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Acquisition agility and DHS

Jul. 31, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By JORDON SIMS   |   Comments
Jordon Sims is director of organization relations and programs for the Project Management Institute. He formerly served as an active-duty submarine officer in the U.S. Navy, and he has held numerous positions within the Pentagon, Capitol Hill (appropriations), and Energy Department.
Jordon Sims is director of organization relations and programs for the Project Management Institute. He formerly served as an active-duty submarine officer in the U.S. Navy, and he has held numerous positions within the Pentagon, Capitol Hill (appropriations), and Energy Department. ()

Congress finds that the Department of Homeland Security has not consistently implemented its policies and best practices in acquisition program management. The DHS Acquisition Accountability and Efficiency Act (HR 4228), which passed the House early June, would require greater oversight of DHS’s purchasing process while ensuring needed flexibility and clarity.

As of January 2014, the department identified more than 80 major acquisition programs costing over $300 million, and it estimates that it will exceed $170 billion on future programs. These are high-octane numbers by any calculation. And yet: in 2011, DHS identified 42 programs (out of 77) that experienced cost growth, schedule slips, or both. In 2012, only 20 of 63 programs had Department-approved acquisition program baselines.

It’s no wonder that the Government Accountability Office has DHS acquisition management activities on its notorious “High Risk List.” Programs that are implemented this way, absent a standardized and proven approach from project to project and program to program, are far more susceptible to waste, mismanagement, and improperly mitigated exposure to overall risk.


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So, the DHS Acquisition Accountability & Efficiency Act is, in theory, a good thing—right? With time running out for Senate consideration regarding this bipartisan legislation is a specific concern that can truly be appreciated. This concern is one of the challenges facing this relatively young department, which has been likened to the DoD. Drawing this comparison can be limiting. Mimicking the DoD or agencies like it will commit DHS—a fledgling, maturing department with huge potential for success—to one that no longer fully meets the agile needs of today’s agencies. Focusing on the policies and practices of the agency, in this case acquisition, and recognizing the fundamental need of project and program management capacity to enable that policy is the most crucial piece of the puzzle.

The DHS doesn’t need major changes to its organizational structure; the structure is already there. What it needs, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill are looking for, is a demonstrable process that standardizes the agency’s approach across ALL projects and programs—beyond the simple project-to-project and program-to-program, agency by agency, in a one-hit form that requires the reinvention of the wheel each time—without contributing to the traditional government stigma of silos and fiefdoms.

The DHS Acquisition Accountability & Efficiency Act also calls for DHS to utilize a competency framework to standardize the skills of the acquisition professionals and empowers the existing Program Accountability and Risk Management Office. Although typically viewed as no small task to development, one already exists (FAC/PPM) and is proven with equivalency rooted in standards and credentials based upon best practices from global industries and governments, not the singular and focused perspective of the DoD model of DAWIA certifications. The DHS can do this as well; achieving significant boosts in acquisition efficiency and effectiveness, while reducing taxpayers’ exposure to risk, all without becoming mired in red-tape organizational politics and creating a new set of challenges that only need to be unraveled and resolved later.

The most logical way for the DHS to limit its risks and maximize its full potential as a leading civilian agency in acquisition/procurement program management is to formally adopt certifications like the Office of Management and Budget’s Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers, the Project Management Professional certification, and the ANSI-accredited framework for standardizing all projects and programs across all dollar thresholds and all sectors of focus. A Guide to the Project Management Body of KnowledgeFifth Edition, the Standard for Program Management—Third Edition and the Standard for Portfolio Management—Third Edition, from the Project Management Institute, provide a far more flexible framework that will provide acquisition and procurement programs with the fundamental practices needed to achieve organizational results and excellence. They empower project and program managers to dynamically assess the variety of factors linking projects under one program, provide the best resource planning between these projects, and ensure that the active projects and programs are working together to efficiently and effectively meet agency objectives/strategy across the entire acquisition portfolio.

Beyond standardizing the approach across the agency, this approach provides for a framework that cultivates critical thinking and leadership in the federal acquisition workforce by providing an extremely flexible toolkit that can be applied appropriately and uniquely to all projects and programs in a dynamic environment. It’s not just a checklist procedure; government agencies have more than enough of those, and they don’t solve problems. By revising its approach to adopt standardization, credentialing, and training, on the other hand, the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act will enable the DHS to create and equip a workforce that can, and will serve as a beacon for similar agency reformations in the future. The Senate should find the time to act on this bipartisan piece of legislation so that these critical acquisition reforms can be implemented at DHS resulting in greater efficiency of acquisition programs at this important agency.

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