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10 months into $267 million hiring program, CBP gained just a handful of agents

'CBP risks wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on a hastily approved contract' — DHS watchdog

After 10 months and nearly $14 million, a consulting company given a $267 million contract to help U.S. Customs and Border Protection with recruiting has processed just two successful job offers, an internal watchdog said Monday.

Last November, Accenture Federal Services won a $267 million contract to recruit and hire up to 7,500 people, including Customs and Border Protection officers, Air and Marine Interdiction agents, and Border Patrol agents.

However, with the contract nearing the end of its first year, Accenture has "yet to demonstrate the efficient, innovative, and expertly run hiring process" it was hired to complete, said John V. Kelly, the acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security.

In a scathing conclusion, the OIG wrote that CBP's contract with Accenture has "already taken longer to deploy and delivered less capability than promised."

Accenture, he said, is "nowhere near satisfying its 7,500-person hiring goal over the next 5 years," and CBP has used "significant staffing to resources" to help Accenture.

"As such, we are concerned that CBP may have paid Accenture for services and tools not provided. Without addressing the issues we have identified, CBP risks wasting millions of taxpayer dollars on a hastily approved contract that is not meeting its proposed performance expectations," the OIG concluded. "CBP must hold the contractor accountable, mitigate risk, and devise a strategy to ensure results without additional costs to the Government."

The 19-page audit — labeled a "Management Alert" by the internal investigators — also found problems with Accenture's plan to use a device to detect if candidates were lying. The device called EyeDirect, is a "retinal scanning tool used to discern deception based on eye and face muscle movement, to pre-screen candidates to help determine their suitability."

However, the OIG said that it had "concerns" about the implementation of EyeDirect, including a pilot program that used the device at a August 2018 hiring expo without the approval of DHS officials.

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The device must not be deployed "until it is properly assessed and approved as required," the OIG wrote, and the agency needed to evaluate the program to protect against the risk that some applicants will be held "differing standards" which could run into federal and congressional oversight of the agency's hiring practices.

Issues with Accenture's contact comes as the agency not only struggles with a declining number of agents and officers, but faces a requirement to add an additional 5,000 agents as part of a January 2017 order from the White House.

Despite a congressionally mandated floor of 21,370 agents, Border Patrol has consistently lost agents since 2011, when the agency maintained 21,444 agents. In fiscal year 2018, the agency had just 19,437 agents, about 85 percent deployed to southern border, including 3,691 in the Tucson Sector and 859 in the Yuma Sector.

This is in part because it takes around 300 days to process an applicant to become an agent. According to a review of hiring practices by the Government Accountability Office, it took about 318 to hire a CBP officer, 274 days to hire a Border Patrol agent, and 262 days to hire an agent with Air and Marine Operations.

This shortage has especially strained the Office of Field Operations, which manages the U.S. ports of entry, and in recent months has pulled officers from U.S. airports and redeployed them to the southern border.

Last year, the OIG reported that DHS may not have the resourced needed to hire thousands of new agents, and even if it had them, the agency may not know how to best deploy them.

“Neither CBP nor ICE could provide complete data to support the operational need or deployment strategies for the additional 15,000 agents and officers they were directed to hire," the OIG said in a report published in August 2017.

CBP would need to review as many as 750,000 applicants to find the 5,000 new agents it needs, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement would need to review more than 500,000 applicants to hire its target of 10,000 officers.

Moreover, during the first year, as Accenture struggled to meet its promised goals, and a promise to create an "innovative" system to track new applicants fell flat, CBP agreed to modify the existing contract and ended up taking on a "significant portion" of the hiring process, said Kelly.

Under the original agreement, CBP agreed to pay around $40,000 per hire during the first year, with 80 percent due when a job offer was accepted, and the remaining 20 percent due once the applicant went on duty.

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However, Accenture lost track of which applicants it had recruited, and CBP agreed to give credit and temporarily pay the company for "a percentage of all applicants regardless of whether CBP or Accenture processed the applicants."

As of October 1, CBP had processed 14 applicants on behalf of Accenture, and of those, 7 had entered duty, Kelly wrote, "which translated to payment of approximately $500,000 to Accenture for work CBP had completed."

In a letter to the OIG, CBP officials said that they had paid $13.6 million to Accenture, and that the company has "created a hiring structure, tailored technology solutions to support and manage the hiring process, stood up an applicant care center, marketed and recruited thousands of new applicants, and conducted many of the hiring steps for several thousand applicants.

In a statement, a CBP spokeswoman said that by November 15, the agency had hired 15 agents under through Accenture, along with an additional 33 accepted job offers for agents.

"This does not account for all CBP agent and officer hires, but those hired specifically through Accenture," she said.

The agency typically lose between three to five-and-half percent of its agents on frontline positions, but for the first time since the fiscal year of 2013, Border Patrol's hiring is outpacing attrition, and the agency is "also experiencing an even greater net gain" for officers at the nation's ports, she said. "The significant investments made by CBP in strengthening our hiring processes are taking hold and producing results."

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Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.com

A Border Patrol agent watches a group of men during a raid in Nogales, Arizona.

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