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Washington D.C.
Friday, December 9, 2022

GAO: DHS Needs to Determine Best Place for Federal Protective Service

The Federal Protective Service (FPS), within the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), conducts physical security and law enforcement activities for about 9,000 federal facilities and the millions of employees or visitors who work in or visit these facilities. There continues to be disagreement about whether FPS is currently in the best place to achieve its objectives. Agency and stakeholder opinions vary about where and whether FPS should move.

FPS moved from the General Services Administration (GSA) to DHS’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2003 and to NPPD in 2009. Legislation enacted in November 2018 requires DHS to review placement options for FPS and could result in FPS moving again within DHS or to another executive branch agency.

While its core mission of protecting federal facilities has remained constant as FPS moved from one agency to another, its responsibilities have changed. While in GSA, FPS was responsible for protecting GSA held-or–leased facilities, providing both physical security and law enforcement services. To protect buildings, FPS officers developed physical security risk assessments, installed security equipment, and oversaw contract guard services. As a part of its law enforcement services, among other duties, FPS officers enforced laws and regulations aimed at protecting federal facilities and the persons in such facilities and conducted criminal investigations.

Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, the Homeland Security Act of 200210 was enacted; it created DHS and moved FPS from GSA to the new department, effective in March of 2003. Within DHS at ICE, FPS’s responsibilities grew beyond solely protecting GSA buildings to include homeland security activities such as implementing homeland security directives and providing law enforcement, security, and emergency-response services during natural disasters and special events.

In 2009, DHS proposed transferring FPS from ICE to NPPD. In explaining the proposed transfer in DHS’s fiscal year 2010 budget justification to Congress, DHS noted that this move would allow ICE to focus on its law enforcement mission of protecting the American people by targeting the people, money, and materials that support terrorist and criminal activities relating to our nation’s borders. DHS noted that FPS should reside within NPPD given that both agencies had responsibilities for implementing the National Infrastructure Protection Plan. DHS further noted that FPS would be able to gain synergy by working alongside NPPD’s Office of Infrastructure Protection and that having FPS and the Office of Infrastructure Protection in the same organization would further solidify NPPD as DHS’s lead for critical infrastructure protection.

The fiscal year 2010 DHS appropriations act, which was signed into law on October 28, 2009, funded FPS under NPPD via revenue and collections of security fees. While in NPPD, FPS continued to lead physical security and law enforcement services at GSA-held or GSA-leased facilities and continued its efforts in homeland security activities.

In November 2018, legislation was enacted that could result in FPS moving again, although the location has not been determined. This legislation—which reorganizes NPPD to an organization that has a greater statutory focus on managing cyber risks—requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to determine the appropriate placement for FPS within DHS and begin transfer of FPS to that entity.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review issues related to organizational placement options for FPS. Its January 8 report examines the potential effects of FPS’s placement in selected agencies and the steps DHS has taken to assess placement options for FPS.

GAO identified five key organizational placement criteria based on prior work and identified eight agencies as potential placement options. The agencies were selected because they have the largest number of law enforcement officers or perform physical security, among other reasons. GAO reviewed documentation and interviewed officials from FPS, selected agencies, and key stakeholders. GAO compared agencies to FPS to determine if they meet the organizational placement criteria. An agency meets the criteria if it has similarities to FPS.

In considering organizational placement options for FPS, GAO found that none of the eight agencies GAO selected met all the key organizational placement criteria. Any of the organizational placement options could therefore result in both benefits and trade-offs. For example, keeping FPS in NPPD could provide FPS some benefits because FPS and NPPD have missions that include the protection of infrastructure or specific facilities, facility protection responsibilities, and access to and sharing of information related to national homeland security. However, unlike FPS, NPPD does not perform both physical security and law enforcement activities, which is a potential trade-off. In another example, the GSA and the United States Marshals Service (Marshals) could provide benefits because they currently coordinate with FPS on facility protection. However, Marshals does not have a mission or goals that explicitly focus on the protection of infrastructure or facilities and GSA does not perform law enforcement, which are potential trade-offs.

Various placement options could help FPS address some of its long-standing challenges such as in overseeing contract guards, collaborating with GSA and the Marshals, and funding. However, these placements could also affect whether FPS’s needs are prioritized. For example, placing FPS in GSA or the Marshals may further help address coordination challenges. Additionally, placing FPS in GSA could address challenges FPS faces with funding.

If placed in GSA, GSA and FPS could consider whether to use the Federal Buildings Fund for security projects related to facility management, such as installing cameras. OMB staff told GAO that there are limitations with the Federal Buildings Fund, such as the amount of funding available for security projects.

The GAO investigation concluded that DHS has not taken key steps to fully assess potential placement options. Specifically, DHS has not assessed the organizational structure of FPS, such as its placement in NPPD, even though FPS and NPPD have evolved since FPS was placed in NPPD in 2010. Standards for Internal Control state that agency management should establish an organizational structure to achieve the agency’s objectives and that an effective management practice for attaining this outcome includes periodically evaluating the structure to ensure that it has adapted to changes. Additionally, because DHS did not analyze FPS’s current placement in NPPD, DHS does not have a benchmark for comparison to other agencies.

FPS has been increasingly engaged in providing law enforcement for homeland security, with the establishment of a rapid protection force of that can respond to heightened threat situations. GAO says that in light of these changes, without an assessment, DHS cannot be certain that FPS is currently placed in an agency that enables the service to meet its mission.

DHS recently established a working group to assess the placement of FPS. However, GAO says the group’s planned activities are limited in several ways. For example, the group’s draft charter does not indicate that the working group will describe what DHS expects to achieve by changing FPS’s placement. Further, the draft charter does not indicate that the working group will evaluate the benefits and trade-offs of placement options. GAO has previously identified these and other steps as key to successful organizational change or analysis of alternatives. These steps would help DHS address the 2018 legislation to review placement options for FPS—including, how DHS considered the results of GAO’s review. Regardless of the legislation, DHS may not be positioning itself to make an informed decision as to what organization best supports FPS.

GAO says DHS should identify the expectations for changing FPS’s placement and take steps to fully evaluate placement options. DHS concurred with the recommendations and outlined steps it plans to take to address them including fully utilising the working group established in August 2018 to explore placement options and make recommendations to the Secretary of Homeland Security.

Read the full report at GAO

Kylie Bielby
Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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