Broken glass inside the U.S. Capitol after the riot there on Jan. 6, 2021. (DHS photo)

GAO: DHS Needs to Improve Countering Violent Extremism Grants Management, Data Collection

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Countering Violent Extremism grant program found that after DHS announced intended grantees for 2017-2019, it revised its selection criteria and didn’t document reasons for its selections, making it harder to ensure grantees are selected equitably. GAO also found that DHS failed to obtain data on grantee performance, which it needs to assess program effectiveness.

From 2010 through 2019, data collected through the Extremist Crime Database show that 205 deaths resulted from 59 violent extremist attacks in the United States. According to the database, the lethality of these attacks peaked in 2016 at 17 deaths per attack, and 2019 was the second most lethal year with almost nine deaths per attack. Of course, the 2020 demonstrations and civil unrest in cities across the country have presented extremists with additional opportunities to sow discord and commit violence.

The Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) grant program began in 2016 with a budget of $10 million. It supports efforts by state and local governments and nongovernmental organizations to reduce risk factors associated with violent extremism. Unlike traditional counterterrorism activities, which typically involve law enforcement investigations, CVE focuses on reducing individual and societal risk factors associated with violent extremism aimed at prevention, and intervening with individuals on the path to violence.

DHS has not received another appropriation specifically for countering violent extremism since fiscal year 2016. However, DHS’s fiscal year 2020 appropriation provided $10 million for targeted violence and terrorism prevention grants, described by DHS as the successor to the CVE program. DHS considers all previous CVE activities to now fall within the larger category of targeted violence and terrorism prevention.

In the CVE grant announcement, DHS provided information on how it intended to allocate funding among the focus areas. For example, DHS stated that it intended to prioritize the Developing Resilience focus area and target funding to related activities. However, GAO determined that DHS ultimately prioritized funding to the Training and Engagement focus area. 

GAO’s review of the CVE program found that while DHS followed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidance for announcing the 2016 CVE grant program and reviewing applications, the Department did not document the basis for its final award decisions. In June 2017, DHS awarded a total of $10 million in CVE grants to 26 grantees for a 2-year performance period (2017 to 2019). Consistent with OMB guidance, DHS included program priorities and eligibility requirements in its grant announcement and described the process for reviewing and selecting grant applications for award. However, after DHS announced its selection of 31 applications for awards, it ran a new process resulting in revised selections, which was based on additional selection criteria not expressly listed in the grant announcement. 

For example, DHS officials said an applicant’s affiliation with or support for law enforcement was a subset of the community resilience and prevention planning factor and frequently involved participation with law enforcement entities. In addition, DHS officials said that resource dedication and sustainability was relevant to the listed sustainability factor, which involves a project’s sustainability after CVE funding ends. While the grant announcement did not require applications to include a cost-sharing component to be eligible for award, officials said that DHS could consider cost sharing as evidence of sustainability consistent with the grant announcement, if an application included it.

DHS officials explained to GAO how these additional criteria aligned with the grant announcement, but these explanations do not appear in DHS’s award documentation. And the watchdog maintains that without such documentation, DHS cannot clearly demonstrate that its award decisions were based on the process described in the grant announcement.

The review also revealed that DHS did not obtain the necessary data from grantees to evaluate the overall CVE grant program. DHS required grant organizations to develop, collect, and submit their own output and outcome-related information to help enable the department to evaluate individual grantees and the overall grant program. However, a DHS review of four grant projects concluded that the grantees did not collect the type of performance information DHS needed to determine the grants’ effectiveness, such as data at various time intervals to assess change in attitudinal behavior. 

Grantees surveyed by GAO generally reported satisfaction with technical assistance provided by DHS in using the monitoring tools to track their progress—the evaluation plan and progress report —but reported mixed views about the tools themselves. Grantees told GAO that in some cases DHS required too much information or did not provide enough space for reporting on progress of the grant, indicating a mismatch in DHS reporting requirements and requirements grantees believed DHS needed to administer the program.

GAO’s February 19 report makes two recommendations. First, that the Director for the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention should develop policy to ensure the Office documents its rationale for grant-making decisions for future CVE-related grant programs. 

Given the past casualties from violent extremism and DHS’s desire to leverage this grant program throughout the country, documentation on the rationale for selecting grantees could help ensure confidence in the grant-making process and equity in selection. 

DHS responded that it documented these decisions for the fiscal year 2020 Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program in a decision memo issued by the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans. Additionally, DHS said the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention made this policy a requirement for future awards and the requirement will be documented in a Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grants Management Plan, which DHS expects to complete by September 30, 2021.

GAO’s second recommendation calls for the Director for the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention to ensure grantees collect and submit data that would enable evaluation of individual grant and overall grant program achievement of intended outcomes for future CVE-related grant programs. 

DHS noted that the new grant program’s Notice of Funding Opportunity required its applicants to include specific performance measures sufficient to evaluate whether grant projects and the overall grant program are successful in achieving indented outcomes. DHS stated that the Office for Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention documented this process in its Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program Evaluation Plan dated December 22, 2020. DHS further stated that this plan documents the elements of evaluating the grant awardees and outlines the requirements for evaluating overall grant program outcome. However, DHS did not provide a copy of the plan so GAO is unable to assess the extent to which these actions address its recommendation. 

As America sits at a crossroads where new domestic violent extremism commands as much, if not more, focus than the more traditional forms of extremism encountered in the West, DHS must build on current efforts and take steps to ensure grantees collect and submit data to enable program evaluation. This will help ensure DHS has the information to determine whether grant programs are achieving their intended outcomes, and to identify programs that may warrant replication in other communities.

Read the full report at GAO

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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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