Homeland Security Acquisitions: Leveraging Programs' Results Could Further DHS's Progress to Improve Portfolio Management

GAO-18-339SP Published: May 17, 2018. Publicly Released: May 17, 2018.
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Fast Facts

Each year, the Department of Homeland Security invests billions of dollars in major acquisitions such as aircraft and surveillance technology.

We reviewed DHS's portfolio of major acquisitions and found that, in 2017, more than half of its programs needed more time and money than initially planned—an increase from 2016.

DHS has strengthened its policies for managing acquisitions as a portfolio—a practice that emphasizes prioritization of the most promising programs. This could help ensure that DHS does not pursue more programs than it can afford. We recommended DHS take steps to further improve its portfolio management.

The Department of Homeland Security's major acquisitions include a remote video surveillance system, airport screening equipment, barriers for the border, and aircraft.

Photos of a surveillance tower, airport passenger screening equipment, the southwest border barrier, and a Coast Guard plane.

Photos of a surveillance tower, airport passenger screening equipment, the southwest border barrier, and a Coast Guard plane.

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What GAO Found

During 2017, 10 of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) programs GAO assessed that had approved schedule and cost goals were on track to meet those goals. GAO reviewed 28 programs in total, 4 of which were new programs that GAO did not assess because they did not establish cost and schedule goals before the end of calendar year 2017 as planned. The table shows the status of the 24 programs GAO assessed. Reasons for schedule delays or cost increases included technical challenges, changes in requirements, and external factors.

GAO's Assessment of 24 DHS Major Acquisition Programs during 2017

Programs on track to meet schedule and cost goals

Programs with schedule delays

Programs with cost increases

Programs with schedule delays and cost increases





Source: GAO analysis of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data. | GAO-18-339SP.

Recent enhancements to DHS's acquisition management, resource allocation, and requirements policies largely reflect key portfolio management practices (see table). However, DHS is in the early stages of implementing these policies.

GAO's Assessment of DHS Policies for Acquisition Management, Resource Allocation, and Requirements against Key Portfolio Management Practices

Key portfolio management practice

GAO's assessment

Clearly define and empower leadership


Establish standard assessment criteria and demonstrate comprehensive portfolio knowledge


Prioritize investments by integrating the requirements, acquisition, and budget processes


Continually make go/no-go decisions to rebalance the portfolio

Partially met

Source: GAO analysis of Department of Homeland Security (DHS) data. | GAO-18-339SP.

GAO identified two areas where DHS could strengthen its portfolio management policies and implementation efforts:

  • DHS's policies do not reflect the key practice to reassess a program that breaches—or exceeds—its cost, schedule, or performance goals in the context of the portfolio to ensure it is still relevant or affordable. Acquisition management officials said that, in practice, they do so based on a certification of funds memorandum—a tool GAO has found to be effective for DHS leadership to assess program affordability—submitted by the component when one of its programs re-baselines in response to a breach. Documenting this practice in policy would help ensure DHS makes strategic investment decisions within its limited budget.
  • DHS is not leveraging information gathered from reviews once programs complete implementation to manage its portfolio of active acquisition programs. DHS's acquisition policy requires programs to conduct post-implementation reviews after initial capabilities are deployed, which is in line with GAO's key practices. Acquisition management officials said they do not consider the results of these reviews in managing DHS's portfolio because the reviews are typically conducted after oversight for a program shifts to the components. Leveraging these results across DHS could enable DHS to address potential issues that may contribute to poor outcomes, such as schedule slips and cost growth, for other programs in its acquisition portfolio.

Why GAO Did This Study

Each year, the DHS invests billions of dollars in a diverse portfolio of major acquisition programs to help execute its many critical missions. DHS's acquisition activities are on GAO's High Risk List, in part, because of management and funding issues.

The Explanatory Statement accompanying the DHS Appropriations Act, 2015 included a provision for GAO to review DHS's major acquisitions. This report, GAO's fourth annual review, assesses the extent to which: (1) DHS's major acquisition programs are on track to meet their schedule and cost goals, and (2) DHS has taken actions to enhance its policies and processes to better reflect key practices for effectively managing a portfolio of investments.

GAO reviewed 28 acquisition programs, including DHS's largest programs that were in the process of obtaining new capabilities as of April 2017, and programs GAO or DHS identified as at risk of poor outcomes. GAO assessed cost and schedule progress against baselines, assessed DHS's policies and processes against GAO's key portfolio management practices, and met with relevant DHS officials.

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GAO recommends DHS update its acquisition policy to require certification of fund memorandums when programs re-baseline as a result of a breach and assess programs' post-implementation reviews to improve performance across the acquisition portfolio. DHS concurred with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security The Under Secretary for Management should update DHS's acquisition management policy to require components to submit a certification of funds memorandum when a major acquisition program re-baselines in response to a breach. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
DHS concurred with our recommendation and, in May 2019, DHS revised its acquisition management instruction to specify that programs that re-baseline as a result of a breach must submit an updated certification of funds memorandum to the DHS Chief Financial Officer. We believe the action taken meets the intent of this recommendation.
Department of Homeland Security The Under Secretary for Management should require the Office of Program Accountability and Risk Management to assess the results of major acquisition programs' post-implementation reviews and identify opportunities to improve performance across the acquisition portfolio. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In providing comments on this report, DHS concurred with our recommendation and stated that it planned to update its policy to require more formal reporting requirements and execution criteria for post-implementation reviews. PARM also plans to initiate a study focused on assessing lessons learned and developing a tool to share them across components to improve performance of the acquisition portfolio. In February 2020, PARM approved guidance intended to standardize analysis elements for post-implementation reviews. As of October 2020, several programs had completed post implementation reviews and lessons learned through post-implementation reviews were being shared with acquisition officials through multiple forums, such as during meetings with Component Acquisition Executives. The department's actions meet the intent of this recommendation.

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