IT Priorities and Challenges at DHS are Here for the Long Haul

Published: June 04, 2014

BudgetCloud ComputingDHSInnovationIT Services

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is looking to economize on their IT investments by adopting more commercial technologies while implementing an IT-as-a-Service approach. The result is a convergence of technologies and services that presents ongoing challenges to traditional IT contracting models.

At a recent event that I attended cosponsored by The Chertoff Group and the Professional Service Council's (PSC) current and former DHS officials and others discussed where DHS was going vis-à-vis this convergence and how it will impact industry and contracting at the department.

Former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff gave a keynote on priorities and opportunities, followed by a panel of industry, government and Hill experts led by PSC’s Stan Soloway that examined the convergence of services and technology into DHS’s mission and how this convergence is influencing business decisions and procurement policy. The panelists were:

  • Anne Altman, IBM Federal
  • Craig Chambers, DHS Science & Technology Directorate
  • Luke McCormack, DHS Chief Information Officer
  • Ben Nicholson, House Committee on Appropriations
  • Paul Schneider, former DHS Deputy Secretary; Principal, The Chertoff Group

Priorities and Challenges

Between the opening keynote by Chertoff and the subsequent panel discussion, several themes around current and future DHS priorities and challenges coalesced, including:

  • All Things IT-as-a-Service – DHS continues to implement this approach that seeks to avoid bearing the cost of technological obsolescence. You can see it in their cloud and managed services efforts, as well as their avoidance of in-house infrastructure investments. They have targeted back-office systems like payroll and are doing this with learning management system now. Currently, over half their budget is spent in these areas and they will continue to do more. Their model and goal is to reinvest the savings into new and critical needs.

  • Technology Innovation – Bringing innovation to bear when finances are under scrutiny is a continual challenge, so new technology and R&D must deliver a mission outcome in the near-term. Conducting pure R&D for its intrinsic value is hard to support. Panelists challenged industry to collaborate to get iterative results and adopt time/cost-conscious approaches, e.g. perform software development in the cloud to speed it up. Another theme was to innovate by adapting current technologies to meet needs, rather than pursuing disruptive technologies.

  • Aligning to Mission – Clearly defining a unified mission continues to be a challenge for DHS and appropriators want to know "what is your objective?" so that they can align budget to that mission.  This lack of clarity also frustrates industry because without a clear strategic direction or objectives it is difficult to align solutions. DHS is looking at unifying concepts to solve common problems in their current strategic review and portfolio evaluations.

  • Acquisition – Several elements of the acquisition process were mentioned as being a challenge. The LPTA issue is not going away due to budget constraints, so the challenge to DHS is to get the right people at the acquisition table. Often, this is difficult due to the number of vacancies at the department, but things are slowly improving. Procurement rules also have a limiting effect on DHS’s the ability to infuse new technology, especially quickly. Compliance hurdles are part of this challenge.  McCormack said that he would like to combine some of the acquisition classifications to help bridge gaps and help facilitate effective, efficient procurement.

  • Budget – The budget challenge underscores all other challenges and approaches. Even in a highly scrutinized climate, areas that receive high public demand are where the department will also see budget relief. However, the structure of the two-year budget deal caps key DHS categories, so there is still uncertainty.  The budget stagnation over last few years makes it difficult to both sustain operations and invest in new technology. Research is one area that suffers and requires changing models to fund or introduce into the department.

Most of these are consistent themes for those seeking to win business at DHS. The persistence of these challenges means that companies will need to assess their risk tolerance for change and/or uncertainty and be increasingly creative for the foreseeable future.