Emergency Communications:

National Communications System Provides Programs for Priority Calling, but Planning for New Initiatives and Performance Measurement Could be Strengthened

GAO-09-822: Published: Aug 28, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 28, 2009.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Stephen L. Caldwell
(202) 512-8777
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

Government functions and effective disaster response and management rely on the ability of national security and emergency preparedness (NS/EP) personnel to communicate. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) National Communications System (NCS), is responsible for ensuring continuity of NS/EP communications when network congestion or damage occurs. As requested, GAO assessed the (1) priority communication programs NCS provides, how it enlists subscribers, and to what extent NCS controls access to these programs; (2) challenges that can affect delivery of these programs; and (3) extent to which NCS plans for and evaluates its services. GAO reviewed NCS program documents, such as annual reports and access control procedures and data on program subscribers. GAO also interviewed officials from NCS and select state and local government entities. GAO compared NCS performance measures to federal best practices.

NCS has two programs to provide NS/EP personnel with priority calling service when telephone networks are congested or damaged--the Government Emergency Telecommunications Service (GETS) and the Wireless Priority Service (WPS). NCS has undertaken several efforts, such as outreach at industry conferences, to increase participation in and control access to these programs. According to NCS, though outreach efforts have helped to increase overall enrollment, it is working to further address possible cost barriers to participation in WPS, such as discussing options with wireless carriers to help defray costs. In addition, NCS has implemented policies and procedures to ensure that access to its priority programs are limited to authorized users. GAO's review of select GETS and WPS subscriber data revealed that, of the 85 records we examined, NCS generally followed its policies and procedures to limit GETS and WPS access to authorized subscribers. NCS is taking steps to address inherent challenges in the communications environment--such as network congestion. For example, NCS initiated a satellite pilot program to allow NS/EP officials to circumvent severely damaged or congested traditional telephone networks. However, methods for implementation and evaluation of the pilot were unclear and NCS subsequently terminated the pilot. NCS is also working to provide priority voice and data NS/EP communications as part of the evolving telecommunications networks, but it has not finalized an acquisition approach based on available technologies, costs, or plans to mitigate technological and other challenges to deliver such capabilities. The lack of this information has led to congressional restrictions on NCS's funding. As NCS attempts to ensure that GETS and WPS services can operate in these evolving networks, an acquisition approach that includes this information will provide NCS officials and Congress with essential information to most effectively allocate resources and guide decision making. Although DHS agreed with GAO's June 2008 recommendation to complete the NCS strategic plan, NCS has not finalized its strategic plan which has been under development since 2007. Furthermore, existing performance measures do not cover all of its core responsibilities, as suggested by best practices, and certain performance measures could be strengthened. For example, NCS does not have a measure to gauge its performance in two of its key federal roles--critical infrastructure protection for communications under DHS's National Infrastructure Protection Plan as well as coordinating communications issues under the National Response Framework. Furthermore, NCS does not use prior years' enrollment levels to help determine increases, if any, to be made to future year's goals for user enrollment. Fully and accurately measuring performance is critical to ensuring the agency and key stakeholders--such as Congress--base program and resource decisions on actual performance.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2009, we reported that the events of September 11, 2001, and the 2005 hurricane season dramatically demonstrated how catastrophic man-made and natural disasters can disrupt communication capabilities and highlight the need for essential national security and emergency preparedness (NS/EP) officials to be able to communicate during and in the aftermath of such events. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) National Communications System (NCS) is responsible for ensuring continuity of NS/EP communications when network congestion or damage occurs. NCS recognized the need to keep pace with technological changes and look for ways to better meet NS/EP personnel's current and future communications needs as evidenced by the development of the NGN (Next Generation Network) initiative. However, we found that while NCS was restructuring its priority calling programs to support the use of technological advances and evolutionary communications networks through the NGN initiative as mandated by presidential directive, NCS had not fully detailed how it planned to mitigate existing challenges and could not provide details about key program elements, such as the estimated costs and a timeline for the implementation of the initiative. To help ensure that NCS management has sufficient information needed to asses and improve NCS's programs and new initiatives and to effectively support budget decisions, we recommended that the Secretary of DHS direct the Manager of the NCS to develop program plans for the NS/EP NGN initiative that outline the acquisition approach based on available technologies, realistic cost estimates, and that include mitigation plans to address identified risks and challenges. In response to our recommendation, NCS developed a NGN Priority Services Program Management Plan in March 2011 to manage this initiative. The plan defined the activities, responsibilities, and timing of events that support the NGN initiative and outlined an acquisition approach based on available technologies and realistic cost estimates. In addition, NCS subsequently finalized a NGN risk mitigation plan, which we reviewed in 2012. The plan identified risks, challenges, and strategies to mitigate these risks and challenges. These plans developed by NCS are consistent with our recommendation and should help ensure NCS management has sufficient information needed to assess and improve the NGN initiative and leverage technological advances and communications networks to help meet its mission of ensuring continuity of NS/EP communications when network congestion or damage occurs. Based on these actions, the recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that NCS management has sufficient information needed to assess and improve NCS's programs and new initiatives and to effectively support budget decisions, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Manager of the NCS to develop program plans for the national security and emergency preparedness next generation network (NS/EP NGN) initiative that outline an acquisition approach based on available technologies, realistic cost estimates, and that include mitigation plans to address identified challenges and risks.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2009, we reported that the events of September 11, 2001, and the 2005 hurricane season dramatically demonstrated how catastrophic man-made and natural disasters can disrupt communication capabilities and highlight the need for essential national security and emergency preparedness (NS/EP) officials to be able to communicate during and in the aftermath of such events. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) National Communications System (NCS) is responsible for ensuring continuity of NS/EP communications when network congestion or damage occurs. Strategic plans are an essential element in results-oriented program management and provide agencies and stakeholders a common set of operation principle with which to guide actions and decisions. While we found that NCS had undertaken some strategic planning for its programs, it had not finalized its strategic plan, which had been in draft since mid-2008, or committed to incorporating key elements of a strategic plan. To help ensure that NCS management has sufficient information needed to assess and improve NCS's programs and new initiatives and to effectively support budget decisions, we recommended that the Secretary of DHS direct the Manager of the NCS to follow best practices for strategic planning in finalizing the NCS strategic plan including identifying the resources needed to achieve its strategic goals and objectives and providing a description of the relationship between planned initiatives such as the NS/EP Next Generation Network (NGN) and strategic goals. In response to our recommendation, NCS took a number of actions. In December 2011, DHS finalized an Office of Emergency Communications (OEC) strategic plan, which we received and reviewed in 2012, as well as an OEC Implementation Plan, which we received and reviewed in 2013. NCS also developed a NGN Priority Services Program Management Plan and NGN risk mitigation plan, which we reviewed in 2012. Collectively, these plans are consistent with our recommendation as they identify the resources needed to achieve its strategic goals and objectives and provide a description of the relationship of planned initiatives such NGN with strategic goals. In addition, since DHS's National Protection and Programs Directorate's Office of Cybersecurity and Communications (CS&C) has taken over responsibility for NCS activities per Executive Order 13618, CS&C has stated that it will continue to update these strategic and implementation plans for consistency with EO 13618 and a CS&C strategic plan in development. Based on these actions, the recommendation is closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that NCS management has sufficient information needed to assess and improve NCS's programs and new initiatives and to effectively support budget decisions, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Manager of the NCS to follow best practices for strategic planning in finalizing the NCS strategic plan including identifying the resources needed to achieve its strategic goals and objectives and providing a description of the relationship between planned initiatives such as the NS/EP NGN and strategic goals.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In August 2009, we reported that the events of September 11, 2001, and the 2005 hurricane season dramatically demonstrated how catastrophic man-made and natural disasters can disrupt communication capabilities and highlight the need for essential national security and emergency preparedness (NS/EP) officials to be able to communicate during and in the aftermath of such events. The Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) National Communications System (NCS) is responsible for ensuring continuity of NS/EP communications when network congestion or damage occurs. We found that NCS's existing performance measures did not cover all of its core responsibilities, as suggested by best practices, and certain performance measures could be strengthened. To help ensure that NCS management has sufficient information needed to assess and improve NCS's programs and new initiatives and to effectively support budget decisions, we recommended that the Secretary of DHS should direct the Manager of the NCS to strengthen NCS's performance measurement efforts by (1) developing measures to cover all core program activities, (2) exploring opportunities to develop more outcome-oriented measures, (3) ensuring performance measure baselines are reliable and based upon past performance, (4) and improving the clarity of its call completion measure. To date, NCS has not implemented this recommendation or provided documentation to demonstrate that parts of this recommendation have been implemented. However, according to the DHS's National Protection and Programs Directorate's Office of Cybersecurity and Communications (CS&C), as the new Sector-Specific Agency (SSA) for the Communications and Information Technology Sectors per Executive Order 13636, it plans to leverage its long-standing partnership between government and industry to continue to implement this recommendation. Under EO 13636 Section 7, DHS supports the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) as the lead for developing a framework that reduces cyber risks posed to critical infrastructure (Cybersecurity Framework). DHS is leading the Framework Collaboration Working Group, which provides NIST with interagency and critical infrastructure reach-back capabilities. The working group also supports DHS, which is responsible under Section 7(d) of EO 13636 for providing performance goals based on consultation with stakeholders. According to CS&C, DHS has already begun working with critical infrastructure sectors in partnership with NIST and has already identified initial sector-provided data points on current performance goal practices. CS&C plans to use its engagements with critical infrastructure sectors and results from future NIST Cybersecurity Framework workshops to identify opportunities to encourage adoption of baseline performance goals. According to CS&C, the goals will be measureable and adopters will be further encouraged to develop their own measures and targets consistent with their specific business models. DHS also plans to leverage its partnerships with industry members of the Communications Section where possible to assure overall cooperation from the sector, and the eventual development of meaningful performance goals. However, given that DHS has not implemented this recommendation after 4 years, and that these newly cited actions lack both specificity and timeframes, we are closing this recommendation as not implemented.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that NCS management has sufficient information needed to assess and improve NCS's programs and new initiatives and to effectively support budget decisions, the Secretary of DHS should direct the Manager of the NCS to strengthen NCS's performance measurement efforts by (1) developing measures to cover all core program activities, (2) exploring opportunities to develop more outcome-oriented measures, (3) ensuring performance measure baselines are reliable and based upon past performance, (4) and improving the clarity of its call completion measure.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Jul 22, 2014

Jun 23, 2014

Apr 23, 2014

Mar 10, 2014

Jan 6, 2014

May 23, 2013

May 22, 2013

May 21, 2013

Apr 24, 2013

Apr 18, 2013

Looking for more? Browse all our products here