Homeland Security: Clearer Roles and Responsibilities for the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans and Workforce Planning Would Enhance Its Effectiveness

GAO-18-590 Published: Sep 19, 2018. Publicly Released: Sep 19, 2018.
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Fast Facts

Twenty-two agencies—several with major management challenges—combined to form the Department of Homeland Security in 2003. Since then, DHS has often struggled to build a cohesive, effective department, and its management has remained on our High Risk list.

Its Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans helps shape DHS by, for example, developing and coordinating departmentwide strategies and policies. The office has been effective with strategies, but a lack of clearly defined roles and responsibilities in DHS has hampered its efforts to develop and align policies.

We recommended, among other things, that DHS more clearly define the office's role.


Photo of a Department of Homeland Security sign by the Nebraska Avenue complex entrance.

Photo of a Department of Homeland Security sign by the Nebraska Avenue complex entrance.

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What GAO Found

According to our analysis and interviews with operational components, the Department of Homeland Security's (DHS) Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans' (PLCY) organizational structure and efforts to lead and coordinate departmentwide and crosscutting strategies—a key organizational objective–have been effective. For example, PLCY's coordination efforts for a strategy and policy executive steering committee have been successful, particularly for strategies. However, PLCY has encountered challenges leading and coordinating efforts to develop, update, or harmonize policies that affect multiple DHS components. In large part, these challenges are because DHS does not have clearly-defined roles and responsibilities with accompanying processes and procedures to help PLCY lead and coordinate policy in a predictable, repeatable, and accountable manner. Until PLCY's roles and responsibilities for policy are more clearly defined and corresponding processes and procedures are in place, situations where the lack of clarity hampers PLCY's effectiveness in driving policy are likely to continue. Development of a delegation of authority, which involves reaching agreement about PLCY's roles and responsibilities and clearly documenting them, had been underway. However, it stalled due to changes in department leadership. As of May 2018, the effort had been revived, but it is not clear whether and when DHS will finalize it.

PLCY does some workforce planning as part of its annual budgeting process, but does not systematically apply key principles of the DHS Workforce Planning Guide to help ensure that PLCY's workforce aligns with its and DHS's priorities and goals. According to PLCY officials, the nature of its mission requires a flexible staffing approach. As such, a portion of the staff functions as generalists who can be assigned to meet the needs of different situations, including unexpected changing priorities due to an emerging need. However, shifting short-term priorities requires tradeoffs, which may divert attention and resources from longer-term priorities. As of June 5, 2018, PLCY also had a number of vacancies in key leadership positions, which further limited attention to certain priorities. According to PLCY officials, PLCY recently began a review to identify the office's authorities in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017 (NDAA) and other statutes, compare these authorities to the current organization and operations, and address any workforce capacity gaps. Employing workforce planning principles—in particular, systematic identification of workforce demand, capacity gaps, and strategies to address them—consistent with the DHS Workforce Planning Guide could better position PLCY to use its workforce as effectively as possible under uncertain conditions and to communicate effectively with DHS leadership about tradeoffs.

Officials from PLCY and DHS operational components praised existing mechanisms to coordinate and communicate at the senior level, especially about strategy, but component officials identified opportunities to better connect PLCY and component staff to improve communication flow about emerging policy and strategy needs. Among the ideas offered by component officials to enhance communication and collaboration were holding routine small-group meetings, creating forums for periodic knowledge sharing, and maintaining accurate and up-to-date contact information for all staff-level stakeholders.

Why GAO Did This Study

GAO has designated DHS management as high risk because of challenges in building a cohesive department. PLCY supports cohesiveness by, among other things, coordinating departmentwide policy and strategy. In the past, however, questions have been raised about PLCY's efficacy. In December 2016, the NDAA codified PLCY's organizational structure, roles, and responsibilities.

GAO was asked to evaluate PLCY's effectiveness. This report addresses the extent to which (1) DHS established an organizational structure and processes and procedures that position PLCY to be effective, (2) DHS and PLCY have ensured alignment of workforce with priorities, and (3) PLCY has engaged relevant component staff to help identify and respond to emerging needs. GAO analyzed the NDAA, documents describing specific responsibilities, and departmentwide policies and strategies. GAO also interviewed officials in PLCY and all eight operational components.

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GAO is making four recommendations. DHS concurred with three recommendations, including that DHS finalize a delegation of authority defining PLCY's roles and responsibilities and develop corresponding processes and procedures. DHS did not concur with a recommendation to apply the DHS Workforce Planning Guide to identify and communicate workforce needs. GAO believes this recommendation is valid as discussed in the report.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should finalize a delegation of authority or similar document that clearly defines PLCY's mission, roles, and responsibilities relative to DHS's operational and support components. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
DHS agreed with GAO's September 2018 recommendation. In December 2019, the Acting Secretary of DHS signed a delegation of authority to the Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans that satisfies this recommendation.
Department of Homeland Security The Secretary of Homeland Security should create corresponding processes and procedures to help implement the mission, roles, and responsibilities defined in the delegation of authority or similar document to help ensure predictability, repeatability, and accountability in departmentwide and crosscutting strategy and policy efforts. (Recommendation 2)
The Department of Homeland Security agreed with GAO's recommendation, and finalized a delegation of authority, which is a requisite step in being able to complete this action, in December 2019. In February 2023, agency officials stated they continue to work on several directives that will better define the Office of Strategy, Policy, and Plans' roles and responsibilities, but they have not yet finalized any of these directives, and estimate that the draft directives will be completed no later than September 30, 2023. Taking this recommended action would enhance the department's efficiency and reduce risks associated with fragmentation in the development of department-wide and crosscutting strategies, policies, and plans
Department of Homeland Security The Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans should use the DHS Workforce Planning Guide to help identify and analyze any gaps in PLCY's workforce, design strategies to address any gaps, and communicate this information to DHS leadership. (Recommendation 3)
On July 28, 2022, PLCY restated its disagreement with this recommendation and expressed a disinclination to implement it. According to PLCY officials, PLCY's ability to properly align resources with current needs must remain flexible, and the workforce planning guidance that GAO recommended for its use does not align with its operating environment. GAO maintains that the workforce planning guidance is important because of the uncertainty and volatility in PLCY's priorities not despite it, given that PLCY also has key strategic activities it must carry out and GAO found that these activities did not always receive sufficient resources and attention in the face of competing priorities.
Department of Homeland Security The Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans should enhance the use of collaboration and communication mechanisms to connect with staff in the components with responsibilities for policy and strategy to better identify and address emerging needs. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
On July 28, 2022, DHS PLCY provided several examples of charters for inter-component task forces and councils that connect staff and components on specific crosscutting efforts. These charters outline the specific roles and responsibilities for PLCY and other component or office members, as well as the structure for collaboration and decision making. By creating these collaboration and communication mechanisms PLCY is better able to connect staff across the policy functions in the various DHS components, allowing them to better identify emerging needs.

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