Customs and Border Protection

The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the world.

Department of Homeland Security – USA
Project type : Staff recruitment
Date : Apr 2019
Cost : $23M to hire 22 new staff

Synopsis :

The Statue of Liberty – “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”

In 2016, as part of the USA’s renewed focus on border security, the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) was charged with increasing the number of border agents who secure the nation’s points of entry. The goal was to increase enforcement and tighten the doorway to the nation.

On a daily basis CBP faces an enormous challenge. CBP typically handles more an a million travellers, screens more than 65,000 cargo shipments and handles thousands of infractions or arrests every day. Requiring knowledge, nerve and a keen understanding of human psychology, it’s not an easy role to fulfill. Attracting, training and successfully deploying the number of new agents required represented a significant challenge.

Rather than spearheading the effort themselves and hoping to ramp up quickly, CBP elected to hire a big name external consulting firm to lead the project. The resulting 5-year, $297M contract aimed to recruit 7,500 Customs and Border Protection officers, Border Patrol agents, and Air and Marine Interdiction agents took effect in November 2017.

As at times happens in consulting contracts, the initial promises made in the pre-contract sale pitch turn out to be harder to implement than initially thought. Attracting qualified candidates and administering the multi-dimensional and multi-layer checks necessary proved difficult. In the initial ramp up year a total of $13M was spent, but only 2 agents accepted job offers. Alarms bells sounded and the Office of the Inspector General took note. The subsequent ‘Management alert’ report (titled – CBP Needs to Address Serious Performance Issues on the Accenture Hiring Contract) dated 6 Dec 2018 noted:

“Accenture was supposed to provide a team of technical experts and tools to fulfill contract requirements. Instead, the Accenture relied heavily on CBP resources to complete the hiring process. Accenture did not always provide necessary technical experts and experienced vendors, such as human resource personnel and those involved in the background investigation process, to complete CBP’s hiring process end-to-end, as it indicated it would in the PWS. Accenture also claimed it could provide an innovative applicant tracking system to manage the hiring process. However, Accenture did not deploy its proposed applicant tracking system and used CBP’s hiring system instead.”

Ultimately CBP elected to scrap the contract in Apr 2019. Final costs haven’t been published, but initial reports indicate $23M was spent and 22 agents hired. At the end of the day the cost per agent is likely to be even more. When hiring most organizations anticipate an attrition in the first few years. Only a percentage of those hired will stay in the role long term and rather than a staffing surge the agency ended up with little to show for their efforts.

Contributing factors as reported in the press: 
Underestimation of complexity. Issues related with staffing the project with appropriate skilled resources. Deficiencies in the software being used to support the project.

Related stories:

  1. G4S – Olympics Security Shambles – Another large scale recruitment project that struggled to attract and manage candidates effectively.
  2. Texas Child Support Enforcement System 2.0 – Although a completely different type of project, the Texas T2 project placed enormous trust in the capabilities of its consultants. The underlying message with the Texas T2 and CBP projects is that buyers need to get a lot smarter with the way they contract out to these consulting firms.

Reference links:

  1. ‘Serious’ issues with $297 million CBP hiring contract, internal watchdog says
  2. CBP terminates controversial $297 million Accenture contract amid continued staffing struggles