'Serious' issues with CBP hiring contract, watchdog says

CBP awarded Accenture $297 million contract

By CNN'S AARON KESSLER CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT.
dhs.gov

(CNN) - A US Customs and Border Protection hiring contract with a consulting firm was riddled with performance issues over the past year, including an inability of the firm to process quality candidates and provide promised technology, according to internal watchdog findings released Monday.

Ten months into the contract, the consulting firm, Accenture, had only "processed two accepted job offers," but was paid $13.6 million in start-up costs and other expenses, the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General found.

In November 2017, CBP awarded Accenture a $297 million contract to help meet the hiring demands of an executive order on border security that President Donald Trump signed during his first week in office. The President's directive called on CBP to "take all appropriate action to hire 5,000 additional Border Patrol agents."

For years CBP has struggled to maintain its staffing numbers, let alone raise them by thousands.

"In its first year, CBP's contract with Accenture has already taken longer to deploy and delivered less capability than promised," wrote acting Inspector General John V. Kelly.

Stacey Jones, a spokeswoman for Accenture, said the company remains "focused on fulfilling our client's expectations under our contract." Jones directed CNN to reach out to CBP for further information regarding their work on the contract.

Issues with the contract come amid the backdrop of Trump's mass deployment of more than 5,000 active duty troops to the US-Mexico border to supplement CBP's staffing and resources.

"For us, in this country, we keep America safe by proper application of the law," a DHS official said in response to the IG report. "It's a law enforcement mission. It's not a military mission. It's a law enforcement mission."

The inspector general released its report as a "management alert" -- reserved for issues that require immediate attention -- after the watchdog received multiple hotline complaints related to the performance and management of the contract.

The CBP's struggles with retention began around five years ago, when the demographics of illegal border crossings began to shift from single men to families and unaccompanied minors, creating new recruiting challenges for the department, according to a DHS official.

The official said that the negative press coverage surrounding the unaccompanied minor crisis in 2014 added to the agency's staffing challenges.

The US Border Patrol, the CBP's law enforcement arm at the US borders, has a statutorily established minimum staffing level of just over 21,370 agents, not including the additional request from the president.

Border Patrol staffing levels peaked in 2010 with 21,444 agents nationwide, down to 19,555 in 2018.

However, there was a net gain of 120 agents in 2018 -- the first year that had had a net gain since 2013, according to CBP data.

"Hiring is not just anyone that can fill a uniform. It is extremely difficult to be a Border Patrol agent, and so we work really hard to get the right person for the job," said the official. "You want to hire a lot of people, but you cannot reduce the standards."

In order to keep up with retention and hire thousands of new agents and officers, CBP decided it would "have to start thinking outside the box, get some more innovative ideas," said another DHS official.

When planning its hiring surge of thousands of additional personnel, CBP was grappling with two issues -- how to build the right kind of hiring capacity and wanting a set of "fresh set of eyes" from outside of the government, the DHS official said.

"When we set this up, we knew that we were trying to be innovative. We were trying to open the aperture and try something new, so, 'how can we in government really attack this problem differently?'" a DHS official said.

The inspector general, which initiated its review of the contract in July, found that Accenture was "nowhere near" satisfying its goal to hire 7,500 people over the next five years. And the internal watchdog concluded that CBP has "used significant staffing and resources" to help Accenture do its job.

"As such, we are concerned that CBP may have paid Accenture for services and tools not provided," the inspector general wrote.

Additionally, the company claimed it would have the capability and capacity to perform all steps in the CBP hiring process with 90 days of the contract, but the company "has yet to demonstrate" an efficient or effective process, the inspector general found.

About a week ago, the CBP told Accenture to stop processing applications and think about the activities "where the return on investment really is positive," a DHS official said.

Some steps in the hiring process are required to be done by a government official, such as the final decision on an offer, so it was necessary for Accenture to hand candidates back to the government for parts of the process, according to a DHS official. Officials found that the handoffs between the government and the private contractor became tedious and time consuming. And in the meantime, the government hiring center got to the point where it could handle the current applicant capacity, a DHS official said.

However, CBP was satisfied with Accenture's digital marketing and advertising assistance as well as with the applicant care and support it provided, such as making phone calls to applicants during the process.

"We have more work to do here. We have more work to do in terms of figuring out exactly how we are going to do this with Accenture going forward," said the official.

Accenture also came under internal fire last month, when an employee petition circulated urging the company to cancel its contract with the Trump administration, Bloomberg reported.

"The technology we provide is sold in the name of efficiency, but all we see is technology supercharging inhumane and cruel policies," the petition stated, according to Bloomberg.

Accenture's Jones said, "we welcome the feedback from our people and are aware of the posting on our internal blog site. An important part of our culture is that we encourage all our people to have a dialogue about issues that arise in the workplace and beyond."

Other technology companies have faced similar internal backlash, often over the administration's immigration and border policies.

The CBP concurred with all of the recommendations made by the inspector general, although it disagreed with some of the watchdog's conclusions.

"They raised issues and concerns that we ourselves had, that we're managing, and that's why we concurred with all their recommendations," said a DHS official.

Despite the ups and downs with the contract, CBP has lowered the average time it takes to get an applicant hired from more than a year to nine months, according to a DHS official.

CBP is also starting to see evidence that the way it is targeting applicants is "getting a higher percentage of applicants who are qualified to get through the system," the official said.

There were times when CBP had to have 200 applicants to produce one Border Patrol agent, but the number of applicants is down to about 75 for each hire, according to the official.

Additionally, in last couple months, the number of applicants per month has gone up even though it's a time of year when the number typically goes down, the official said.

This story has been updated to include comment from Accenture.

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