tackled DHS financial management problems in much the same way — find smart, motivated people and devise a plan to accomplish their goals.
Borras said DHS has dropped its improper payment rate to less than 1.5 percent from 8 percent in three years.
“It really was about taking those systems that were in poor health or had the most need and fixing those, and today it’s not as complicated to tie it together,” he said. “You might have different types of financial management systems, but how do you tie it all together to get information you need to make decisions? The scariest thing when you think about the early years at DHS … It really was how scary it was in the absence of information how we had to make decisions in the early days. We believed the organization has reached level of maturity … to say we can do this. So setting the goal to get a qualified audit opinion was a way to build a sense of prioritization in the financial management community to stop getting side-tracked by TASC and whether you modernize the whole department or not, and finally get it right.”
Sustained financial management effort
Borras said the focus on getting a qualified opinion brought by Napolitano was missing in previous years.
DHS earned a qualified opinion in 2011. Borras said the goal now is to sustain that effort and get a clean opinion.
“The way we use information today is different because we’ve been able to capitalize on this tremendous energy around financial management, the building of tools like the decision support tool and now we are building of other business intelligence tools that we are currently using,” he said. “I can pull up financial dashboards. I can look at all the components activities. It’s certainly not everything I would want to see, but we’ve now put the power on the executive’s desktops for executives to be able to look at information and think about what this information means. It’s not about, ‘Am I going to spend all my money by the end of the year?’ but, “Am I making smart decisions all year long about how I spend my money?'”
Borras said the ability to make better decisions, whether around acquisition or human capital or financial management, is what all of these efforts are really about.
“We talk about getting it right. In the human capital area, we are focused on getting the morale up and doing the things that will turn this organization around,” he said. “There’s a tremendous now belief in our ability to execute. I think that’s what’s so different today.”
Francis Rose is the host of In Depth, which airs weekdays from 4-7 p.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC metro area and online everywhere. Francis has covered all three branches of the federal government as a broadcast journalist since 1998. He joined Federal News Radio in 2006, and launched In Depth in 2008 as a daily show focused on connecting federal executives to the information they need to do their jobs better.