Thursday, January 14, 2010

Information and Intel Outsourcing at Homeland Security

The Department of Homeland Security has outsourced intelligence, detention, communications, even oversight functions. Its National Operations Center (DOC), designed as the government’s information clearinghouse on homeland threats, is one of the department’s chief outsourcers.

In large part the over-reliance on private contractors has led to system failures in such DHS projects as SBInet (the chronically mismanaged, over-budget, and unproven virtual fence), the Coast Guard’s Deepwater project, and its dysfunctional information system about homeland threats.

DHS officials since the department’s creation in March 2003 have promised congressional oversight committees year after year that the department would reduce its dependence on private contractors as it consolidated. But little has improved and outsourcing is rising.

In a recent interview with Federal, David Mauer, a homeland security director at the Government Accountability Office, said that GAO has had DHS “on our high-risk list since Day One.” While DHS is promising more procurement oversight officers – as it has been over the past several years – the department has delegated many of its central responsibilities to private contractors and has not established any clear guidelines on what is a departmental function that should be kept in-house.

The Department of Homeland Security has outsourced intelligence, detention, communications, even oversight functions. Its National Operations Center, designed as the government’s new clearinghouse on homeland threats, is one of the department’s chief outsourcers.

A scathing report by the DHS’s own Office of Inspector General on the department’s National Operations Center criticizes the department for the DOC’s basic inability to function effectively because of a lack of an overall plan, deep divisions, and its changing focus. While the study didn’t target the outsourcing problem, it did over a revealing, shocking glimpse at the degree that outsourcing pervades an operation that operates within the department and is central to homeland protection.

The NOC, according to the GAO, “relies heavily on contractor staff to perform its mission functions.” Since FY 2006 the DHS’s information-sharing center’s use of contractors has increased 195%.

Last year 62% of NOC’s budget was designated for contract support.

Sixty-two percent – about $11.2 million -- of the NOC’s FY 2009 budget is designated for contract support. That compares to the $3.8 million spent by the DHS for contract support in 2003 for similar functions. NOC management plans to spend $11.2 million for contract support in FY 2009.

One Senior Watch Officer at NOC told the OIG that contractors were needed in the department’s first three years as it was organizing. But that these positions should have been subsequently replaced with full-time federal employees. According to this SWO, the contractors’ technical expertise is not as important as stated by management, and some contractors’ jobs could be performed by lower paid government employees. Another desk officer said that only a few NOC employees are federal employees and that most are contractors -- which, according to the OIG, “may indicate that some contractors are performing inherently governmental functions.”

The NOC contracts for the Communications Watch Officer, Knowledge Management Officer, Fusion Desk Officer, Tracker, HSIN Desk Officer, Incident Management Desk Officer, and media monitoring desk officer positions, and for a NOC senior advisor.

With respect to the OIG’s concern that private contractors are performing “inherently governmental functions” such as oversight and management, the new study revealed that

Within NOC “one contractor has program manager responsibilities and oversees seven NOC functions: the fusion desk, the Tracker, the Knowledge Management Officer, the representative, the Secretary’s Briefing Staff, the chemical/biological/radiological/nuclear desk, the explosive incidents desk, and the state and local law enforcement desks.”

The OIG report noted that a review to determine the inherently governmental functions at DHS was “outside the scope of this review.” It added, though, that “we believe the issue warrants further attention by our office.”

It is also an issue that merits further attention by the Obama administration.

Unless it acts to substantially reduce the DHS dependence on private contractors and to review the wisdom of creating such an unwieldy, unfocused, and money drain of a department, the continuing failures of the Bush-created DHS in intelligence, detention policy, information systems, and domestic counterterrorism will be part of its own legacy.

Illustration: CACI is a major Homeland Security, DOD, and intelligence contractor.

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