Homeland Security:

Opportunities Exist to Enhance Collaboration at 24/7 Operations Centers Staffed by Multiple DHS Agencies

GAO-07-89: Published: Oct 20, 2006. Publicly Released: Oct 20, 2006.

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Because terrorists do not operate on a 9-5 schedule, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and its operational components have established information gathering and analysis centers that conduct activities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Staff at these operations centers work to help detect, deter, and prevent terrorist acts. DHS has determined that out of 25 operations centers, four require higher levels of collaboration that can only be provided by personnel from multiple DHS agencies, and other federal, and sometimes state and local, agencies. For these four multi-agency operations centers, this report (1) describes their missions, products, functions, and customers and (2) assesses the extent to which DHS efforts to promote collaboration among the multiple agencies responsible for the centers reflect key practices for enhancing and sustaining collaborative efforts. To do so, GAO visited operations centers, reviewed data and reports from the centers, and interviewed center and other DHS officials.

Each of the four multi-agency 24/7/365 operations centers has a different mission and therefore produces different products, yet all contribute to the larger mission of DHS and have similar functions and customers. Customs and Border Protection runs two of the four multi-agency operations centers--the National Targeting Center and the Air and Marine Operations Center. The former monitors the international movement of potential terrorists and produces reports on suspect individuals; the latter maintains situational awareness of the nation's airspace, general aviation, and sea-lanes and produces reports on suspicious private air and marine craft. The Transportation Security Administration's operations center monitors passengers on commercial flights; works to mitigate the vulnerabilities of commercial airports, rail stations, and pipelines, the National Capital Region, and critical infrastructure across the nation; and produces reports on these topics. DHS's Operations Directorate runs the National Operations Center Interagency Watch and works to enhance efficiency and collaboration among DHS components. This operations center has a more strategic mission in that it uses information gathered by the other operations centers to provide overall national situational awareness, and it prepares security briefs for federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. Opportunities exist to enhance collaboration among 24/7/365 multi-agency operations centers. While DHS has leveraged resources by having staff from multiple agencies work together, the centers lack joint strategies for collaboration and staffing needs assessments, and they have not established a definition of watchstander roles for all agencies at each center. The centers also lack standards and procedures for using DHS's primary information sharing network; mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on results; and reinforced accountability through agency plans and reports. GAO's previous work has shown that such practices are effective in enhancing and sustaining collaboration among federal agencies. The establishment of DHS's Operations Directorate in 2005 provides a means to promote implementation of more collaborative practices at the centers.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In updating the progress and accomplishments in improving collaboration in August 2008, DHS described their effort related to monitor, evaluate, and report on the results of collaborative efforts. According to the Director of Operations Coordination and Planning, his office has formed a DHS Operations Centers Working Group, which was formally chartered in February, 2008. The Working Group develops recommendations, shares experiences, ideas, best practices, and innovative approaches related to information flow and mission coordination and articulates requirements to improve federal operations centers performance. National-level exercises involving the NOC and other DHS component operations centers are formally monitored and evaluated by professional exercise planners/analysts, who draft an After Action Report (AAR) following each event. This process is independently managed by the FEMA National Exercises Division. The 2007 Top Officials 4 Exercise, National Level Exercise 2-08, and several smaller exercises involving DHS components rigorously scrutinized collaboration between the NOC and other operations centers. The FEMA National Exercises Division oversees the corrective action process associated with major exercises and reports on the results from these evolutions. Based on our ongoing review of the National Exercise Program, these After Action reports do provide a basis to monitor, evaluate, and report on the results of collaborative efforts of operations centers and any related findings and corrective actions should enhance collaboration among the operations centers.

    Recommendation: To provide a setting for more effective collaboration among the staff at each multi-agency 24/7/365 operations center, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should charge the Director of the Operations Directorate with developing and providing guidance and helping to ensure the agencies that sponsor the center implement mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on the results of collaborative efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: We received a letter from DHS dated August 19,2008 summarizing their efforts in response to our recommendations. The response did not indicate that DHS planned to implement this recommendation and noted that "We believe our progress in meeting this recommendation should be acknowledged and that further reporting is no longer warranted."

    Recommendation: To provide a setting for more effective collaboration among the staff at each multi-agency 24/7/365 operations center, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should charge the Director of the Operations Directorate with developing and providing guidance and helping to ensure the agencies that sponsor the center conduct staffing needs assessments.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2006, we reported on the results of our assessment of the extent to which DHS efforts to promote collaboration among the multiple agencies responsible for information gathering and analysis centers that conduct activities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year reflect key practices for enhancing and sustaining collaborative efforts. We determined that opportunities existed to enhance collaboration among 24/7/365 multi-agency operations centers based on GAO's previous work that showed that a number of practices are effective in enhancing and sustaining collaboration among federal agencies. We reported that the establishment of DHS's Operations Directorate in 2005 provided a means to promote implementation of more collaborative practices at the centers. DHS generally agreed with our recommended actions to enhance collaboration and said they planned to take actions to implement the practices. In updating the progress and accomplishments in improving collaboration in August 2008, the Director of Operations Coordination and Planning described efforts related to implement compatible standards, policies, and procedures for using DHS's information network to provide a means of operating across agency boundaries. According to the Director, in May 2008, the homeland security information network (HSIN) program management team awarded a task order to upgrade the current technology to better enable DHS to meet the requirements of a trusted and secure environment, combined with enhanced capabilities in many areas, such as collaboration tools and information sharing. This effort is called HSIN Next Generation (NextGen). HSIN NextGen is intended to provide a robust, flexible, and highly reliable framework for implementation of tools and services based on Open-Architecture and open standards-based Commercial Off-The-Shelf (COTS)/ Government Off-The-Shelf (GOTS) products and technologies. According to DHS, the new system will provide stakeholders with information management capabilities and services including a portal, search, collaboration, enterprise content management, and Service Oriented Architecture-based information integration and analysis functions to facilitate their collaboration and information sharing needs for sensitive but unclassified (SBU) data. The new system, once implemented, will help enhance collaboration by better facilitating information exchange among operations centers and other national response stakeholders.

    Recommendation: To provide a setting for more effective collaboration among the staff at each multi-agency 24/7/365 operations center, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should charge the Director of the Operations Directorate with developing and providing guidance and helping to ensure the agencies that sponsor the center implement compatible standards, policies, and procedures for using DHS's information network to provide a means of operating across agency boundaries.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2006, we reported on the results of our assessment of the extent to which Department of Homeland Security (DHS) efforts to promote collaboration among the multiple agencies responsible for information gathering and analysis centers that conduct activities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year reflect key practices for enhancing and sustaining collaborative efforts. We determined that opportunities existed to enhance collaboration among 24/7/365 multi-agency operations centers based on GAO's previous work that showed that a number of practices are effective in enhancing and sustaining collaboration among federal agencies. We reported that the establishment of DHS's Operations Directorate in 2005 provided a means to promote implementation of more collaborative practices at the centers. DHS generally agreed with our recommended actions to enhance collaboration and said they planned to take actions to implement the practices. In updating the progress and accomplishments in improving collaboration in August 2008, the Director of Operations Coordination and Planning, described efforts related to clarifying the roles and responsibilities of watchstanders, citing work with different interagency partners to develop Memoranda of Agreements that codify the role of their watch officers and the information sharing requirements between the National Operations Center and the DHS component or other partner agencies. These memoranda, once implemented, will help enhance collaboration by building relationships and understanding among the agencies as to the expectations of the watch officers.

    Recommendation: To provide a setting for more effective collaboration among the staff at each multi-agency 24/7/365 operations center, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should charge the Director of the Operations Directorate with developing and providing guidance and helping to ensure the agencies that sponsor the center clarify the roles and responsibilities of watchstanders.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In October 2006, we reported on the results of our assessment of the extent to which DHS efforts to promote collaboration among the multiple agencies responsible for information gathering and analysis centers that conduct activities 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year reflect key practices for enhancing and sustaining collaborative efforts. We determined that opportunities existed to enhance collaboration among 24/7/365 multi-agency operations centers based on GAO's previous work that showed that a number of practices are effective in enhancing and sustaining collaboration among federal agencies. We concluded that the establishment of DHS's Operations Directorate in 2005 provided a means to promote implementation of more collaborative practices at the centers. To provide a setting for more effective collaboration among the staff at each multi-agency 24/7/365 operations center, we recommended that the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security charge the Director of the Operations Directorate with developing and providing guidance and helping to ensure the agencies that sponsor the centers define common goals and joint strategies. In response to our recommendation, DHS established an Operations Centers Working Group, formally chartered in February 2008. According to DHS, the vision of the Operations Centers Working Group is to enhance relationships and information flow within the Department and to ensure that issues regarding incident management, planning, training, and exercises are properly coordinated in a timely manner. DHS also reported that an interagency operations center working group started meeting in 2008 and is expected to be formally chartered by September, 2008. The goals of the interagency Operations Centers Working Group is to be a semi-formal process with established agency and department representation; improve information flow, mission coordination, and national reporting between federal Operations Centers in the areas of incident management, planning, training, and exercises; facilitate information sharing, situational awareness and decision making, and; facilitate issue resolution and leverage capabilities. These new intra- and inter-agency working groups will provide DHS's Operations Directorate with forums to collaboratively develop and provide guidance and help ensure that centers define common goals and joint strategies.

    Recommendation: To provide a setting for more effective collaboration among the staff at each multi-agency 24/7/365 operations center, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should charge the Director of the Operations Directorate with developing and providing guidance and helping to ensure the agencies that sponsor the center define common goals and joint strategies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: We received a letter from DHS dated August 19,2008 summarizing their efforts in response to our recommendations. The response did not indicate that DHS planned to implement this recommendation and noted that "We believe our progress in meeting this recommendation should be acknowledged and that further reporting is no longer warranted."

    Recommendation: To provide a setting for more effective collaboration among the staff at each multi-agency 24/7/365 operations center, the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security should charge the Director of the Operations Directorate with developing and providing guidance and helping to ensure the agencies that sponsor the center address collaborative efforts at the four multi-agency operations centers in plans and reports on the level of each operation center's managing agency.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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