The Importance of Strong Acquisition Oversight at DHS

By Chris Cummiskey

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Over the last decade, there has been quite a bit of analysis by Congress and the DHS Inspector General about the weaknesses and lack of oversight in the DHS acquisition program. To be fair, over the years there have been some highly visible failures that reinforce this argument. SBINet, Deepwater and BioWatch III are usually the trio of major acquisitions that are cited when detailing DHS’s failures in this space. 

The part of the story that rarely gets told is that DHS has made great strides in maturing its acquisition oversight program in recent years, yet clearly more needs to be done. The department needs to recommit to strengthening its acquisition oversight to increase the likelihood that major programs will stay on time, on budget and hit performance metrics.

One way to ensure a higher degree of success in acquisitions is for the Under Secretary for Management (USM), who also serves as the DHS Chief Acquisition Officer, to further bolster the Program Accountability and Risk Management (PARM) office’s role in program health assessment. Started in the Management Directorate in 2010by then USM Rafael Borras, PARM has served as an early detection system for troubled, high risk acquisitions. 

By further expanding PARM’s role in partnering with DHS components, the USM serving as the CAO, would have a much better sense of how high-risk acquisitions are performing. This also has the added benefit of taking meaningful steps to course correct before its too late to get these acquisitions back on track.

A key part of this enhanced strategy would be to expand the use of more detailed program health assessments to all Level I and Level II acquisitions (those with acquisition life cycles of greater than $1Billion and $300 Million respectively). 

This would ensure that the Acquisition Review Board (ARB), the main DHS governing body for managing acquisitions, would have a higher degree of transparency and more essential data from DHS components to make better informed decisions about program risk.

Ultimately, Congress and the White House expect DHS to do more to mature and strengthen its acquisition oversight to reduce risk and increase the probability of program success. By pursuing more extensive, relevant program health measurements through PARM and the ARB process, the USM can bolster collaboration with components to better track schedule, budget and program performance. That kind of a partnership would lead to better results in managing the department’s complex portfolio of acquisitions.


Chris Cummiskeformerly served as DHS Acting Under Secretary for Management and is currently a Guidehouse Senior Advisor.

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