GAO: DHS relaxes quality standards to meet ACE milestones
A federal watchdog agency said the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has met cost and schedule commitments for its future customs computer system mostly by relaxing its quality standards.
“In the near term, cost and schedule overruns on recent releases are being somewhat masked by the use of less stringent quality standards,” said Randolph C. Hite, director of information technology architecture and systems issues for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in his report summary.
DHS and Customs and Border Protection are developing a new umbrella system, known as the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE), to monitor the country’s import and export activities.
The GAO report warned that reducing quality standards to rush ACE releases to the field will only result in unforeseen costs and other negative consequences.
“Until accountability for ACE is redefined and measured in terms of all types of program commitments — system capabilities, benefits, costs, and schedules — the program will likely experience more cost and schedule overruns,” Hite said.
The GAO report said ACE Release 3, for example, started later than planned, took longer to roll out, and was declared a success by DHS despite operational defects.
“The current state of Release 3 maturity is unclear because defect data reported since user acceptance testing are not reliable,” Hite said. ACE Release 4 also experienced numerous materials defects and questionable performance data.
The GAO report cited that ACE commitments for fiscal 2005 are already off schedule, compared to CBP’s proposed fiscal 2005 expenditure plan for the system.
“A key Release 5 assumption made in the program and expenditure plans regarding development, and thus cost and delivery, of the multimodal manifest functionality is no longer valid,” Hite said.
DHS plans to develop ACE in 11 releases over nine years. The first three releases are operational and the fourth release is in the final stages of testing. According to the GAO report, the estimated cost to build ACE is about $3.3 billion, and through fiscal 2004 about $1 billion funding has already been spent on the system.
GAO recommended that DHS implement an ACE accountability framework, which would lay out specific program commitments for expected system capabilities.
While DHS agreed with the general recommendations in the GAO report, it vigorously defended CBP’s actions. The agency also expressed its need to focus ACE on post-Sept. 11, 2001 border security requirements.
“With this backdrop, the department has two key objectives for the program — develop ACE capabilities sooner and at less cost, and ensure those capabilities hit the mark when fielded,” wrote Steven J. Pecinovsky, acting director, departmental GAO/OIG (Office of the Inspector General) liaison, for DHS Office of the Chief Financial Officer, in a Feb. 22 letter to the GAO.
He explained that when errors are detected, the agency’s “resolution plans are implemented and tracked closely until the problem is resolved.”
Pecinovsky said ACE users have demonstrated “enthusiasm” for the system’s account management capabilities. He also praised the agency’s automated truck manifest, although the program has experienced problems since its recent implementation.
In addition, Pecinovsky said the CBP Modernization Office has been reorganized to increase its oversight of ACE contractors operating under the e-Customs Partnership.