Cover: Structures, Functions, and Processes of Centers of Excellence

Structures, Functions, and Processes of Centers of Excellence

An Analysis of Federal Programs

Published Jul 11, 2024

by Patricia A. Stapleton, William Shelton, Daniel Hicks, Katie A. Wilson, Robert Huang, Katherine Anania, Christy Foran, Amado Cordova, Sarah Junghee Kang, Matthew Sargent, et al.


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The Homeland Security Act of 2002 mandates that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) establish university-based consortia to address challenges for homeland security. Since then, over 20 Centers of Excellence (COEs) have been funded to perform research in the field and develop related curricula and training. These COEs are overseen by the Science and Technology Directorate's (S&T) Office of University Programs (OUP), which engaged the Homeland Security Operational Analysis Center (HSOAC) at RAND to assist in assessing the COEs' core structures, functions, and processes to determine areas for potential improvements.

An HSOAC team thus conducted a study of the DHS COE program, as well as similar COE programs and entities within other federal organizations. They reviewed both publicly available information and internal materials shared by specific programs to understand the objectives, structures, management, and oversight processes of federal COEs, as well as the historical and legal frameworks underpinning COE programs. They also held open-ended discussions with selected points of contact within OUP, DHS components and DHS, and other federal COEs. Through qualitative analysis of the data collected, the HSOAC team identified lessons learned and best practices and made recommendations for federal departments and agencies that support COE programs, including DHS.

Key Findings

  • Successful COEs have resulted in positive outcomes for the federal departments and agencies that support them by being a vehicle for research and development.
  • Two key characteristics for facilitating COE success were close collaboration between the federal program and COE and funding support for the COE from other sources.
  • Federal programs overwhelmingly prefer cooperative agreements for COEs due to the flexibility and structure of these funding mechanisms.
  • Some federal programs employ a combination of funding mechanisms or earmarked funds for key institutional needs such as infrastructure or administrative support, but the timing of funding presents challenges for the federal program and the COEs.
  • Research collaboration, partnerships, and external funding facilitate federal program COE success, but participants also shared characteristics perceived as hindering productive engagement.
  • Varied center duration by federal program results in a range of impacts on COEs, including increased administrative ease and agility, more established relationships, and increased stability for longer duration COEs (i.e., beyond ten years) and increased flexibility and opportunities to evolve for shorter duration centers (i.e., less than ten years).
  • Continual renewals of a COE enable the formation of enduring partnerships that are crucial to research success; however, continually-renewed COEs may develop an expertise or infrastructure advantage, resulting in incumbent researchers or institutions being repeatedly selected if a competition is held.


  • Identify and mitigate misalignment between the government and university-based COEs, such as differences in funding cycles, reporting requirements, and research protection and compliance reviews.
  • Recognize agency and COE diversity and consider tailored criteria to more effectively evaluate COEs.
  • Encourage and facilitate more robust and transparent engagement between internal department or agency organizations and COEs by bolstering communication efforts and making them less personality-dependent.
  • Develop rules and processes to ensure clear, consistent application of standards and policies across COEs.
  • Build infrastructure and processes to preserve as much intellectual capital from COEs as possible by encouraging a talent pipeline, creating centralized knowledge repositories, and developing and supporting a community of scholars.
  • DHS should address the specific challenges related to transitioning to emeritus status, a process specific to the department's COEs.

This research was sponsored by the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate and conducted in the Management, Technology, and Capabilities Program of RAND’s Homeland Security Research Division.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis. RAND's publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions of its research clients and sponsors.