Members of a House panel say that reforms designed to improve the Department of Homeland Security’s oversight of private-sector contractors haven’t gone far enough and the federal government is still failing to properly police billions of dollars in taxpayer money spent on programs to protect the nation’s borders, track international travelers entering the United States and more.

Pointing to a recently released report on large homeland security programs done by the watchdog Government Accountability Office, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi said inaccurate cost estimates and scheduling delays plague the department and officials rely too much on companies hired to perform the public’s business.

In a June 30 statement, Thompson, chair of the powerful House Homeland Security Committee, blamed a splintered purchasing system sprawled across the department’s myriad agencies, which led to cost overruns among other things. Further, he said, contract overseers internally “have raised concerns about the accuracy of cost estimates for most major programs.”

A top homeland security official in April credited his boss, Secretary Janet Napolitano, with making changes that improved contract efficiency at the department, telling a leading industry publication that she had spent much of her life in public service, including as governor of Arizona, “focusing on how to do a better job spending public dollars.”

The GAO report released late last month, however, found that while improvements have been made, more than three-dozen projects had not been reviewed by a senior-level oversight board created to enhance performance and that cost estimates for many of them increased significantly from earlier price tags, sometimes within just a few months time.

The purchase price for a Bush-era plan to line the southwest border with surveillance devices capable of detecting illegal border crossers jumped an eye-popping 564 percent to more than $1.8 billion in three-and-a-half years, according to the GAO. Setbacks in the time necessary to complete essential tasks were another problem. As the GAO says in its typically understated and wonkish fashion:

Schedule delays can lead to loss of program credibility with stakeholders, increased acquisition costs, new systems not being available to meet department needs, and continued use of less-capable systems. Fifteen of the major programs we reviewed reported estimated or actual schedule delays in delivery of initial operating capability of an average of 12 months, and eight programs reported delays of a year or more. … None of the selected programs reported delivering full operating capability for all increments.

Meanwhile, outsized spending on acquisition continues a steady upward march at the Department of Homeland Security having increased by well more than half from 2004 to over $14 billion during 2009 alone further threatening the ability of bureaucrats to properly oversee it. During a blistering 2008 hearing, the homeland security committee criticized almost $15 billion in “failed contracts” saying the department’s relationship with private companies had ballooned alongside a “surge of waste, abuse, and mismanagement.” According to a release from Thompson then:

The heart of functionality, governance and accountability is simple – create an administrative and management system that is transparent and accountable. Agency officials must know where and how the money is being spent and must be able to assure that a program receives internal oversight prior to its rollout and after its completion. DHS still has not created that kind of system. Instead, DHS leadership has permitted a system of waste, abuse and mismanagement, vague contractual terms, overspending, bonuses for bad performance, contractors being hired to oversee contractors and the same missteps over and over again.

A GAO investigator told policymakers at the hearing that the government risked losing control over accountability and the power to make key decisions by handing too many tasks considered inherently governmental to contractors. Several massive programs were singled out for scrutiny, including a $52 million system called eMerge2 that ironically was supposed to help fix accounting and contracting weaknesses at DHS. It was ultimately scrapped in 2005 with “little to show for it,” investigators concluded.

Illustration courtesy of Roberto De Vido via Flickr

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.