GAO: Security agency is making progress, but still falling short

The Federal Protective Service is making progress, but must fully implement security best practices to meet its mission, the Government Accountability Office reported on Wednesday.

According to GAO, the service's approach to protecting federal buildings has gaps in three key areas: allocating resources through risk assessments, leveraging technology and sharing information.

GAO acknowledged that FPS' influence on resource allocation is limited, since agencies ultimately make their own security decisions. FPS assesses risk and makes recommendations. "We have found that under this approach, the security equipment that FPS recommends and is responsible for acquiring, installing and maintaining may not be implemented if tenant agencies are unwilling to fund it," GAO said in its report.

The watchdog agency also concluded that FPS' building-by-building approach to risk management is outdated and the service should take a more comprehensive, strategic approach to ensure risks are being prioritized and mitigated.

FPS is developing a new risk management program, intended to be less subjective and time-consuming and incorporating a more efficient assessment tool. But that program will not be implemented fully until the end of fiscal 2011, and GAO said its development already has been delayed.

FPS has more control over leveraging technology, GAO found. Individual inspectors have considerable latitude to determine which technologies to recommend. GAO, however, says the inspectors lack sufficient training and guidance on how to assess the relative cost-effectiveness of technologies or how to determine the expected return on investment.

Until FPS completes its standardization of security equipment recommendations and acquisitions, inspectors will continue to make recommendations based on individual judgment and vendor information, GAO said.

Information sharing and coordination is another area that is critical to building security. The agency found that FPS and GSA have established communication channels at the top management levels, which is a positive step. But information sharing at the regional and building levels is inconsistent, and FPS and GSA disagree over what data should be shared.

FPS also is failing to live up to a number of agreements that have been made on information sharing, the report said. For example, a memorandum of agreement between the Homeland Security Department and GSA specifies that the Federal Protective Service will provide quarterly regional briefings, but FPS has failed to do so consistently. In October 2008, they resumed the practice but GSA says the briefings "did not constitute comprehensive threat analyses."

The watchdog agency expressed confidence that "FPS recognizes the importance of making progress in these areas."

The service "has improvements under way that could bring its activities more in line with the key practices and better equip FPS to address security vulnerabilities at GSA-controlled federal buildings," the report stated.

But without greater attention to these areas and quick implementation of new programs and procedures, GAO said FPS will be ill-equipped to efficiently and effectively fulfill its responsibilities of assessing risk, issuing recommendations, and sharing information with GSA and other agencies. GAO recommended that the Federal Protective Service report regularly to the DHS secretary on the status of new risk management and countermeasure activities; that the service develop a methodology and guidance for assessing and comparing the cost-effectiveness of technologies; and that it cooperate more with GSA to build consensus on criteria in building security assessments.

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