Challenges at DHS’s Office of Inspector General May Impact Contractors Over Time

Published: April 29, 2021

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The Government Accountability Office points to issues at Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General that can influence the contracting environment.

Watching the activities of an agency’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) provides insight into the trends and contracting landscape at that agency. Since OIGs play an oversight role that often sustains a balance and influences the direction of the agency, what happens when a department’s OIG has operational and leadership challenges? The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) OIG has recently been under a microscope for just such concerns.

In his testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security GAO Christopher P Currie, Director of GAO’s Homeland Security and Justice Team shared their preliminary Observations on Long-Standing Management and Operational Challenges. GAO assessed fiscal years 2015 to 2020 and concluded that the challenges faced by the DHS OIG has affected its ability to effectively carry out its oversight mission of a department that consists of 15 operational and support components, approximately 240,000 staff, and tens of billions of dollars in budget.

Specific areas of deficiency that GAO identified included the following:

  • Quality and Standards: In 2017 and 2018, the DHS OIG retracted 13 audit reports issued between fiscal years 2013 and 2017 after an internal review found those reports may not have adhered to government auditing standards. GAO identified additional examples that raised concerns about the quality and other standards in the DHS OIG.
  • Timeliness of Assessments: The timing of assessment impacts oversight effectiveness. GAO found that DHS OIG project time frames from its offices of Audits and Special Reviews and Evaluations have increased over the years that GAO assessed. For example, in FY 2017, 79 of 102 (77%) Office of Audits projects were completed in 1 year or less and eight of 102 (8%) took more than 18 months. In FY 2020, seven of 67 reports (10%) were completed in 1 year or less and 35 of 67 (52%) took more than 18 months.
  • Strategic Planning: GAO found that the DHS OIG has not consistently developed strategic plans, which feed the organization's other guidance and governance documents. The DHS OIG has operated for 4 of the past 6 years without a strategic plan, and the plan it adopted for fiscal years 2018–2019 was incomplete by federal standards. In 2020, the OIG contracted with a nonprofit academy of government experts to develop a strategic plan for FY 2021–2025, with expected delivery in June 2021.

Operational Leadership, Agency Morale and the Contracting Environment

Another element that Currie highlighted was the frequent leadership turnover that the GAO OIG has experienced from FY 2015 through 2020. In this period the DHS OIG had four confirmed or acting IGs and several Assistant IGs – for Audits, for Investigations, and for Special Reviews and Evaluations – and the OIG Counsel all had similarly high turnover.

Back in January, GAO issued an assessment of DHS’s employee morale and found mixed results in the department’s efforts to boost it. The assessment showed that the DHS OIG Employee Engagement Index (EEI) of the Office of Personnel Management’s 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey came in at 62.2, putting it on par with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), but below the U.S. Coast Guard (76.0), the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) (73.8) Federal Emergency Management Agency (65.8) and others.

While GAO had concluded that there is not a clear relationship between leadership vacancies and employee morale the comparative OIG morale score laid alongside its newly reported performance issues paints a challenging operational picture at the least.

Morale and leadership turn-over challenges at DHS are not a new occurrence. Low employee morale has been a concern since DHS was created nearly 20 years ago. The longevity of the challenge has spurred multiple efforts to address the issue, including an ongoing Blog on DHS Employee Morale by their Chief Human Capital Officer (CHCO) and the DHS MORALE Act working its way through Congress.

From the perspective of the contractors that continue to support and sustain the various DHS missions and components, the need for healthy morale and a well-functioning OIG both help to influence the needs that contractors are asked to fill and the set the tone and environment that contractors work within alongside their agency partners. The oversight that an effective OIG provides helps identify improvements and corrective actions that contractors can help support. In the days ahead, GAO expects to issue its recommendation for the DHS OIG as part of their final report. Those recommendations will likely influence things well beyond the OIG and could have implications across the DHS operational, acquisitions and contracting landscape.