Major Management Challenges at the Department of State
Overall, the Department of State (State) has made progress in addressing all six key performance and accountability challenges GAO identified in 2003. Except for the management challenge related to information technology, financial management, and performance planning and reporting, GAO has issued reports and made recommendations in each of the key areas. GAO has also identified two new challenges for the State Department: (1) improving the management of public diplomacy programs and (2) managing the large-scale reconstruction and nation building programs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since GAO's January 2003 report, State has taken steps to improve the physical security and management of U.S. facilities overseas. State has constructed perimeter walls, anti-ram barriers, and access controls at many facilities. Although these steps have been taken, most office facilities still do not meet State's security standards. State estimates that replacing existing vulnerable facilities with new, secure embassies will cost over $17 billion. In response to the need, the administration has proposed the Capital Security Cost-Sharing Program, which was agreed to by the Congress and became public law on December 8, 2004, to accelerate the building of 150 new secure embassies and consulates by requiring agencies with overseas staffs to share in construction costs. The program would require 30 U.S. agencies to be assessed a share of the costs, and the construction would be completed in 14 years. To improve the management of this large program, State's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations has established new management mechanisms, including the annual Long-Range Overseas Buildings Plan, monthly project reviews, standard designs, and streamlined project design delivery processes. State has also increased its efforts to train staff in a variety of positions and to acquire sites well in advance of planned construction. State also improved its processes for determining requirements for new embassies based on our recommendation.
State has made considerable effort to strengthen border security by enhancing visa issuance policies and procedures , largely based on recommendations made in several GAO reports. State has issued over 70 new standard operating procedures for visa operations. In addition, State has taken action to install equipment and software under the Biometric Visa Program to ensure applicants are qualified to receive visas, and has attempted to eliminate weaknesses in the visa revocation process by revising its procedures and formalizing its tracking system for revocation cases. Effective implementation will require close coordination between State and the Department of Homeland Security. Although State has made improvements in the visa process, many applicants contend with lengthy wait times as a result of security checks on visa applicants, especially Visas Mantis. From GAO's analysis of State data, in 2003 it took an average of 67 days to process a Visas Mantis security check and to notify the post, and at posts visited in China, India, and Russia many cases were pending over 60 days. These lengthy wait times could cause students and scholars with science backgrounds to decide not to come to the United States, and as a result technological advancements that serve U.S. and global interests could be jeopardized. State has reported significant improvements in security check time frames and has since reduced the duration of checks to about 3 weeks in most cases. Interview wait times can also complicate applicants' efforts to obtain visas. The average wait for an interview at five posts we visited in September 2004 ranged from 9 to 49 days . However, interview wait times vary based on the time of year and by post and are usually the result of limited resources.
State has introduced some improvements to enhance the process of implementing GAO's rightsizing framework to rationalize embassy staffing levels. State is stressing the importance of each agency fully scrutinizing its overseas staffing levels. In addition, the department's performance plan process has been strengthened and addresses embassy priorities, a key factor in GAO's rightsizing framework. Also, based on recent GAO work, State has begun to streamline the delivery and reduce the cost of shared administrative services provided under the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS) system. Moreover, State is exploring ways to expand the use of regional hubs to provide support services more efficiently and is working to reduce duplicative embassy support functions. I n addition, the ICASS Executive Board, an interagency committee chaired by the Assistant Secretary of State for Administration, has begun developing baseline data and metrics by which ICASS performance will be annually reviewed. GAO will continue to monitor progress made by State and others in implementing embassy rightsizing reforms.
Regarding the development of human capital strategies , State has taken steps to address staffing shortages and improved workforce planning. State h as modified its assignment system to improve staffing of hardship posts and address language shortfalls by providing more opportunities for language training. The department has also addressed the numeric shortfall of its Foreign Service personnel through its Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, and has been able to hire junior officers with the general skills it requires and to fill overseas positions. Based on GAO recommendations, State has also implemented key elements of workforce planning, including setting strategic direction and goals, identifying gaps in its workforce, and developing strategies to address these gaps.
State has continued to support foreign governments' efforts–especially Colombia's–to eradicate illicit drug crops and since 2000 has provided over $2 billion for interdiction and eradication as well as developing legitimate economic alternatives to illicit crop production, helping Colombia's displaced persons, and promoting democracy and strengthening the country's justice sector. Although these programs have achieved some success, Colombia and the United States must continue to address long-standing management and financial challenges in implementing and sustaining counternarcotics and counterinsurgency programs in Colombia. However, State has yet to fully implement GAO's recommendation that a long-term plan be developed to guide counternarcotics support to Colombia.
Since September 11, 2001, State has expanded its public diplomacy efforts in Muslim-majority countries. It significantly increased resources in South Asia and the Near East and launched new initiatives targeting broader, younger audiences. However, State lacks a strategy that integrates its diverse public diplomacy activities, and there is no interagency strategy to guide State's, the Broadcasting Board of Governors', and other federal agencies' communication efforts. Since GAO's January 2003 report, State has made two key efforts to improve coordination: establishing an Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources for public diplomacy and taking a leading role in the Muslim World Outreach Policy Coordinating Committee. State still faces other internal challenges in carrying out its programs, such as insufficient public diplomacy resources and a lack of officers with foreign language proficiency, but is trying to address these gaps
State faces huge challenges in its efforts to assist in the rebuilding of Iraq and Afghanistan . As of April 2004, $58 billion dollars in grants, loans, assets, and revenues from various sources had been made available or pledged to the relief and reconstruction of Iraq . The deteriorating security situation, however, has generally hindered the implementation of economic reconstruction and political transition efforts. The unstable security environment in Iraq and the evolving capacity of the Iraqi institutions to govern and secure the country will affect the pace and cost of the reconstruction efforts and the political transition. In Afghanistan, the United States has viewed the establishment of a stable, democratic Afghanistan as essential to U.S. national security. In 2002 and 2003, U.S. and international food assistance averted famine, assisted the return of refugees, and helped to implement reconstruction efforts. While U.S. humanitarian and short-term assistance benefited Afghanistan, a deteriorating security situation, increased opium production, and insufficient and delayed funding hindered longer-term reconstruction efforts.
GAO has asserted that to become a high-performing organization , State also needed to fully address additional challenges, particularly in information technology, financial management, and performance planning and reporting. Although GAO has not conducted new work since January 2003, it believes that State has made progress in these areas. State officials have recognized deficiencies in the department's management of information technology programs, and the department has made a major commitment to modernizing information technology and plans to spend $262 million over fiscal years 2003 and 2004 on information technology modernization initiatives overseas. For example, State is now working to replace its antiquated cable system with a new integrated messaging and retrieval system. Furthermore, since 2001, State has made improvements both at headquarters and overseas that are intended to link staffing and budgetary requirements with policy priorities. State is now working to forge a stronger link between resources and performance, strategic plans, annual performance plans, and annual performance reports.
Related GAO Products
Overseas Security, Presence, and Facilities
Embassy Construction: Proposed Cost-Sharing Program Could Speed Construction and Reduce Staff Levels, but Some Agencies Have Concerns . GAO-05-32 . Washington, D.C.: November 15, 2004.
Embassy Construction: Achieving Concurrent Construction Would Help Reduce Costs and Meet Security Goals . GAO-04-952 . Washington, D.C.: September 28, 2004.
Embassy Construction: State Department Has Implemented Management Reforms, but Challenges Remain . GAO-04-100 . Washington, D.C.: November 4, 2003.
Overseas Presence: Rightsizing Is Key to Considering Relocation of Regional Staff to New Frankfurt Center . GAO-03-1061 . Washington, D.C.: September 2, 2003.
Overseas Presence: Systematic Processes Needed to Rightsize Posts and Guide Embassy Construction. GAO-03-582T . Washington, D.C.: April 7, 2003.
Embassy Construction: Process for Determining Staffing Requirements Needs Improvement . GAO-03-411 . Washington, D.C.: April 7, 2003.
Overseas Presence: Rightsizing Framework Can Be Applied at U.S. Diplomatic Posts in Developing Countries . GAO-03-396 . Washington, D.C.: April 7, 2003.
Overseas Presence: Conditions of Overseas Diplomatic Facilities . GAO-03-557T . Washington, D.C.: March 20, 2003.
Border Security: Joint, Coordinated Actions by State and DHS Needed to Guide Biometric Visas and Related Programs . GAO-04-1080T . Washington, D.C.: September 9, 2004.
Border Security: State Department Rollout of Biometric Visas on Schedule, but Guidance Is Lagging. GAO-04-1001 . Washington, D.C.: September 9, 2004.
Border Security: Additional Actions Needed to Eliminate Weaknesses in the Visa Revocation Process . GAO-04-899T . Washington, D.C.: July 13, 2004.
Border Security: Additional Actions Needed to Eliminate Weaknesses in the Visa Revocation Process . GAO-04-795 . Washington, D.C.: July 13, 2004.
Visa Operations at U.S. Posts in Canada . GAO-04-708R . Washington, D.C.: May 18, 2004.
Border Security: Improvements Needed to Reduce Time Taken to Adjudicate Visas for Science Students and Scholars . GAO-04-443T . Washington, D.C.: February 25, 2004.
Border Security: Improvements Needed to Reduce Time Taken to Adjudicate Visas for Science Students and Scholars. GAO-04-371 . Washington, D.C.: February 25, 2004.
Border Security: New Policies and Increased Interagency Coordination Needed to Improve Visa Process. GAO-03-1013T . Washington, D.C.: July 15, 2003.
Border Security: New Policies and Procedures Are Needed to Fill Gaps in the Visa Revocation Process . GAO-03-908T . Washington, D.C.: June 18, 2003.
Border Security: New Policies and Procedures Are Needed to Fill Gaps in the Visa Revocation Process . GAO-03-798 . Washington, D.C.: June 18, 2003.
Drug Control: Aviation Program Safety Concerns in Colombia Are Being Addressed, but State's Planning and Budgeting Process Can Be Improved. GAO-04-918 . Washington, D.C.: July 29, 2004.
Drug Control: U.S. Nonmilitary Assistance to Colombia Is Beginning to Show Intended Results, but Programs Are Not Readily Sustainable . GAO-04-726 . Washington, D.C.: July 2, 2004.
Drug Control: Specific Performance Measures and Long-Term Costs for U.S. Programs in Colombia Have Not Been Developed . GAO-03-783 . Washington, D.C.: June 16, 2003.
Drug Control: Financial and Management Challenges Continue to Complicate Efforts to Reduce Illicit Drug Activities in Colombia . GAO-03-820T . Washington, D.C.: June 3, 2003.
Drug Control: Coca Cultivation and Eradication Estimates in Colombia. GAO-03-319R . Washington, D.C.: January 8, 2003.
Human Capital Management
Embassy Management: Actions Are Needed to Increase Efficiency and Improve Delivery of Administrative Support Services . GAO-04-511 . Washington, D.C.: September 7, 2004.
State Department: Targets for Hiring, Filling Vacancies Overseas Being Met, but Gaps Remain in Hard-to-Learn Languages . GAO-04-139 . Washington, D.C.: November 19, 2003.
Foreign Affairs: Effective Stewardship of Resources Essential to Efficient Operations at State Department, USAID . GAO-03-1009T . Washington, D.C.: September 4, 2003.
U.S. Public Diplomacy: State Department and Broadcasting Board of Governors Expand Post-9/11 Efforts but Challenges Remain. GAO-04-1061T . Washington, D.C.: August 23, 2004.
U.S. Public Diplomacy: State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors Expand Efforts in the Middle East but Face Significant Challenges . GAO-04-435T . Washington, D.C.: February 10, 2004.
U.S. Public Diplomacy: State Department Expands Efforts but Faces Significant Challenges . GAO-03-951 . Washington, D.C.: September 4, 2003.
Iraq and Afghanistan Reconstruction
Rebuilding Iraq: Resource, Security, Governance, Essential Services, and Oversight Issues . GAO-04-902R . Washington, D.C.: June 28, 2004.
United Nations: Observations on the Oil for Food Program and Iraq's Food Security . GAO-04-880T . Washington, D.C.: June 16, 2004.
Afghanistan Reconstruction: Deteriorating Security and Limited Resources Have Impeded Progress; Improvements in U.S. Strategy Needed . GAO-04-403 . Washington, D.C.: June 2, 2004.
Iraq's Transitional Law . GAO-04-746R . Washington, D.C.: May 25, 2004.
State Department: Issues Affecting Funding of Iraqi National Congress Support Foundation . GAO-04-559 . Washington, D.C.: April 30, 2004.
Recovering Iraq's Assets: Preliminary Observations on U.S. Efforts and Challenges . GAO-04-579T . Washington, D.C.: March 18, 2004.
Foreign Assistance: Observations on Post-Conflict Assistance in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan . GAO-03-980T . Washington, D.C.: July 18, 2003.
Foreign Assistance: Lack of Strategic Focus and Obstacles to Agricultural Recovery Threaten Afghanistan's Stability . GAO-03-607 . Washington, D.C.: June 30, 2003.
Rebuilding Iraq . GAO-03-792R . Washington, D.C.: May 15, 2003.
Strategic Performance Planning and Foreign Management
Major Management Challenges and Program Risks: Department of State . GAO-03-107 . Washington, D.C.: January 2003.