The list of acquisition failures that litter the Homeland Security Department’s history are well known.
Secure Border Initiative-Net: fell short of expectations. Customs and Border Protection’s ACE: over budget and off target. Emerge, Emerge2 and TASC: financial systems consolidation efforts never got off the ground.
But any good organization learns from its mistakes. And Rafael Borras, DHS undersecretary for management, said he wants to make sure the contracting ghosts of the last seven years don’t haunt them over the next decade.
“For the first time, we have oversight over major acquisitions,” Borras said in an interview with Federal News Radio. “If you look at the major acquisitions that were problematic in DHS’s history, SBI-Net and others, the most important thing I would say today is, whether it was ACE or SBI-Net, none of these management controls were in place at the time. I’m not going to say it’s impossible that an SBI-Net would replicate itself, but it would be very, very hard — very difficult — because now we have a framework, a systematic approach for how we review [projects].”
Borras’ predecessor Elaine Duke issued a management directive in January 2010 detailing an acquisition review process.
Many of its major programs have come before this acquisition review process, which aims to ensure the program is meeting cost, schedule and performance goals as well as being positioned well for budget and staffing.
“I probably have presided over 45, probably close to 50, of these,” he said. “What this does is now at pre-determined mileposts in an acquisition’s lifecycle, the department is able to have a substantive review and — I do this not by myself — I bring in all of my line of business so the CFO, the chief information officer, the chief acquisition officer and the chief administrative officer are all present along with that respective component that is pursuing an acquisition strategy or procurement. This was not in place prior.”
The review board, which includes auditors from the Government Accountability Office and the agency’s inspector general, looks at all types of programs, large and small. Borras said level-one reviews are for programs worth at least $300 million, while level-two reviews tend to be smaller in terms of total worth, but are high profile or mission critical.
“There have been many occasions where we sent programs back for additional work or put contingencies on their moving forward based on their ability to come back and satisfy departmental requirements,” he said. “I think the whole department is better off today in the acquisition area because of this acquisition process.”
And DHS is about to get even better, Borras said. Starting Oct. 1, the review sessions will have more and better data to analyze programs.
Borras said DHS built a new decision-support tool that brings together existing data on major programs — everything from cost, schedule and performance to how the vendor is meeting small business goals on the contract.
“When we started this acquisition review boards and the process, I was very concerned that we not get caught in that trap of relying on anecdotal information solely,” he said. “Where will we get this information? How will we use it? Who will we make it available to where all the things I was very focused on and how do we focus on those most important elements that help us identify when a program is in trouble?”
He added the new decision-support tool is part of the major acquisition shift DHS is undergoing.
“We are moving away from catching you after you’ve made a mistake, more into a diagnostic mode to help you succeed,” he said. “The way we help you succeed is catching you before you make an egregious error or make a mistake. That is the true nature of having a robust acquisition review process. We don’t want our programs to fail. We want our programs to succeed. In order to do that, I need to be in more of a preventative or diagnostic mode.”
Borras said he still is interested in receiving anecdotal evidence of success or troubles, but the decision support tool will give DHS officials a second critical data source to better understand program performance.
“Nearly half of the money that we spend in the department is buying goods and services. How well we do that will go a long way toward determining how successful we will be,” he said. “I’ve been very focused not only on procurement but on the framework. How do we buy? How do we look at the marketplace? How do we make sure when we go to the marketplace we aren’t looking to buy things that don’t exist in the marketplace? So if you look at what we are doing, an emphasis on better program execution, better development of requirements, the development of a lifecycle framework, which is really one of those legacy things, and leaving in place an ability for the department to have a systemized way for how they approach any kind of investment.”