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Homeland security/Law enforcement > 9. Security of Federal Facilities

The Federal Protective Service and General Services Administration need to improve collaboration in key areas to better manage fragmentation and enhance the agencies’ ability to protect federal facilities.

Why This Area Is Important

Over 1 million employees and a wide range of visitors seeking services depend on the government to provide security and protection at approximately 8,900 facilities held or leased by the General Services Administration (GSA). Two federal agencies—the Federal Protective Service (FPS), an agency within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and GSA—are critical to ensuring security. The Homeland Security Act of 2002 vested both the Secretary of Homeland Security and the Administrator of GSA with responsibilities for the protection of federal facilities.[1] FPS and GSA’s related missions regarding facility protection require them to collaborate at the agency headquarters, regional, and facility levels.

GAO has designated federal real-property management as a high-risk area in part because of physical security challenges at federal facilities.[2] GAO and others have identified physical security of federal facilities as an area facing ongoing challenges, specifically with regard to collaboration between FPS and GSA. For example, GAO has reported on FPS’s and GSA’s difficulty collaborating in areas including sharing information and clearly defining roles and responsibilities.[3] To the extent that collaboration affects these agencies’ ability to adequately protect facilities, security may be compromised.

[1] The Homeland Security Act of 2002 transferred FPS along with its law enforcement and security functions from GSA to DHS. Pub. L. No. 107-296, § 403(3), 116 Stat. 2135, 2178 (2002). GSA manages federal facilities, including courthouses, and is responsible for federal courthouse design, construction, and maintenance. The U.S. Marshals Service, a component of the Department of Justice, has primary responsibility for protecting federal judicial facilities and personnel. FPS is responsible for enforcing federal laws and providing building-entry and perimeter security at GSA-held or GSA-leased facilities including facilities housing federal courts. For the purpose of this report section, GAO focuses on collaboration between FPS and GSA related to federal facilities. For more information on collaboration issues at federal courthouses, see GAO, Federal Courthouses: Improved Collaboration Needed to Meet Demands of a Complex Security Environment, GAO-11-857 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 28, 2011).

[2] GAO designated the broader area of federal real property management as a high-risk area due to overreliance on leasing, the presence of unneeded and underutilized facilities, and security challenges at federal facilities. GAO, High Risk Series: An Update, GAO-15-290 (Washington, D.C.: February 2015).

[3] See GAO, Federal Facility Cybersecurity: DHS and GSA Should Address Cyber Risk to Building and Access Control Systems, GAO-15-6 (Washington, D.C.: Dec. 12, 2014); Federal Protective Service: Better Data on Facility Jurisdictions Needed to Enhance Collaboration with State and Local Law Enforcement, GAO-12-434 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 27, 2012); and Homeland Security: Greater Attention to Key Practices Would Improve the Federal Protective Service’s Approach to Facility Protection, GAO-10-142 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 23, 2009).

What GAO Found

In a December 2015 report, GAO found that FPS and GSA have taken some steps to improve collaboration, such as drafting a joint strategy and renewing negotiations to update their 2006 memorandum of agreement (MOA) on roles, responsibilities, and operational relationships concerning the security of GSA-controlled space. However, at the time of our report, GAO found that the two agencies have not reached final agreement in these areas. While each agency has some individual policies for collaboration, the two agencieshave made limited progress in agreeing on several key practices GAO has identified in prior work that can enhance and strengthen collaboration.[1] For example, they have not fully defined or articulated a common outcome or established mutually reinforcing joint strategies; collaborated in communicating existing policies and procedures to operate across agencies and regions; or jointly developed mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on the results of their related missions regarding facility protection. As of December 2015, the two agencies continued to work toward reaching agreement in these areas. FPS and GSA officials have not previously focused on these areas of collaboration largely because they have not made it a priority to address how they can better work together. 

As a result of not having key practices in place, officials GAO interviewed in the four FPS and GSA regions said they were not aware of agreed upon collaborative policies and procedures to conduct day-to-day operations. GAO found that this created inefficiencies and security risks at the regional level, such as in the following examples:

  • GSA officials in two different regions told GAO that they did not have sufficient information from FPS about security plans for upcoming events—a dignitary’s visit and a major world conference—to prepare tenants for changes to security procedures. Without sufficient information, GSA officials said that they could not fully inform their tenants of necessary security measures.
  • FPS and GSA officials told GAO of a bomb threat to a building that houses more than 3,000 tenants. Officials from both agencies said they were uncertain about which agency had responsibility for making building-wide decisions during the event, such as whether or not to evacuate the tenants. The problem resulted, in part, from the building not having an accurate and up-to-date Occupant Emergency Plan (OEP) for addressing such issues. Uncertainty about responsibilities could have serious consequences—such as the loss of lives, injuries to tenants and visitors, and property damage in the facility.
  • FPS officials identified two cases in which GSA did not notify FPS of projects, an oversight that prevented FPS from reviewing the project for possible security enhancements as part of the renovation. FPS officials said the two projects are expected to total approximately $1.1 million. FPS was only informed of the two renovation projects when notified by U.S. Marshals Service officials. FPS officials told GAO these are isolated incidents, and that the FPS region plans to reach out to GSA to ensure that FPS is brought into the process during the early stages of planning, specifically in smaller areas. Better communication between FPS, as security experts, and GSA could have helped to prevent this problem. Although the 2006 MOA requires GSA to notify FPS of alteration projects, without GSA developing mechanisms to ensure that notification and consultation occur with FPS, projects may not include recommended security enhancements.

The incomplete implementation of key collaboration practices—particularly with regard to agreement on roles and responsibilities, compatible policies and procedures, and mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on results—leaves day-to-day operational decisions to the regional and facility levels, a situation that may result in inconsistent management practices among regions across the country. As noted in the cases previously described, this practice could lead to FPS and GSA not making the best use of limited resources to build and renovate facilities, and may increase security lapses, putting facilities, tenants, and the public at greater risk.

[1] See GAO, Results-Oriented Government: Practices That Can Help Enhance and Sustain Collaboration among Federal Agencies, GAO-06-15 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 21, 2005).

Actions Needed

To improve collaboration, in December 2015, GAO recommended that FPS and GSA take the following four actions:

  • Establish a plan with time frames for reaching agreement on a joint strategy and finalizing it in order to define and articulate a common understanding of expected outcomes and align the two agencies’ activities and core processes.
  • Establish a plan with time frames for reaching agreement on the two agencies’ respective roles and responsibilities for federal facility security, and update and finalize the two agencies’ MOA accordingly.
  • Develop a process to ensure that compatible policies and procedures are communicated at the regional level so that regional officials at both agencies have common information.
  • Develop mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on their collaborative efforts to protect federal facilities in order to identify possible areas for improvement and to reinforce accountability.

GAO was not able to quantify the potential financial benefits of taking these actions because different roles and responsibilities prevent direct comparison between the two agencies.  However, implementation of these actions could improve coordination in protecting federal facilities, help ensure more efficient and effective use of federal resources, and reduce confusion that can arise from multiple agencies working toward a common goal.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

GAO analyzed pertinent laws; reviewed DHS, National Protection and Programs Directorate, FPS, and GSA regulations, policy documents, and strategic plans; and compared FPS’s and GSA’s collaboration efforts against GAO’s selected key collaboration practices. GAO also interviewed agency officials at the headquarters and regional levels. GAO selected four FPS and GSA regions because they comprise about 41 percent of all GSA-leased facilities and GSA-controlled federally-owned facilities, are geographically dispersed, and include a mix of urban and rural federal facilities and a range of facility security levels. While the results from regions cannot be generalized, they provided illustrative examples.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In commenting on the December 2015 report on which this analysis is based, DHS and GSA provided written comments. DHS concurred with GAO’s recommendations and provided actions and time frames for completion. DHS officials stated that they are working to update their respective roles and responsibilities and to define a joint strategy and outcome for federal facility protection. Specifically, DHS stated that the MOA is to include roles and responsibilities for each organization where there are clear dependencies. DHS also stated that in collaboration with GSA, FPS plans to document how field personnel can better execute their responsibilities. Furthermore, DHS stated that FPS and GSA headquarters personnel have agreed to meet monthly to review and address identified areas for improvement, and the officials expect to further define mechanisms to monitor, evaluate, and report on their collaborative efforts to protect federal facilities during these monthly meetings. GSA agreed with GAO’s findings and agreed to work with FPS to address them. DHS’s and GSA’s responses are a positive step toward addressing GAO’s recommendations.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to DHS and GSA for their review and comment. Both agencies responded and did not provide any new comments to those already provided on the report.

For additional information about this area, contact Lori Rectanus at (202) 512-2834 or

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