FBI Counterterrorism:

Vacancies Have Declined, but FBI Has Not Assessed the Long-Term Sustainability of Its Strategy for Addressing Vacancies

GAO-12-533: Published: Apr 16, 2012. Publicly Released: Apr 16, 2012.

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Diana C. Maurer
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What GAO Found

From fiscal years 2005 through 2011, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s (FBI) human capital strategies contributed to reductions in the vacancy rate for all positions in the Counterterrorism Division (CTD) from 26 percent to 6 percent. Most vacancies were caused by transfers to other parts of the FBI. While overall vacancies declined, trends in vacancies varied by position. For example, vacancies for special agents and professional staff generally decreased each year while vacancies for intelligence analysts varied during the same time period.

The FBI developed the Headquarters Staffing Initiative (HSI) in 2005 to reduce special agent vacancies in CTD and other headquarters (HQ) divisions, and primarily used workforce flexibilities, such as recruitment incentives, and targeted recruitment to reduce vacancies for intelligence analysts and professional staff. Overall, FBI officials reported that these strategies have been effective in reducing vacancies. Specifically, HSI included two primary strategies to reduce vacancies: (1) allowing special agents to come to HQ on 18-month temporary duty assignments instead of permanent transfers and (2) providing relocation incentives to special agents to permanently transfer to HQ. Since 2006, GAO estimates that the FBI has spent $50 million to staff CTD with special agents under HSI. According to the FBI, HSI is the primary reason agent vacancies in CTD were reduced. In addition, FBI officials said HSI yielded other benefits. For example, officials from all sections within CTD stated that HSI helped to build a cadre of experienced counterterrorism agents both within CTD and in field offices. HSI has reduced vacancies, but a 2005 FBI working group report noted that while HSI may be effective in the short term, a long-term solution would require a more thorough analysis. FBI officials reported that they are planning an evaluation of HSI; however, they have not established criteria, time frames, and other factors of the evaluation. By defining these elements, the FBI could better ensure that the evaluation of HSI will produce accurate and relevant findings that can inform the long-term staffing strategy for agents in CTD and other HQ programs.

Why GAO Did This Study

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the FBI established counterterrorism as its top investigative priority. Since 2001, the FBI has hired thousands of additional staff, increasing its total onboard workforce by 38 percent. In particular, the FBI has increased both the size and the role of its headquarters CTD that is located in Washington, D.C. In 2005, the FBI reported that nearly 40 percent of staff positions in certain parts of CTD were vacant, raising concerns about the FBI’s ability to fulfill its most important mission. As requested, GAO reviewed FBI CTD vacancies. Specifically, this report discusses (1) the extent to which counterterrorism vacancies existed at FBI HQ since 2005 and the reasons for the vacancies and (2) the impact of the strategies implemented by the FBI to address these vacancies. GAO obtained data on CTD vacancies from fiscal years 2005 through 2011 as well as strategies the FBI used to address vacancies and their associated costs. GAO also interviewed FBI human resources and counterterrorism officials regarding vacancies and the FBI’s steps to address them. This report is an unclassified version of a classified report GAO issued in February 2012.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends the FBI establish criteria, time frames, and other factors for its evaluation of the long-term sustainability and effectiveness of HSI to determine whether it is the most effective strategy for reducing vacancies. The FBI concurred with this recommendation.

For more information, contact David C. Maurer at (202) 512-9627 or maurerd@gao.gov.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to our recommendation that FBI apply certain best practices to its evaluation of the Headquarters Staffing Initiative (HSI) to determine its long-term effectiveness and sustainability for addressing vacancies at FBI HQ, FBI completed a review of the program in 2012 and concluded it is the most effective long-term strategy for reducing mission critical FBIHQ vacancies. Specifically, FBI determined and allocated resources for the evaluation; established time frames for completion; included a comparison of current strategies to proposed alternatives; and fully accounting for the financial, administrative, and operational costs of the program. For example, FBI allocated resources and established time frames for completing the evaluation by compiling an HSI review team of Supervisory Special Agents who disseminated surveys, and conducted interviews and data analysis from October 2011 through April 2012. In addition, FBI evaluated possible long-term staffing alternatives to HSI, including only using a permanent transfer option to bring agents to HQ, creating a 57th Field Office in Washington D.C., involuntarily drafting agents to FBIHQ, among other alternatives. However, the FBI review team concluded that the risks of these other options outweighed their benefits and that HSI is the most effective long-term strategy for reducing mission critical FBIHQ vacancies. FBI also evaluated the financial, administrative, and operational costs of HSI and compared them possible alternatives. For example, FBI directly compared the financial cost of Temporary Duty Assignments (TDY) to permanent transfers and found that the total average cost of an 18 month TDY is less than the average cost of a permanent transfer (including two-way transfer and relocation bonus). FBI also conducted interviews with FBIHQ Senior Executive Service (SES) leadership regarding the administrative and operational costs of the program and determined HSI does not negatively impact workforce continuity. In fact, according to FBI, these SES interviews identified several benefits of the program, including agent turnover helping to facilitate a productive exchange of information between FBIHQ and the Field, and the set 18-month time period for a TDY enables FBIHQ SES leaders to plan for turnover decreasing the time a position is left vacant. Moreover, a survey administered to both TDY participants and Field Office Executive Management, determined that the skills and career development opportunities obtained by Agents through the HSI program are beneficial to the Field Office upon the Agents return. In addition, a survey provided to all HSI participants showed that eighty-six percent of HSI participants stated that they would not have come to FBIHQ had the TDY option not been available. FBI plans to reevaluate HSI every five years to ensure its continued success. This recommendation is therefore closed as implemented.

    Recommendation: As the FBI conducts its evaluation of HSI to determine its long-term effectiveness and sustainability for addressing vacancies at FBI HQ, the FBI Director should include the following best practices for conducting evaluations: (1) develop measurable objectives and criteria for the evaluation; (2) determine and allocate sufficient resources for the evaluation; (3) establish time frames for completing different phases of the evaluation; (4) include a comparison of current strategies to any proposed alternatives; and (5) fully account for the financial, administrative, and operational costs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Justice: Federal Bureau of Investigation


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