Federal Protective Service takes tech risks to assess risks

After a year of bad press, the law-enforcement agency responsible for protecting more than 9,000 federal buildings finally earned some good publicity, recently winning an award for technological innovation from Nextgov.com, a media website that covers the federal government’s use of information technology. Nextgov, published by the Atlantic Media Company, on May 27 recognized eight federal agencies for using technology in a risky way to improve their operations. Winners were announced at the Gov 2.0 Expo in Washington, D.C

The Federal Protective Service‘s Susan Burrill won for developing the Risk Assessment and Management Program, or RAMP.

The timing of the award coincided with the announcement that FPS Director Gary W. Schenkel is being transferred from this agency to work in a liaison position within the Department of Homeland Security. The latter piece of news garnered more media attention, provoking journalists to speculate that Schenkel’s transfer might have resulted from his perceived incompetence in directing the agency. During Schenkel’s tenure, federal and congressional investigators censured the FPS for allowing undercover intelligence officers to slide through building security with weapons and bomb-making materials, documented in a Government Accountability Office report published in April. The agency was accused of improperly training its more than 15,000 private security guards and hiring contract workers missing certifications.

But now the FPS has RAMP, a national-level training initiative and one of eight Nexgov Award winners selected from 100 nominations. The new program is yet another step in the Department of Homeland Security’s mission to centralize all intelligence information.

This new program is essentially a computerized storage facility for all information and analysis on federal buildings and the specific security threats they face — one that has helped the agency manage building security risks more efficiently than it did with the old system, says Michael Keegan, the FPS’s chief of public and legislative affairs.

“RAMP is much more than an IT project,” Keegan said in an e-mail. “It is a comprehensive program that involves updates to policies and procedures, development of a new robust methodology for assessing risk, and multiple process improvements to ensure that FPS can effectively accomplish its mission of mitigating risk to Federal facilities and their occupants.”

Under the old system, FPS agents had to access multiple systems to complete each individual building’s risk analysis. These included one application used to collect information for risk assessments, another used to track countermeasures, another to track the certifications of Protective Security Officers. Now all such tasks can be completed using Burrill’s new system, “allowing FPS to better organize, manage, and utilize this information for everything from internal planning to response operations,” Keegan said.

Using this new system, FPS inspectors are guided through the necessary steps they must complete to evaluate the risk of each building. These include Facility Security Assessments (reviews of federal facilities to determine threats, vulnerabilities and consequences), tests of countermeasures, and inspections of security posts (one of the problems the GAO addressed two months ago). The program provides a numeric risk score, as well as design recommendations to prevent and prepare for such risks.

Nextgov Executive Director Allan Holmes says Burrill’s program, which was launched in April 2007 and implemented in November 2009, using technology progressively. Though Holmes was not involved in selecting the winners — that task went to a judging panel of seven former federal technology executives and open government advocates — he said winners were chosen based on the levels of risks they faced when pursuing the ideas for these projects.

And, Holmes said, Burrill faced huge risks. She was, after all, proposing to change the way her agency protects federal buildings from natural disasters and terrorist attacks.

“To upgrade something and to do it quickly and get everyone on the same page, that’s just tough to do,” Holmes said. “If something goes wrong with system, you could have catastrophic consequences.”

The inaugural Nextgov awards program launched in March 2008 to encourage federal agencies to challenge old ways of doing things. The publication will begin reviewing nominations for next year’s awards in November.

“It’s very hard to get government to change,” Holmes said. “For the federal government to become more efficient in its use taxpayer money, it needs to modernize and rely on technological tools that will allow it to progress.”

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