GAO: DHS' watch centers need more collaboration, coordination

Poor management leaving those on watch unsure of crucial IT use

The Homeland Security Department's gaggle of 25 national and regional operations centers that run around the clock every day of the year suffer from poor collaboration and coordination, auditors said. DHS' slipshod management has hobbled the effectiveness of a pivotal information-sharing network and created other problems, the Government Accountability Office said in a report issued Thursday.

Management disarray within the DHS operations centers extends to the department's Homeland Security Information Network, the report said. Though department officials repeatedly have boasted about their success in developing the collaboration tool, GAO found that DHS had not provided standards, policies and procedures for its use.

'Without the application of the standards, policies and procedures, users were unsure of how to use the network and, therefore, did not maximize the operations centers' capacity for sharing security-related information,' the report said.

The congressional audit agency found that 21 of the centers employ staff from only one DHS agency on a full-time basis. Those 21 watch centers carry out 'agency-specific functions,' the auditors said. As a result, the auditors focused on the four multiagency operations centers:
  • Customs and Border Protection's Air and Marine Operations Center
  • CBP's National Targeting Center
  • Transportation Security Administration's Transportation Security Operations Center
  • National Operations Center-Interagency Watch, formerly named the Homeland Security Operations Center.

The auditors found that the interagency watch centers lacked key management tools that would improve their effectiveness, such as various types of standards, policies, procedures, job descriptions, evaluation methods, accountability rules, public disclosures, strategic plans and reports.

The auditors recommended that the four major operations centers receive guidance from DHS' Operations Directorate on how to tighten up management so as to boost collaboration and generate defined goals, strategies, evaluation methods and reporting.

'Given that the collaboration in multiagency operations centers focuses on gathering and disseminating information on real-time situational awareness related to disasters and possible terrorist activity, it is important that the staff at the centers achieve the most effective collaboration possible,' according to the letter report.

DHS officials evaluated a draft of the report, according to the letter. They agreed with the recommendations and said the Operations Directorate was working to bolster collaboration.

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