Continuity of Operations:

Selected Agencies Could Improve Planning for Use of Alternate Facilities and Telework during Disruptions

GAO-06-713: Published: May 11, 2006. Publicly Released: May 11, 2006.

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To ensure that essential government services are available in emergencies, federal agencies are required to develop continuity of operations (COOP) plans. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is responsible for overseeing and assessing the status of COOP capabilities of federal executive branch agencies. It has developed guidance stating that agency COOP plans must designate alternate facilities and prepare personnel for unannounced relocation to these facilities. The guidance also states that agencies should consider the use of telework in their continuity plans. GAO was asked to follow up on its previous work on COOP planning and determine, among other things, to what extent (1) 6 selected agencies prepared their alternate facilities and (2) 23 major agencies made preparations necessary to effectively use telework in emergency situations.

All six agencies GAO reviewed took steps to prepare their alternate facilities for use in emergencies. However, none of the agencies followed all of FEMA's guidance. For example, none conducted all the applicable tests and exercises, such as annual exercises that involve moving COOP personnel to alternate facilities. Further, agencies did not fully identify the resources necessary to support their essential functions, which reduces assurance that their facilities are adequately prepared. Although individual agencies are ultimately responsible for preparing their plans and alternate facilities, FEMA's limited efforts to oversee and assess agency COOP capabilities contributed to agencies' incomplete compliance with its guidance. According to an official from the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA recently developed a schedule of oversight activities that includes conducting assessments of agency continuity plans starting in July 2006. However, the assessment's methodology is not yet finalized. If FEMA does not develop an assessment methodology that effectively evaluates agencies' compliance, it will have limited assurance that agencies have taken the steps necessary to ensure that they will be able to perform essential government operations following a disruption. Although agencies are not required to use telework in continuity planning, 9 of the 23 agencies surveyed reported plans for essential team members to telework during a COOP event, compared with 3 in GAO's previous survey. However, few documented that they made the necessary preparations to effectively use telework during such an event. For example, only one agency documented that it had notified its team members of their expectation to telework during a COOP event. The lack of specific guidance on preparations for telework during such an event contributed to the low levels of preparation that agencies reported. If agencies do not make adequate preparations, they may not be able to use telework effectively to ensure the continuity of their essential functions in emergencies.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that agencies are adequately prepared to continue performing essential functions following an emergency, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Director to improve the oversight of agency COOP planning, before the upcoming interagency exercise, by conducting an assessment of the COOP plans of the six agencies whose alternate facilities were included in our review and report any deficiencies to the head of the agency for correction.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2006, as part of the Forward Challenge 06 continuity exercise, FEMA-selected evaluators performed assessments of COOP plans from executive branch agencies, including the six agencies we reviewed during our engagement. These assessments identified strengths and weaknesses of COOP plans in an effort to improve agency continuity capabilities. FEMA plans to include similar evaluation of agency continuity capabilities during a 2008 governmentwide exercise.

    Recommendation: To ensure that agencies are adequately prepared to continue performing essential functions following an emergency, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Director to improve the oversight of agency COOP planning by developing a methodology for individual agency COOP assessments that independently evaluates executive branch agencies' compliance with FPC 65, including the extent to which agencies (1) identify essential functions; (2) identify the levels of staff and resources required at their alternate facilities; and (3) plan, conduct, and document the necessary tests and exercises at the appropriate scope and frequency. The methodology should include a mechanism for reporting any deficiencies to the head of the agency for correction.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2006, FEMA developed and implemented a methodology for conducting individual agency COOP plan assessments. Independent evaluators selected by FEMA conducted COOP plan assessments in anticipation of the June 2006 interagency exercise, Forward Challenge 06. The findings of these assessments addressed the planning areas listed in our recommendation, and were included in FEMA after-action reports for each of the participating agencies. FEMA officials stated that the agency plans to conduct COOP plan assessments again as part of the upcoming 2008 governmentwide exercise.

    Recommendation: To ensure that agencies are adequately prepared to continue performing essential functions following an emergency, the Secretary of Homeland Security should direct the FEMA Director to improve the oversight of agency COOP planning by establishing a time line for developing, in consultation with the Office of Personnel Management (OPM), guidance on the steps that agencies should take to adequately prepare for the use of telework during a COOP event.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On August 3, 2006, OPM issued revised guidance on telework in the federal government. The guidance includes specific instructions on using telework during continuity of operations (COOP) events. It specifically addresses the need to communicate to employees expectations regarding telework and COOP and testing telework equipment, technology, and technical support capabilities.

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