Top Homeland Security Department officials say their biggest near-term management priority is providing better oversight of the department's $2 billion in annual grants and nearly $15 billion in annual contracts.
The department has issued some $20 billion in grants — mostly through the Federal Emergency Management Agency — since it was created seven years ago. But DHS doesn't know whether the grants have improved security or disaster preparedness; audits by the Government Accountability Office criticized some grant programs for duplicating one another and focusing on the wrong goals.
Large contracting programs — such as the Coast Guard's Deepwater program, and the department's high-tech border security system called SBINet — often break their budgets and fall short of expectations.
Department officials say they're taking steps to fix those problems.
Elaine Duke, the department's undersecretary for management, said she's setting up a new oversight office to manage DHS grant programs. The department plans to staff the office with 20 people, and is more than halfway to that goal. Staffers will review inspector general reports on grant programs to look for problematic trends, and they'll work with managers to improve the quality of data collected about grant programs.
But grant and contract management is only one of many problems plaguing the department, according to the latest annual report from the inspector general. Information technology systems still have endemic security flaws; the department still hasn't consolidated separate IT systems from its dozens of component agencies; and financial management systems still don't interact with one another.
Experts, DHS officials and even auditors say that, despite the criticism, the department ismaking progress in areas including IT security, procurement and grants management.
In the long term, experts say, DHS will face much larger challenges in fixing its financial management systems. They received the lowest marks in the recent IG's report; Inspector General Richard Skinner said the department has made only minimal progress toward consolidating those systems. And it lacks sufficient accounting and financial management personnel to audit its financial statements.
Maurer, the GAO analyst, said many of those problems are from legacy systems at the nearly two dozen agencies that combined to form DHS. He also said the department didn't think through its needs early on — and many of the early IT systems it bought are now coming back to cause problems.