GAO, DHS at odds on SBInet management

Homeland Security officials say the GAO didn't give a clear picture of how their agency's handling the program to secure the U.S. border.

The Government Accountability Office has found that the Homeland Security Department has problems managing its program to build surveillance systems along the U.S.-Mexico border, but DHS officials disagreed, according to a new report.

DHS officials pointed to the GAO's assertions about the reliability of the Secure Border Initiative (SBInet) program’s earned value management (EVM) practices and problems with contractor oversight, according to a GAO report released today.

EVM is a management approach that helps officials understand a program’s status and recognize early warning signs of impending schedule delays and spending problems.

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DHS officials disagreed with GAO's conclusions that their department was slow in validating changes in performance measures and that program managers were unable to spot cost and schedule problems early on. And as a result, the program had cost increases and deadlines were held up.

“We believe these conclusions are inaccurate and the causal assertion is not supported by any analysis presented in the report,” Jerald Levine, director of DHS’ GAO liaison office, wrote.

In response, GAO said most of SBInet’s planned work for some of task orders, which needed validation, had already been performed by the time officials reviewed the orders. By the time they checked baseline costs and schedules, DHS had spent millions of dollars on the task orders.

DHS officials also objected to how GAO characterized and counted anomalies in contractor performance reports. Because of the variances, DHS has not been able to get meaningful and active insight into potential cost and schedule shortfalls and find ways to avoid shortfalls in the future, according to GAO.

They said GAO had incorrectly lumped together factual errors and legitimate monthly accounting adjustments. Errors happen when the contractor reports costs for one activity when it applies to another, and other simple administrative mistakes.

There are also regular adjustments to a contractor's reports. A company often must adjust estimated costs for a subcontractor's work once it receives an actual invoice. The changes improve the accuracy of overall contractor performance data, even though they may appear anomalous for the current month, officials wrote.

The GAO report “incorrectly concludes that both errors and adjustments are problematic, distorting cost performance, and limits management insight,” Levine wrote.

GAO said the audit did lump the two together because DHS didn’t explain differences between errors and adjustments in their own monthly variance reports. Without an explanation, auditors could not get the true status of the program.

Overall though, DHS officials agreed with GAO’s recommendations for the SBInet program, such as explaining the anomalies and validating accurate performance measurements for each new task order on a timely basis.