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Homeland security/Law enforcement

DHS could streamline mechanisms for sharing security-related information with public transit agencies to help address overlapping information

Why Area Is Important

Since January 2005, GAO has identified sharing terrorism-related information as a high-risk area because the federal government continues to face challenges with its information-sharing efforts. To facilitate information sharing with the public transit industry, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) created and funded various mechanisms. For example, the publicly funded but privately operated public transit analysis center and the public transit subportal on DHS's information network were established to serve as the primary mechanisms for sharing security threats and other types of security-related information with public transit agencies. In March 2010, TSA also introduced its portal on DHS's information network to share information with the transportation industry. However, in September 2010, GAO reported that public transit agencies receive similar security-related information from multiple sources and recommended that DHS establish time frames for its working group to assess opportunities to streamline information-sharing mechanisms to reduce any unneeded overlap. DHS concurred and has begun taking steps to address this recommendation, but has not provided specifics on the extent to which its actions will reduce overlap.

What GAO Found

GAO identified the potential for overlap between three information-sharing mechanisms that DHS funds and uses to communicate security-related information with public transit agencies, which could unnecessarily complicate those agencies' efforts to discern relevant information and take appropriate actions to enhance transportation security. While a certain amount of redundancy is understandable and can be beneficial if it occurs as part of a management strategy to provide better customer service delivery, GAO found that this potential for overlap could overwhelm public transit agencies with similar information. According to a key TSA transportation strategy document, a streamlined and effective system to share transit and passenger rail information is needed to facilitate information sharing among the federal government and public and private stakeholders.

In September 2010, GAO reported that public transit agencies received similar security-related information from a variety of sources, including the three discussed below. Specifically, GAO reported that:

  • According to the American Public Transportation Association, which co-sponsors the public transit analysis center, this mechanism is intended to be a one stop shop for public transit agencies' information needs. This mechanism received a total of $1.2 million during fiscal years 2009 and 2010 from TSA.
  • TSA officials stated that the agency intends for the public transit portal on DHS's information network to be the primary mechanism for sharing such information with public transit agencies. DHS could not provide cost data for the operation of this specific portal because, according to DHS officials, the department does not break out the costs associated with maintaining individual portals on its information network. However, DHS reported that for fiscal years 2009 and 2010, the department expended $62 million on its information network—which includes the public transit portal—and its estimated lifecycle costs are $451 million.
  • According to TSA officials, TSA's portal on DHS's information network was established to serve as a collaborative information-sharing platform for all transportation modes, including public transit.[1]In September 2010, TSA told GAO that for fiscal years 2009 and 2010, it applied $2.5 million to its portal on DHS's information network, primarily on developing and organizing data for all transportation modes.

GAO's survey of 96 U.S. public transit agencies, representing about 91 percent of total 2008 public transit ridership, highlighted the variety of mechanisms used by public transit agencies to obtain security-related information. Twenty-four of the 80 transit agencies that responded to the survey provided comments in favor of consolidating existing information-sharing mechanisms to reduce the volume of similar information they receive.

GAO reported in 2007 and 2009 that effective information sharing continues to be a challenge for the federal government. Similarly, the Administration's March 2010 Surface Transportation Security Priority Assessmentrecommended that TSA take steps to improve the effectiveness of information flow. In August 2010, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) added DHS's information network to its list of high-priority information technology projects, indicating that this mechanism is at risk of failure and requires additional oversight. According to the Federal Chief Information Officer, in order to justify future funding for these technology projects, agencies will need to, among other things, define deliverables and outcomes and put in place a strong governance structure. Projects that do not meet such criteria will not be continued. DHS officials have indicated that they are working with OMB to address OMB's concerns, but have not provided GAO with information related to the specific actions that DHS has taken.



[1]The six transportation modes include aviation, maritime, public transit, highway, freight rail, and pipeline.

Actions Needed

Taking steps to streamline information sharing with public transit agencies could reduce the volume of similar information public transit agencies receive, making it easier for them to discern relevant information and take appropriate actions to enhance security. Government and private sector stakeholders are participating in an information-sharing working group to review how information-sharing mechanisms might be streamlined to reduce the volume of overlapping information public transit agencies receive. In September 2010, GAO recommended that TSA establish time frames for this working group to develop options for improving its information-sharing efforts with public transit agencies. In October 2010, TSA reported that the working group had agreed upon a consolidated product for sharing security-related information with public transit agencies. In January 2011, TSA reported that the working group had established a proposed time frame for piloting and implementing this product. However,TSA did not provide specifics on the extent to which this product will reduce overlap among existing information-sharing mechanisms. Thus, it is too early to tell whether GAO's recommendation has been fully addressed.

 

GAO's review of the costs associated with maintaining the public transit analysis center, the public transit portal on DHS's information network, and the TSA portal on DHS's information network found that the department continues to face challenges collecting and reporting useful financial management information. According to DHS officials, the department does not break out the costs associated with maintaining individual portals on its information network—including the public transit portal and TSA's portal—and therefore could not provide GAO with a reliable estimate of the potential cost savings resulting from consolidating the public transit portal on DHS's information network with the public transit analysis center or the TSA portal on DHS's information network. Developing such cost data could assist the department in determining how to best allocate its limited resources to provide public transit agencies with quality security-related information.

Moreover, by assessing the various mechanisms available to public transit agencies and the information they provide, and identifying opportunities to streamline these mechanisms, DHS could identify and implement ways to more efficiently share security-related information, which would allow public transit officials to more quickly obtain security-related information and thereby enhance transit agencies' efforts to secure their transportation systems. In doing so, DHS could develop and track verifiable cost data specific to each of its information-sharing mechanisms as part of TSA's streamlining and financial management efforts. Developing such baseline cost data could assist TSA in identifying potential cost savings resulting from the consolidation of these mechanisms and provide opportunities for the agency to better allocate its information-sharing resources.

DHS officials stated that conducting a cost comparison of the public transit portal on DHS's information network, TSA's portal on this network, and the public transit analysis center would not result in a meaningful comparison because DHS's information-sharing mechanism costs are distributed across several transportation sectors, including public transit, while the costs for the public transit analysis center are applied to a specific sector. Additionally, TSA officials stated that TSA's portal on DHS's information network was not designed to compete with the public transit analysis center or the public transit subportal on DHS's information network since TSA's portal shares information with all transportation modes. GAO recognizes that TSA's portal was designed to share information with all transportation modes, including public transit. However, GAO believes that to the extent possible, TSA should consider ways to reduce any unneeded overlap of information sharing for the public transit industry regardless of the mechanisms used to share such information. Furthermore, GAO continues to believe that developing and tracking verifiable cost data specific to each information-sharing mechanism as it relates to services provided to the public transit sector could assist TSA in identifying potential cost savings resulting from consolidating such mechanisms.

Framework for Analysis

The information contained in this analysis is based on GAO's September 2010 report on federal efforts to share security-related information with public transit agencies. In addition, this analysis contains updated information obtained from September 2010 through January 2011. GAO reviewed DHS's cost data for completeness and accuracy and determined the data were reliable for the purposes of this analysis.

Area Contact

For additional information about this area, contact Steve Lord at
(202) 512-4379 or lords@gao.gov.

Related GAO Products

Public Transit Security Information Sharing:

DHS Could Improve Information Sharing through Streamlining and Increased Outreach
GAO-10-895:
Published: Sep 22, 2010. Publicly Released: Sep 22, 2010.

Interagency Collaboration:

High-Risk Series:

An Update
GAO-09-271:
Published: Jan 22, 2009. Publicly Released: Jan 22, 2009.

Information Technology:

Homeland Security:

Departmentwide Integrated Financial Management Systems Remain a Challenge
GAO-07-536:
Published: Jun 21, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 29, 2007.

Information Technology: