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Homeland security/Law enforcement > 7. Department of Homeland Security Research and Development

Better policies and guidance for defining, overseeing, and coordinating research and development investments and activities would help the Department of Homeland Security address fragmentation, overlap, and potential unnecessary duplication.

Why This Area Is Important

Conducting research and development (R&D) on technologies for detecting, preventing, and mitigating terrorist threats is vital to enhancing the security of the nation. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) conducts research, development, testing, and evaluation of new technologies that are intended to strengthen the United States’ ability to prevent and respond to nuclear, biological, explosive, and other types of attacks within the United States. Since it began operations in 2003, DHS, through both its Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) and other components, has spent billions of dollars researching and developing technologies used to support a wide range of missions, including securing the border, detecting nuclear devices, and screening airline passengers and baggage for explosives. Managing and coordinating R&D across DHS represents one example of the cross-cutting management challenges facing the department. GAO designated implementing and transforming DHS as high risk because it had to transform 22 agencies—several with major management challenges—into one department, and failure to effectively address DHS’s management and mission risks could have serious consequences for U.S. national and economic security.

What GAO Found

GAO reported in September 2012 that DHS does not have a departmentwide policy defining R&D or guidance directing components how to report R&D activities. As a result, the department does not know its total annual investment in R&D, which limits DHS’s ability to oversee components’ R&D efforts and align them with agencywide R&D goals and priorities. DHS officials recognized that spending in areas that cut across the department, like R&D, is difficult to manage and told GAO that DHS does not have visibility of R&D across the department. For example, in September 2012 GAO reported that budget data for DHS’s R&D obligations that DHS submitted to the Office of Management and Budget were underreported because certain DHS components obligated money for R&D contracts that were not reported to the Office of Management and Budget as R&D. Specifically, for fiscal year 2011, GAO identified $255 million in obligations for R&D that DHS did not report in the budget process as R&D contracts. DHS is taking some steps to address its lack of visibility over R&D across the department, including identifying R&D as a separate budget line in DHS’s proposed unified account structure, which was submitted to Congress in the fiscal year 2013 budget for approval. GAO further reported that establishing policies and guidance for defining R&D consistently across the department and outlining the processes and procedures for overseeing R&D would provide more oversight into the R&D investments across the department.

GAO also reported in September 2012 that R&D at DHS was inherently fragmented because several components within DHS—S&T, the Coast Guard, and the Domestic Nuclear Detection Office—were each given R&D responsibilities in law, and other DHS components could pursue and conduct their own R&D efforts as long as those activities were coordinated through S&T. GAO further reported that fragmentation among R&D efforts at DHS may be advantageous if the department determined that it could gain better or faster results by having multiple components engage in R&D activities toward a similar goal; however, it could be disadvantageous if those activities are uncoordinated or unintentionally overlapping or duplicative.

To illustrate overlap, GAO reviewed data on all 15,000 federal procurement contract actions coded as R&D taken by DHS components from fiscal years 2007 through 2012. Based on a keyword search of the 15,000 procurement actions and review of the project descriptions, GAO selected 50 R&D contracts awarded by six DHS components—S&T, the Transportation Security Administration, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Office of Health Affairs, the Coast Guard, and Customs and Border Protection—that appeared to have similar goals, strategies, or activities with another contract, and interviewed component officials about those R&D activities.[1] On the basis of that analysis and interviews with these components, GAO identified 35 instances among 29 contracts where DHS components awarded R&D contracts that overlapped with R&D activities conducted elsewhere in the department. Taken together, these contracts were worth about $66 million. For example:

  • S&T awarded four separate contracts to develop methods of detecting ammonium nitrate and urea nitrate for the counter-improvised explosive detection program. The Transportation Security Administration also awarded a separate contract to investigate the detection of ammonium nitrate and ammonium nitrate-based explosives. These contracts overlapped in that all of the S&T and Transportation Security Administration contracts addressed the detection of the same chemical.
  • S&T awarded four separate contracts to develop advanced algorithms for explosives detection while the Transportation Security Administration also awarded a contract to develop algorithms to evaluate images for explosives. We determined that these R&D contracts overlapped because both components were involved in developing algorithms for explosives detection.
  • S&T awarded a contract to a private vendor for support and analysis for seismic hazards while FEMA also awarded a contract to develop seismic guidelines for buildings in the event of an earthquake. These contracts overlapped because they were both similar in scope.

GAO reviewed each statement of work for these 35 contracts and determined that while the scope and some goals were overlapping, they were not duplicative because they addressed different operational missions. GAO also discussed these contracts with component officials. Specifically, Transportation Security Administration officials stated that some of the contracts may have overlapped in the scope of work but were focused on different missions or modes of transportation, and thus were not duplicative. FEMA officials stated that FEMA research project contracts GAO identified were related specifically to earthquake hazards, rather than more broadly to multiple hazards like S&T’s research contracts, and thus, the contracts did not duplicate one another.

According to S&T officials during the time of GAO’s review, a process did not exist at DHS or within S&T to prevent overlap or unnecessary duplication. However, the officials stated that relationships with components mitigated these risks. They also stated that S&T has improved interactions with components over time. For example, S&T officials stated that when Customs and Border Protection requested mobile radios to improve communication among its field staff, S&T knew that the Secret Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement were already conducting R&D in that area. To address this technology need, S&T provided a senior official to lead the Tactical Communication Team to address communication among different operational components and better coordinate those efforts.

Although GAO found that S&T had taken steps to coordinate R&D, GAO also reported in September 2012 that DHS and S&T did not have the policies and mechanisms necessary to coordinate R&D across the department and reduce the risk of unnecessary duplication. Specifically, DHS has not developed a policy defining who is responsible for coordinating R&D and what processes should be used to coordinate it. While S&T has R&D agreements with some components, S&T officials cited the Integrated Product Team process—comprised of S&T and component members—and personal relationships as the primary means to coordinate R&D activities with components and generally felt that they were coordinating effectively. However, other component officials GAO interviewed did not view S&T’s coordination practices as positively. Specifically, GAO interviewed six DHS components to discuss the extent to which they coordinated with S&T on R&D activities. Four components stated that S&T did not have an established process that detailed how S&T would work with its customers or for coordinating all activities at DHS. Without an established coordination process, the risk for unnecessary duplication increases because components can engage in R&D activities without coordinating them through S&T.

We also reported in September 2012 that S&T and DHS had not developed a mechanism to track all ongoing R&D projects conducted across DHS components. Specifically, neither DHS nor S&T tracked all ongoing R&D projects across the department, including DHS R&D activities contracted through the various Department of Energy National Laboratories. DHS officials agreed that such mechanisms to track R&D activities were necessary, and said they have faced similar challenges in managing other investments across the department. GAO reported that a policy that defines roles and responsibilities for coordinating R&D and coordination processes, as well as a mechanism that tracks all DHS R&D projects, could better position DHS to mitigate the risk of overlapping and unnecessarily duplicative R&D projects. GAO recognized that overlapping R&D activities across similar areas may not be problematic, but reported that DHS could increase oversight of R&D, and improve coordination of R&D activities to better ensure that any duplication in R&D activities is purposeful rather than unnecessary.

Fragmentation, overlap, and the risk of unnecessary duplication occur throughout the government, as GAO reported in March 2011 and February 2012, and are not isolated to DHS.[2] However, when coupled with consistent programmatic coordination, the risk of unnecessary duplication can be diminished. A policy that defines roles and responsibilities for coordinating R&D and coordination processes, as well as a mechanism that tracks all DHS R&D projects, could better position DHS to mitigate the risk of overlapping and unnecessarily duplicative R&D projects.

[1]GAO obtained 47 of those 50 contracts and reviewed their statements of work. The Office of Health Affairs and DHS were unable to provide 3 contracts GAO requested. GAO also examined about 1,000 task orders sent to the national laboratories by DHS components, but the data did not include sufficient detail to use for that analysis.

Actions Needed

GAO recommended in September 2012 that the Secretary of Homeland Security take the following action:

  • develop and implement policies and guidance for defining and overseeing R&D at the department to ensure that DHS effectively oversees its R&D investment and efforts and reduces fragmentation, overlap, and the risk of unnecessary duplication. Such policies and guidance could be included as an update to the department’s existing acquisition directive and should include the following elements: a well-understood definition of R&D that provides reasonable assurance that reliable accounting and reporting of R&D resources and activities for internal and external use are achieved; a description of the department’s process and roles and responsibilities for overseeing and coordinating R&D investments and efforts; and a mechanism to track existing R&D projects and their associated costs across the department.

While the potential financial benefit of this action cannot be quantified, GAO’s work illustrates that implementation of this recommendation could position DHS to better define and manage its R&D investments and activities, mitigate the risk of overlapping and unnecessarily duplicative R&D projects, and provide greater oversight of R&D across the department.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the product in the related GAO product section. GAO reviewed data on all 15,000 federal procurement contract actions coded as R&D in the Federal Procurement Data System Next Generation by DHS components from fiscal years 2007 through 2011 to identify contracts that were overlapping or duplicative of other contracts issued by different components. Based on a keyword search of the 15,000 procurement actions and review of the project descriptions, GAO selected 50 R&D contracts that appeared to contain overlap, reviewed the statements of work for these contracts, and interviewed officials from the six components that issued them to discuss the nature of those contracts. GAO used its past work on fragmentation, overlap, and duplication across the federal government,[1] Standards for Internal Control in the Federal Government,[2] and prior work related to federal collaboration to assess DHS’s coordination of R&D across the department.[3] GAO also interviewed S&T leadership, technical division directors, and DHS component officials to discuss S&T and DHS’s R&D coordination processes. Table 6 in appendix IV lists the programs GAO identified that might have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services, or are fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation might not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.

[1]GAO, 2012 Annual Report: Opportunities to Reduce Duplication, Overlap and Fragmentation, Achieve Savings, and Enhance Revenue, GAO-12-342SP (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 28, 2012); Follow-up on 2011 Report: Status of Actions Taken to Reduce Duplication, Overlap, and Fragmentation, Save Tax Dollars, and Enhance Revenue, GAO-12-453SP (Washington, D.C.: Feb. 28, 2012); Employment for People with Disabilities: Little Is Known about the Effectiveness of Fragmented and Overlapping Programs, GAO-12-667 (Washington, D.C.: June 29, 2012); and Justice Grant Programs: DOJ Should Do More to Reduce the Risk of Unnecessary Duplication and Enhance Program Assessment, GAO-12-517 (Washington, D.C.: June 12, 2012).

[3]GAO, Results-Oriented Government: Practices That Can Help Enhance and Sustain Collaboration among Federal Agencies, GAO-06-15 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 21, 2005); Cybersecurity: Key Challenges Need to Be Addressed to Improve Research and Development, GAO-10-466 (Washington, D.C.: June 3, 2010) and Homeland Security: DHS Needs a Strategy to Use DOE’s Laboratories for Research on Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Detection and Response Technologies, GAO-04-653 (Washington, D.C.: May 24, 2004).

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the September 2012 report on which this analysis is based, DHS agreed with GAO’s recommendation to develop and implement policies and guidance for defining and overseeing R&D at the department and described actions it planned to take to address the recommendation. Specifically, according to DHS, it planned to evaluate the most effective path forward to guide uniform treatment of R&D across the department in compliance with Office of Management and Budget rules and is considering a management directive, multi-component steering committee, or new policy guidance to better oversee and coordinate R&D. DHS planned to complete these efforts by May 2013. In responding to DHS’s comments, GAO noted that it would be important that DHS’s planned actions include developing a definition of R&D, defining roles and responsibilities for oversight and coordination, and developing a mechanism to track existing R&D projects and investments.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to DHS for review and comment. DHS provided technical comments, which were incorporated as appropriate.

For additional information about this area, contact David C. Maurer at (202) 512-9627, or

Related Products

Department of Homeland Security:

Oversight and Coordination of Research and Development Should Be Strengthened
Published: Sep 12, 2012. Publicly Released: Sep 12, 2012.

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