DHS is Struggling to Coordinate Its Sprawling Research Efforts

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Poor oversight and shoddy data management have left the DHS Science and Technology Directorate unprepared to invest in the future, according to the agency's inspector general.

The Homeland Security Department is struggling to keep tabs on its components’ disparate research programs, in part because of shoddy data management, according to an internal watchdog.

The department’s research efforts are as wide and varied as its mission—covering border security, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, emergency management, among other fields—and under the law, the Science and Technology Directorate is supposed to run the show. The directorate received more than 70% of the $2.8 billion the agency received for research between 2015 and 2018, and it’s also responsible for coordinating how other components spend the rest of the money.

But insufficient oversight and poor data management within the directorate have limited its ability to manage research efforts, while also leaving senior leaders in the dark on how the agency investing in the future, according to the Homeland Security Inspector General. 

“These challenges may prevent [the directorate] from identifying duplicative [research and development] efforts, from providing the Secretary of Homeland Security and Congress with an accurate and complete profile of [research and development] initiatives, and from being able to justify funding needs for a wide range of missions,” auditors said in a report published Monday.

The directorate manages the agency’s research efforts through its Integrated Product Teams, six cross-component working groups that annually identify and prioritize areas for research investment. Components are supposed to flag such “capability gaps” for the teams, but the IG found at least two organizations—the Secret Service and the Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Office—failed to do so.

Auditors also found the directorate failed to fully review and approve the teams’ various operations, and also failed to ensure teams met deadlines for reporting capability gaps and potential research solutions. Officials also never appointed program managers to oversee the teams’ research efforts, as required by agency policy, the IG said.

In the report, the IG also raised red flags about the directorate’s data management practices. Officials used multiple “redundant” tools to track and analyze data on the department’s research efforts, and officials often found themselves manually updating and transferring information between different systems, according to auditors.

“As a result, data transmission between the tracking tools and reporting for [the directorate] can be inefficient, time consuming, and error prone,” they wrote. “The lack of policies and procedures hinders [the directorate]’s ability to aggregate accurate and readily available [research] data.”

The inefficiencies caused the directorate to miss the deadline for reporting its Integrated Product Teams’ research efforts to Congress in both 2017 and 2018, auditors said. 

The IG made three recommendations for improving the directorate’s data management practices and increase oversight of the Integrated Product Teams, and agency officials agreed with all three. 

With the newly minted Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency poised to take over Homeland Security’s cyber research, government leaders have proposed significantly reducing the Science and Technology Directorate’s clout. The White House’s 2020 budget proposal would cut the organization’s funding by almost one-third, and next year’s Senate appropriations bill would include a roughly 13% budget cut.