So the credit crunch incinerated your job? The Department of Homeland Security is looking for a few good men and women. The work isn’t glamorous, but you could leave behind a legacy of saving taxpayers billions of dollars.
The federal government’s newest bureaucracy is persistently and vastly short the procurement officers it needs to ensure efficiency in the massive contracts it hands out to private companies who perform work on behalf of the public, from recruiting thousands of airport screeners to building temporary housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina, two government watchdogs told a congressional subcommittee last week.
Homeland security officials also turn to the private sector for help too quickly due to a sense of urgency or desire to make things easier resulting in contracts that impose few demands on private companies that earn hundreds of millions in taxpayer money to make the country safer, the duo added.
“We should not allow expediency to completely and consistently overrule sound business practices,” a DHS deputy inspector general, James Taylor, told a House subcommittee on oversight Sept. 17. “When that happens, we fail to get the right products and services at the right times for the right prices.”
A common theme in many of the audit reports criticizing DHS in recent years is that the dogma inside the Beltway after Sept. 11 encouraged preventing another attack or at least bracing for one at all costs. But hindsight shows how often the Homeland Security Department’s haste has at times caused it to broker contracts that are counterproductive to its mission let alone negligibly effective.
The subcommittee last week presented a table illustrating $15 billion in various DHS contracts believed to be plagued by wasteful spending or mismanagement or both, like Boeing’s $1.5 billion agreement to string sensors and cameras along newly constructed towers on the nation’s borders with Mexico and Canada, known as the Secure Borders Initiative.
In one twist of irony, homeland security officials sunk $52 million into a financial management system called eMerge2 that was supposed to fix accounting and contracting weaknesses in the department. It ultimately had to be scrapped in December of 2005 with “little to show for it,” a report from the Government Accountability Office concluded. The tab included $18 million just in contractor costs. Because DHS had originally intended to spend as much as $229 million on the project, the GAO considered it a good idea for homeland security to cut its losses despite how much had already been invested.
“The agency has made little progress since that time and has missed an invaluable opportunity to address existing financial management problems,” the report said.
Meanwhile, Deputy Inspector General Taylor testified last week that DHS hardly has even half the bare minimum of personnel it needs to properly manage the contracts, and 40 percent of those federal employees are eligible for retirement in five years. That means the department is much farther away from an ideal level of contract specialists.
And those figures, from April of this year, are considered to be an improvement since the Department of Homeland Security was created in 2003, the largest reorganization of the federal government since World War II. The department today has some of the biggest procurement needs of any other agency at the federal level having spent $12 billion last year alone on everything from airport security systems to Coast Guard ships. For entrepreneurs, the government’s promise of security in the homeland is a colossal market opportunity unto itself.
Hiring more bureaucrats to enforce the federal government’s litany of contract regulations may smack of a knee-jerk response to free marketeers who want Washington to invest greater trust in its private partners. But the lack of oversight, observers say, has led to widespread waste in a fledgling department that commits a whole 40 percent of its $47 billion budget to private-sector contracting for goods and services.
A GAO director, John Hutton, piled on to the inspector general’s testimony during last week’s congressional hearing telling the subcommittee that DHS has poorly planned many of its outsized contracts with private businesses and doesn’t clearly define what the companies are supposed to accomplish.
“While there are benefits to using contractors to perform services for the government – such as increased flexibility in fulfilling immediate needs – we and others have raised concerns about the federal government’s increased reliance on contractor services,” Hutton told the committee. “Of key concern is the risk associated with a contractor providing services that closely support inherently governmental functions: the loss of government control over and accountability for mission-related policy and program decisions.”
Among the other more infamous examples of perceived contracting mishaps by DHS that government auditors described during last week’s hearings: