The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report this week entitled “Combating Terrorism: Determining and Reporting Federal Funding Data.” A wonkish subject if there ever was one, but one that is very important for U.S. homeland security and counterterrorism efforts.
One of the critical prerequisites of effective resource allocation for homeland security is a process to accurately account for and measure spending. If such a measurement process is not in place, then the ability of the government to assess the effectiveness and performance of various activities is limited. The report points out several reasons why this has been inherently challenging, including the existence of multi-mission agencies (e.g. the Coast Guard) and activities that serve both homeland security and non-homeland security purposes. But the report also suggests three key areas where the US federal government, with the OMB in the lead, might be able improve the measurement and accounting process:
- The definition of “combating terrorism”. The report suggests that OMB’s definition is unclear and gives agency too wide of a latitude to interpret spending that falls within it;
- The schism between domestic and overseas spending. The report notes that OMB looks separately at domestic and overseas spending for “combating terrorism” rather than consider them together in the context of a global strategy, and further points out how OMB stopped checking the “overseas combating terrorism” spending totals for accuracy after the passage of the Homeland Security Act no longer required it do so; and
- The lack of government-wide performance measures. The report suggests that while there has been progress in the development of agency-level performance measures for homeland security and counterterrorism, there have been insufficient efforts to create government-wide performance measures for combating terrorism.
In the absence of clear standards and a broad strategy for measuring performance and accounting for spending, DHS and other agencies have to rely on partial evidence or intuition for effective decision-making. As the classic business dictum points out, “if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.”
The report also contains detailed accounts of the processes that a number of agencies follow in making their internal determinations about what counts as homeland security spending. These charts are likely to be very interesting to the narrow group of people who are (like me) regular DHS budget-watchers.
Overall, a very worthwhile effort by the GAO, and hopefully one that the Administration will work to address. And pursuant to facts in the report, Congress should consider revising Sec. 889 of the Homeland Security Act to require OMB to once again validate spending data that falls under the category of “overseas combating terrorism.”