Toward More Efficient Protection: The DHS FY 2013 National Preparedness Grant Program
February 22, 2012
Over the past decade the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has overseen the distribution of more than $35 billion worth of grants for homeland security projects, yet given current fiscal conditions, DHS will increasingly be faced with the difficult task of building state and local capabilities with fewer funds. With the recent release of the FY 2013 National Preparedness Grant Program (NPGP) Vision Document, DHS is attempting to fundamentally alter the way these grants are administered to reflect a coordinated, risk-based approach. As NPGP moves forward, it is vital that the program provide the capabilities necessary to meet terrorism and natural disasters in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
Q1: How will the new vision document affect NPGP?
A1: Under the new vision document, the grant process will be focused on providing core capabilities, addressing gaps, and consolidating grant programs. Previously, DHS grants had been awarded by nine independent programs and have funded efforts to build a wide, often disparate range of capabilities. Some programs’ efforts have not always been coordinated with those of others, or even with a larger strategy, leading to a patchwork of capabilities providing uneven and inefficient protection. For instance, in 2007, Albany County in New York used a DHS grant to acquire an interoperable communications system intended to connect emergency responders on disparate systems within neighboring counties, not realizing that the state was establishing its own separate and incompatible state-wide system. Faced with increased budget pressure, DHS is attempting to wring the greatest possible utility from a limited number of dollars. In order to do so, NPGP will seek to build and maintain a number of targeted capabilities that are likely to be the most needed and provide the greatest return on investment. Virginia Task Force 1, an urban search-and-rescue team funded in part by DHS grants, is a local asset for Northern Virginia, yet it also has the capability to deploy nationally and even internationally. It is these sorts of capabilities that NPGP will increasingly seek to foster. NPGP will also work to identify and address gaps in capabilities and coverage. Projects seeking grants will be judged not only on their ability to provide a capability to a given region, but whether that capability aligns with the latest information on the most likely threats to that region. Finally, the current system of nine disparate grant programs will be combined into one program.
Q2: What are some of the potential benefits of this new vision?
A2: Moving to consolidate the various grant programs into a single program is a logical and efficient means to not only streamline the application process for grantees, but to foster unity of effort in reaching the programs’ goals. Previously, applicants would have to submit separate and often different applications to each program; under the new system, they will only need to submit one. By making the applications process easier for those seeking grants, this effort will provide DHS a larger pool from which to select the most desirable projects. Further, this consolidation will help coordinate all elements of the grant system to focus on a common set of core capabilities.
Along with the new grants vision, DHS is also working to increase the speed at which funds for grants made in previous fiscal years would be spent, allowing capabilities to be put in place at an accelerated rate. By allowing grantees greater flexibility over how grant money is spent, DHS is hoping more quickly to funnel $8 billion worth of unspent grant allocations, dating as far back as FY 2007, to their intended projects. Rather than sitting idle, this money will serve to rapidly bolster homeland security capabilities, relieving some of the pressure created by budget cuts.
Finally, the adoption of a risk-based model for making grant decisions sets the program on a path that better balances cost with security. DHS has already begun to apply risk-based approaches, which seek to use information about relative risk to apply limited resources where they are likely to be needed most, in areas such as passenger screening. Grant applications will now be judged not only on the effectiveness of the capability they provide, but on the likelihood that the capability will be needed. For instance, a major urban area is much more likely to need sophisticated rescue and communications equipment than a small, rural town, and so is more likely to receive funding for this capability. This decision will not only save money, but has the potential to increase security as well by focusing resources where they are needed most.
Q3: What are some of the potential challenges?
A3: While representing a clear advancement, this new vision will also present a number of challenges for NPGP. Risk-based models are inherently information and intelligence dependent, requiring large amounts of data and corresponding analysis if they are to be useful. In order to make informed decisions about where risk is greatest, and therefore what projects should be funded, NPGP will need to cultivate an institutional capability that can effectively assess risk. In a budget-constrained environment, this may prove difficult. Further, NPGP will need to create metrics to measure not only risk, but the effectiveness of the projects it funds. Without this information, NPGP will have no means to determine the true impact of its grants or be able to effectively reallocate its limited resources. Such calculations may prove difficult, but DHS must be able to defend and justify its allocations, particularly to a politically charged Congress.
Perhaps the greatest challenge NPGP faces is that of preventing congressional interference. Given the vested interest they have in sending homeland security grant dollars to their home districts, members of Congress may try to sway decisions on what grants are approved or influence the process by which they are chosen. Due to the increasingly limited nature of the funds available to it, NPGP simply cannot afford this type of interference. The new vision document has set NPGP on the path toward an efficient, risk-based model, yet this progress could easily be derailed by the injection of politics into the grant process.
Rick “Ozzie” Nelson is director of the Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Rob Wise is a research assistant with the CSIS Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Program.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.