Embassy Construction:

Process for Determining Staffing Requirements Needs Improvement

GAO-03-411: Published: Apr 7, 2003. Publicly Released: Apr 7, 2003.

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The 1998 terrorist attacks on two U.S. embassies in Africa highlighted security deficiencies in diplomatic facilities, leading the Department of State to embark on an estimated $16 billion embassy construction program. The program's key objective is to provide safe, secure, and cost-effective buildings for employees overseas. Given that the size and cost of new facilities are directly related to agencies' anticipated staffing needs, it is imperative that future requirements be projected as accurately as possible. GAO was asked to (1) assess whether State and other federal agencies have adopted a disciplined process for determining future staffing requirements and (2) review cost-sharing proposals for agencies with overseas staff.

U.S. agencies' staffing projections for new embassy compounds are developed without a systematic approach or comprehensive rightsizing analyses. State's headquarters gave embassies little guidance on factors to consider in developing projections, and thus U.S. agencies did not take a consistent or systematic approach to determining long-term staffing needs. Officials from each of the 14 posts GAO contacted reported that their headquarters bureaus had not provided specific, formal guidance on important factors to consider when developing staffing projections. The process was further complicated by the frequent turnover of embassy personnel who did not maintain documentation on projection exercises. Finally, staffing projections were not consistently vetted with all other agencies' headquarters. Because of these deficiencies, the government could construct wrong-sized buildings. In fact, officials at two embassies GAO visited said that due to poor projections, their sites may be inadequate almost immediately after staff move onto the new compound. State has proposed a cost-sharing plan that would require federal agencies to help fund new embassy construction. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is leading an interagency committee to develop a cost-sharing mechanism that would provide more discipline when determining overseas staffing needs and encourage agencies to think more carefully before posting personnel overseas. Numerous issues will need to be resolved for such a program to be successful, including how to structure the program and how payments will be made.

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To ensure that U.S. agencies are conducting systematic staffing projection exercises, the Secretary of State should provide embassies with formal, standard, and comprehensive guidance on developing staffing projections for new embassy compounds. This guidance should address factors to consider when developing projections, encourage embassywide discussions, present potential options for rightsizing and identify important deadlines in the projection process, including planning, funding, and construction time lines.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2003, State issued the "Guide to Developing Staffing Projections for New Embassy and Consulate Compound Construction," which requires (1) that Chiefs of Mission establish interagency committees to oversee the development of staffing projections; (2) that staffing projections show a clear and direct link between U.S. foreign policy interests in the host country and the post's staffing; (3) that the exercise be zero-based and "not assume existing staffing levels as a given;" (4) that each agency and section formally consider those factors which would likely result in changing mission objectives and staffing requirements; (5) that posts should complete the GAO Rightsizing Framework questionnaire when establishing initial projections, and review and revise their responses as appropriate when updating projections; (6) that all categories of employment (e.g., American direct hires, foreign nationals, commercial contractors, etc.) are considered; and (7) that posts consider, to the extent possible, improving operational efficiencies such as through regionalizing or centralizing functions, and relocating functions to the U.S. The Guide also establishes a timeline of key dates for developing and updating staffing projections. Although it is difficult to quantify financial benefits associated with these changes, GAO believes that the new guidance will provide for a more disciplined process and place greater accountability on decision makers at all levels. GAO also believes this guidance will reduce the risk of construction delays and of building wrong-sized embassies that are associated with past embassy construction programs.

    Recommendation: To ensure continuity in the process, the Secretary of State should require that chiefs of mission maintain documentation on the decision-making process including justifications for these staffing projections.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Guide requires that posts document all activities leading to the development of the staffing projections to facilitate reviews and updates of the staffing projections.

    Recommendation: Finally, the Secretary of State should require all chiefs of mission and geographic bureaus to certify that the projections have been reviewed and vetted before they are submitted to the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Guide requires (1) that each agency head at a post provide written approval of the staffing projection for that agency, including the name and title of the headquarters official authorizing the agency's response; (2) that Chiefs of Mission certify that changes to agency staff sizes are in accord with the goals and objectives posts outlined in their respective Mission Performance Plan; and (3) that the relevant Department of State Regional Bureau review and validate the staffing projection with other State bureaus (e.g., Political Affairs and Consular Affairs) and other agencies prior to its submittal to State's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations. The Guide also recommends that once staffing projections are developed, proposals for on-going staffing changes, such as those under NSDD-38 authority, are reviewed in light of the staffing projections.

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