GAO Report Calls for Heightened Building Security

by | 13 April 2016

Last August 21, federal workers in the heart of Lower Manhattan saw a terrible situation: A disturbed man with a gun entered a building in which passports were issued and immigration cases decided. He killed a security guard, then turned the gun on himself, leaving witnesses and investigators to wonder what had driven him to commit such a horrendous act.

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For many and obvious reasons, statistics on attacks and other threats that occur within federal facilities are hard to come by. The Federal Protective Service, the division of the Department of Homeland Security that is directly responsible for facility security, calculates that it responds to 534,000 “calls for service” each year, but that is a broad category that runs the range from armed intruder to minor disturbance.

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DHS may provide an administrative home for FPS, but there is another fit that does not come so easily: Those federal facilities are managed by the General Service Administration (GSA), and although GSA staff in theory oversee or at least monitor what happens within them, they have no meaningful oversight over the security that FPS provides—and vice versa.
 So it is, a recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) concludes, that although GSA and FPS have formulated an overall strategy for facility security, neither agency has actually signed off on it. Indeed, after spending untold hours on that strategy, the report notes that both agencies requested that the accord be shelved until “after they address other priorities,” whatever they might be and whenever that might occur.

FPS, as the agency website notes, is divided into 11 regions nationwide and protects more than 9,000 federal facilities, with more than 200 field offices and some 1,300 field agents and officers, as well as more than 13,000 contracted security guards. The agency was once operationally governed by a memorandum of agreement specifying its responsibilities with respect to GSA, but the MOA, drafted in 2006, did not accurately describe on-the-ground realities with respect to policy and organizational changes. The two agencies entered into discussions to revise the MOA in August 2015, but because this has not been effected, GAO notes, officials did not know which procedures to follow—a situation that exposes federal facilities and employees to increased risk.

These inefficiencies are probably to be expected, given that by mandate both GSA and FPS are in charge of facility security; both agencies have distinct cultures, and it is instructive that the two do not even agree on how many facilities there are under their shared aegis. (GAO gives the number as 8,900.) But this division is recent; until 2003, the report notes, FPS was housed within GSA, transferred to DHS only after the creation of the new department. A flowchart of post-move responsibilities shows overlap and redundancy; both agencies, for example, can issue security credentials allowing visitors and contractors access to sites. But, the report notes, given existing “previously found problems with the quality of data exchanged between GSA and FPS on facilities and their locations,” these credentials are not necessarily shared or even known to the other agency.

In a pointed case study, GAO identifies a GSA facility that was built to its specifications at a cost of some $75 million, comprising about 180,000 rentable square feet intended to house law enforcement agencies. However, the building was built with energy-efficient systems in place that barred the construction to FPS specifications of armories and holding cells. Because no communication had taken place between the two agencies beforehand, despite a requirement to that effect in the 2006 MOA, GSA wound up with a new facility that could not be used for its intended purpose.

Among other GAO key recommendations are that a schedule be set for a new MOA and a joint security strategy that will clarify the division of tasks and responsibilities. The report concludes that enhanced communication between and collaboration among the agencies must be made priorities: “The lack of collaboration in communicating compatible policies and procedures,” the GAO notes, “makes it difficult for the agencies to effectively implement their security mission and can negatively affect day-to-day operations.”

Kurt Stout is the national leader of Colliers International’s Government Solutions practice group, which provides government real estate services to private investors and federal agencies. He also writes about federal real estate on his Capitol Markets team blog. You can contact Kurt by email or on Twitter.

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