DHS Acquisition Workforce: The Threat’s Not Leaving, Why Are You?

– Executive Summary –

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) faces a plethora of emerging threats from bad actors who wish to disrupt our American way of life. Frontline DHS operators depend on technology and information systems to accomplish their mission. Technologies must continually evolve to counter the emerging threats, which creates capability gaps. The DHS acquisition workforce is responsible for narrowing those gaps by developing, fielding, and sustaining technologies. Each year, DHS spends billions of dollars to develop technologies and information systems to fill capability gaps in its mission space. Unfortunately, as the Government Accountability Office reported, in March 2016 only 11 of 25 DHS programs were on track to meet cost and schedule goals.[1]

The problem is that DHS does not truly know if its acquisition workforce is stable. The acquisition workforce’s stability affects the department’s ability to develop and provide technology capabilities to mitigate threats. This study develops a framework and benchmark for instability within the acquisition workforce using two key data points: attrition and staffing requirements. The study also presents data that explains why employees leave the DHS acquisition workforce.

DHS does not have the ability to determine which personnel directly support acquisition programs. This study assumes that certain job series support acquisition programs, including program managers, management and program analysts, engineers, contracting professionals, operations research analysts, and information technology specialists. This study focuses on DHS components with multiple ongoing, major acquisitions: Customs and Border Protection (CBP), the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), the United States Coast Guard (USCG), the United States Secret Service (USSS), and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). The Headquarters and Science and Technology Directorates are also included within the scope of this research because of their support to major acquisition programs.

Data for this study originated from multiple sources, including books, reports, journal articles, data sets obtained through the Office of Personnel Management’s online Management Cube, and a higher-fidelity data set obtained from the DHS Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer. The study uses Bureau of Labor Statistics information to compare government and industry data. The data, organized by component and fiscal year, was used to calculate attrition rates for each job series, year, and component, resulting in 270 data points. The data are presented in tables and graphs, with discussion of trends between data sets.

To determine instability, the study compares individual acquisition workforce attrition data points to the component’s average attrition rate. Acquisition workforce data points higher than the component’s average count toward instability. The researcher established a benchmark of stability as 70 percent of all data points being below or equal to the component’s average. At the department level, 82—or 30 percent of the 270 available data points—were above the components’ combined annual attrition rate. While there is no standard or industry comparison to further define instability, the researcher feels that, based on available data, the DHS acquisition workforce is stable. However, DHS should further investigate potential instability in CBP and ICE; for these components, 60 percent of the data points fall above the component, which indicates instability.

The data show two primary reasons why employees leave the acquisition workforce: retirement and resignation. Employees tend to resign due to insufficient career growth, lack of respect, poor compensation, and unchallenging work.

The study concludes by discussing the pros and cons of implementing five recommendations: establishing an acquisition research effort within DHS, developing career models for the acquisition workforce, conducting exit interviews, making a more robust effort to establish data-driven policy, and consolidating the DHS acquisition workforce. Implementing any or all of these recommendations could increase successful DHS acquisition programs.

[1] Government Accountability Office, DHS Has Strengthened Management, but Execution and Affordability Concerns Endure, GAO-16-338SP (Washington, DC: Government Accountability Office, March 2016), 2.

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