Print this page

Homeland security/Law enforcement

FEMA needs to improve its oversight of grants and establish a framework for assessing capabilities to identify gaps and prioritize investments

Why Area Is Important

From fiscal year 2002 through 2010, Congress appropriated over $34 billion for homeland security preparedness grant programs to enhance the ability of state, territory, local, and tribal governments to prevent, protect against, respond to, and recover from terrorist attacks and other disasters, according to the Congressional Research Service. The number of preparedness grant programs Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) administers has grown from 8 in 2002 to 17 in 2010 as the result of congressional and executive branch actions. A number of FEMA's preparedness grant programs fund common eligible recipients (such as state homeland security agencies) for similar-broad purposes.

What GAO Found

FEMA does not compare and coordinate grant applications across its preparedness programs to identify potential duplication. In addition, FEMA has not established measurable goals or performance measures for preparedness capabilities to identify gaps to assist in effectively prioritizing national investments through preparedness grant programs.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Inspector General reported in March 2010 that FEMA's application process for its preparedness grant programs did not promote effectiveness and efficiency because FEMA did not compare and coordinate grant applications across preparedness programs to identify and mitigate potential duplications (for example, planning and interoperable communications are two activities that can be funded by almost all of the programs reviewed by the Inspector General); the report recommended FEMA do so.[1] The report also cited barriers at the legislative, departmental, and state levels that impede FEMA's ability to coordinate these programs, such as annual appropriation laws that may contain congressional earmarks dedicating funds toward specific grant projects. The report made two other recommendations for improving grant management, and FEMA concurred, saying the agency had efforts under way that will help to address the report's findings. Until FEMA evaluates grant applications across grant programs, FEMA cannot ascertain whether or to what extent multiple funding requests are being submitted for similar purposes.

In October 2006, the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act charged FEMA with leading the nation in developing a national preparedness system[2]. The act requires FEMA to develop a national preparedness system and assess preparedness capabilities—capabilities needed to respond effectively to disasters—to determine the nation's preparedness capability levels and the resources needed to achieve desired capability levels[3]. In a report to Congress in March 2009, FEMA identified, among other things, the need for federal agencies to work jointly to develop national standards for describing the functionality and performance characteristics of preparedness resources and capabilities for use by relevant homeland security grant programs to enable cross-program coordination and assessment.[4]

In October 2010, GAO reported that FEMA had not developed measurable national preparedness capability requirements to provide a framework for these assessments. In January 2011, FEMA reported that the Administrator had established a strategic priority, referred to as "Whole of Community" that identified a series of requirements or core capabilities, to ensure response and recovery actions are driven by the needs of the affected community in the event of a catastrophic disaster. As a result, FEMA is planning to generate measurable national preparedness capability requirements, and evaluation criteria (e.g., in terms of speed, effectiveness, and efficiency, among other factors) that are to provide a comprehensive framework for guiding investments and assessing readiness. Until FEMA has done so, it cannot operationalize and implement its approach for assessing local, state, and federal preparedness capabilities to identify gaps for prioritizing investments in national preparedness. According to program officials, FEMA's efforts to define a framework within which its capability assessments can be effectively applied rely on the results of two key efforts: the recommendations of the October 2010 report of the congressionally mandated Local, State, Tribal and Federal Preparedness Task Force, and planned revisions to Homeland Security Presidential Directive-8.[5] If the problems regarding preparedness grant applications and capabilities are not addressed, FEMA could spend billions of dollars without the ability to identify duplication of effort and prioritize the development and maintenance of the most important preparedness capabilities.

On October 12, 2010, Congress enacted the Redundancy Elimination and Enhanced Performance for Preparedness Grants Act.[6] The act calls for the FEMA administrator to identify redundant reporting requirements for recipients of certain grants and regularly report to Congress on efforts to eliminate identified redundancies; submit a plan for developing performance metrics for the grants; and conduct an assessment of the grant programs. In January 2011, FEMA reported that it is reviewing its grant programs and application processes to identify operational redundancies and is working with DHS to consolidate grant programs where activities are allowable under multiple grants. FEMA also stated that the agency is working with the National Academy of Public Administration to develop a plan by December 2011, for developing quantifiable performance measures and metrics to assess the effectiveness of preparedness grant programs. While these are positive steps, it is too early to determine their effectiveness in eliminating redundancies, increasing efficiency in administering FEMA's grant programs, and assessing the effectiveness of preparedness grant programs


[1] The Inspector General reviewed 13 preparedness grant programs; see Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General, Efficacy of DHS Grant Programs, OIG-10-69 (Washington, D.C., Mar. 22, 2010).

[2] Pub. L. No. 109-295, § 644, 120 Stat. 1355, 1425 (2006) (codified at 6 U.S.C. § 744). The Act defines capability as "the ability to provide the means to accomplish one or more tasks under specific conditions and to specific performance standards." Id. at 641, 120 Stat. at 1424 (codified at 6 U.S.C. § 741).

[3] Pub. L. No. 109-295, § 649, 120 Stat. 1355, 1428 (2006) (codified at 6 U.S.C. § 749).

[4] FEMA, Grant Programs Directorate, Interagency Report on Preparedness Grant Programs, Report to Congress (Washington, D.C., May 2009).

[5] The Local, State, Tribal and Federal Preparedness Task Force is a group of experts charged with assessing the state of the nation's disaster preparedness and making recommendations to the Secretary of Homeland Security about ways to build preparedness in communities across America. The Task Force is composed of 35 members of federal, state, local and tribal governments.

[6] Pub. L. No. 111-271, 124 Stat. 2852 (2010).


Actions Needed

GAO has not previously made recommendations in this area, but to identify and address any unnecessary overlap and duplication, as well as to achieve operational improvements, efficiencies, and associated financial benefits, FEMA could benefit from examining its grant programs and coordinating its application process to eliminate or reduce redundancy among grant recipients and program purposes. FEMA's actions in response to the Redundancy Elimination and Enhanced Performance for Preparedness Grants Act may help FEMA measure and assess the performance of its grants programs and achieve efficiencies and savings in administering these programs. However, FEMA's actions in response to this act are still ongoing, thus it is too early to assess their effectiveness.

In addition, Congress may wish to consider limiting preparedness grant funding to maintaining existing capabilities (as determined by FEMA) until FEMA completes a national preparedness assessment of capability gaps at each level based on tiered, capability-specific performance objectives to enable prioritization of grant funding. According to FEMA officials, the administration is planning to issue a revision of Homeland Security Presidential Directive-8 (no issue date has been set); the revision will significantly affect FEMA's national preparedness policies and plans.

Once FEMA has completed a comprehensive, measurable, national preparedness assessment of capability gaps, as described above, FEMA could identify the potential costs for establishing and maintaining those capabilities at each level, and determine what capabilities federal agencies should provide. Accordingly, Congress may wish to consider limiting the use of federal preparedness grant programs to fund only projects that support the development of identified, validated, and documented capability gaps.

Framework for Analysis

The information contained in this analysis is based on GAO's review of agency reports and other sources well as the related GAO products listed under the "Related GAO Products" tab. GAO determined that the data it used were sufficiently reliable for its purposes.

At the request of the House Homeland Security Committee, GAO has a review under way examining FEMA's management of selected homeland security grants and potential duplication and expects to issue a report in 2011.

Area Contact

For additional information about this area, contact William O. Jenkins Jr. at (202) 512-8757 or