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Two new reports on the DHS headquarters project

Two new reports were released late this past Friday focusing on the long-running project to develop a consolidated headquarters for DHS at the St. Elizabeths campus in Washington, DC.

The first report, a majority staff report of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee (HSGAC), makes a detailed case in favor of Congress sustaining funding of this threatened project, arguing that a consolidated headquarters will improve the mission performance and efficiency of DHS and produce $700-$900 million in long-term savings for the federal government, in comparison with maintaining existing leases at commercial office buildings scattered around the DC area. The report benefits from a broad set of interviews with former senior-level DHS officials (including former Secretaries Ridge, Chertoff, and Napolitano), who provide many examples about how DHS’s scattered footprint in DC has a negative impact on the Department’s ability to respond to crises, improve morale, and maximize employee productivity.

The second report, released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), examines the management of the project to date, benchmarks it against various best practices (such as for cost estimation and project scheduling), and finds a number of shortcomings in GSA and DHS’s project management practices for St. Elizabeths over the past few years. For example, it questions the robustness of GSA and DHS’s cost estimate of potential long-term savings from the project, and it calls on DHS to better integrate the project within its existing acquisition oversight processes. The report also calls on GSA and DHS to rebaseline the project based on developments in federal property management over the past several years, such as government-wide efforts to “reduce the footprint” in terms of square footage per employee.

The Washington Post story yesterday on these two reports describes them as “dueling”, a claim that I think overstates the degree of difference between them. I’d describe them instead as complementary, focusing on the issue from different perspectives: while the Senate report is primarily focused on policy objectives and outcomes, the GAO report is primarily focused on internal management practices. Both of these approaches have their merits and their limitations. For example, GAO’s management-related critiques of St. Elizabeths provide a valuable and corrective analysis of GSA and DHS’s efforts, but should not necessarily be the basis for a policy judgment on the value of the project: these factors should largely be independent of each other. (Policy-makers and the news media often make this mistake in interpreting the management-related findings of other GAO reports).

Both the Senate HSGAC report and the GAO report provide charts that show the funding history for the project, which illustrate the ongoing pattern of underfunding by Congress over the past eight years, relative to Administration requests. Copied below is the graphic from the Senate report:

St. Elizabeths Project Funding

I would argue that Congress’s insufficient and inconstant funding over the past eight years is the root cause of many of the negative findings in the GAO report, and their report would have been more useful if it had examined how the sequencing of these funding gaps (including funding delays due to short-term continuing resolutions) have contributed to the shortcomings identified in their report. The DHS letter response to the GAO report makes a similar point:

“Effective capital planning requires sound, sustainable and reliable capital budgeting programs for GSA and executive agencies. The fact that this project has not received the level of funding that GSA and DHS originally requested by the Administration cannot be overemphasized.”

The most important question though – and one left unanswered by both reports – is where the project goes from here. Does it trudge forward on the current schedule (as the Senate HSGAC report recommends) or with additional delays due to funding gaps? Or does it halt altogether, leaving the U.S. Coast Guard “home alone” in their now-completed part of St. Elizabeths? This will be a critical decision for Congress in coming years, and one that hopefully will be taken seriously, with full recognition of the likely negative mission and fiscal impacts of further delays in getting the DHS headquarters built.