DHS IG: SBI lacks effective oversight

Published 14 July 2009

DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner says the CBP is using contractors to do what should be inherently governmental work; “With continued heavy reliance on contractor support services, CBP risks losing control of program decisions while remaining accountable for mission results”

What with the heated debate in the United States about immigration reform, one of DHS’s more high-profile project is the effort to improve border security. Yet, the department’s inspector general reports that in implementing the Secure Border Initiative (SBI), the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency has made extensive use of contractor support services. So much so, that contractors are doing inherently governmental work in violation of federal regulations, the department’s watchdog said. “With continued heavy reliance on contractor support services, CBP risks losing control of program decisions while remaining accountable for mission results,” DHS Inspector General Richard Skinner wrote in a report.

Contractors make up 51 percent of the staff working on the Secure Border Initiative, while government workers account for the other 49 percent, according to the IG.

In particular, CBP has not provided an adequate number of contracting officer’s technical representatives to oversee support contractor performance. The technical representatives are to be the eyes and ears of government contract officers, monitoring technical performance and reporting potential or actual problems that arise, according to guidance provided by the Office of Management and Budget. “COTRs assigned to SBI support services contracts did not take action or notify the contracting officers when progress reports showed that contractors were performing prohibited or questionable activities,” the IG stated. “Further, as the number of SBI contractors increased, the COTRs had little time for contract oversight duties beyond reviewing contractors’ time charges and travel claims.”

The report noted that:

  • One contract did not have a technical representative assigned to it.
  • The contracting officer responsible for administering all 18 support services contracts also was assigned as the technical representative on those contracts.
  • The executive director of the SBI Acquisition Office also serves as a technical representative.
  • A program manager responsible for the SBInet test and evaluation plan (the technology backbone of SBI) was assigned as the technical representative for a support services contract that supplied more than 100 workers across SBI program offices, allowing only one hour per week for the responsibilities inherent in being a technical representative.

COTRs assigned to SBI support services contracts told us that, because they were stretched so thin, the only way they would know whether a contractor was performing an inherently governmental function would be when a program manager brought it to their attention,” the IG said.

GovernmentExecutive’s Katherine McIntire Peters writes that the IG recommended that CBP distinguish between the roles and responsibilities of SBI contractors and those of government employees to ensure only government workers perform those functions that are inherently governmental. The IG also recommended that CBP hire additional technical representatives to oversee support services contracts.

In a letter to Skinner in May, CBP disputed auditors’ conclusions, noting that they had completed their field work for the study 10 months earlier; agency officials said CBP had identified inherently governmental functions as required by law. Skinner dismissed the agency’s claims, stating that CBP failed to provide information specifically requested by the IG, such as annual inventories of inherently governmental functions.

In addition, the IG said his finding that contractors performed questionable activities and inherently governmental work was based on agency documents. “CBP could not demonstrate that the prohibited and questionable activities were brought to the attention of the contracting officer or that steps were taken to prevent similar or questionable activities from occurring in the future,” Skinner wrote.