Embassy Management:

Actions Are Needed to Increase Efficiency and Improve Delivery of Administrative Support Services

GAO-04-511: Published: Sep 7, 2004. Publicly Released: Sep 7, 2004.

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Costs for overseas posts' administrative support services have risen nearly 30 percent since fiscal year 2001, reaching about $1 billion in 2003. These costs are distributed among 50 agencies through the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS) system, which was designed to reduce costs and provide quality services in a simple, transparent, and equitable manner. Since ICASS was implemented in 1998, its performance has not been systematically reviewed. GAO was asked to examine (1) whether ICASS has led to efficient delivery of administrative services and (2) whether ICASS is an effective mechanism for providing quality services.

ICASS has not resulted in more efficient delivery of administrative support services because it has neither eliminated duplication nor led to efforts to contain costs by systematically streamlining operations. GAO found that agencies often decide not to use ICASS services and self-provide support services--citing reasons of cost, programmatic needs, and greater control--which can lead to duplicative structures and a higher overall cost to the U.S. government. Although some agencies' reasons for self-providing services may be supportable, GAO found that agencies rarely made business cases for why they chose not to take ICASS services initially or withdrew from services later. In addition, service providers and customer agencies have undertaken few systematic efforts to consolidate services or contain costs by streamlining administrative support structures. Furthermore, GAO found that deterrents to consolidating and streamlining administrative structures largely outweigh the incentives. However, there are efforts, both internal and external to ICASS, that may address some of the obstacles that prevent ICASS from operating more efficiently. Based on the system's primary goals, ICASS is generally effective in providing quality administrative support services in an equitable manner, although not to the extent that it could be if certain impediments were addressed. GAO found that ICASS is simple and transparent enough for customers to understand its basic principles. Furthermore, most personnel agree that ICASS is more equitable than its predecessor. However, ICASS strategic goals lack indicators to gauge progress toward achieving them, and progress toward achieving posts' performance standards is not annually reviewed or updated. Other obstacles to maximizing ICASS include limits to overseas staffs' decision-making authority, which can diminish ICASS's goal of "local empowerment." Finally, GAO found that training and information resources, which could enhance participants' knowledge and implementation of ICASS, are underutilized.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2004, GAO reported that the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS) did not efficiently deliver services at overseas posts (see GAO-04-511). GAO recommended that the ICASS Executive Board develop strategies to improve accountability including the development of measurable indicators to track performance and ensuring that post ICASS Councils annually evaluate service provider performance and customer satisfaction. In support of the Regional Initiative Council's Collaborative Management Initiative (CMI), ICASS' Executive Board tasked the ICASS Service Center, in coordination with the ICASS Working Group, to establish common definitions and standards for service delivery and cost methodologies, and to provide more accurate invoices and corporate metrics. This process addresses weaknesses and inefficiencies caused by the overseas posts decentralized management structure and ICASS' need to cut costs and improve service quality. Moreover, the ICASS service is currently revising the ICASS Handbook to incorporate the new definitions, standards and methodologies. In July 2006, the ICASS Handbook was updated to create a process for evaluating service providers, which requires annual written assessment of service providers, representing the consensus view of the ICASS council (see 6 FAH-5-H-223.5). Each U.S. Government service provider, irrespective of the number of services it supplies, will receive an assessment addressing overall performance, as well as comments on the quality of the support provided.

    Recommendation: To ensure more efficient delivery of embassy administrative support services, the ICASS Executive Board should develop strategies to improve the system's accountability, which could include (1) clearly defining the long- and near-term goals and objectives of ICASS, developing measurable indicators to track performance, and presenting annual reports on the progress toward achieving the goals and objectives; (2) ensuring that post ICASS Councils annually evaluate service provider performance and customer satisfaction and annually certify that performance standards are relevant, specific, and accurately reflect customer needs; and (3) requiring that post ICASS Councils annually certify that they have sought opportunities to streamline and consolidate ICASS services by implementing best practices developed either by local staff or other posts.

    Agency Affected: Department of State: International Cooperative Administrative Support Services Executive Board

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2004, GAO reported that the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS) did not efficiently deliver services at overseas posts (see GAO-04-511). GAO recommended that the ICASS Executive Board consider developing independent teams to review ICASS operations at overseas posts and implement reforms that reduce duplicative administrative structures and contain costs. In 2006, the Regional Initiative Council (RIC) formed to (1) manage and implement ways to improve the quality and efficiency of oversees support services to customers, (2) ensure a right-sized presence overseas, and (3) build structures that enable regionalization and/or centralization of functions now being performed at individual posts when it makes business sense to do so. The RIC is composed of the Executive Directors of each of State's regional bureaus; Senior Directors of the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation; and the Director of ICASS Service Center. Since its inception, the RIC has led efforts to improve information management and technology and establish common definitions and standards for ICASS services.

    Recommendation: To ensure more efficient delivery of embassy administrative support services, the ICASS Executive Board should also consider developing independent teams to review ICASS operations at overseas posts and to recommend and implement reforms that reduce duplicative administrative structures and contain costs.

    Agency Affected: Department of State: International Cooperative Administrative Support Services Executive Board

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2004, GAO reported that the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS) did not efficiently deliver services at overseas posts (see GAO-04-511). GAO recommended that the ICASS Executive Board work to contain costs by reengineering processes by seeking innovative managerial approaches, implementing technological solutions, and adopting other best practices developed by agencies and other posts. In response to GAO's recommendation, the Department of State's Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation, with the assistance of the ICASS Executive Board, engaged approximately 60 staff from overseas posts to create a compendium of best practices for support services. In all, approximately 183 procedures were compiled, and would be taught by the Foreign Service Institute. In January of 2008, 50 staff from various posts gathered to develop uniform service standards for overseas posts. Uniform service standards would allow the systematic formation of performance measures and feedback mechanisms for assessing quality of service and customer satisfaction of support services. Finally, the Regional Initiatives Council (an ICASS multi-stakeholder group created in October 2006) will upgrade and integrate the Web Post Administrative Software Suite (WebPASS), a program management suite that allows for service requests, cost comparisons, etc., furthering its support to posts' business processes. In particular, RIC will add E-services that include customer-interfaces for facilities maintenance, information management, and general administrative support requirements.

    Recommendation: To ensure more efficient delivery of embassy administrative support services, the ICASS Executive Board should work to contain costs by reengineering administrative processes and seeking innovative managerial approaches through competitive sourcing, regionalization of services, improved technology, and adoption of other best practices developed by agencies and other posts.

    Agency Affected: Department of State: International Cooperative Administrative Support Services Executive Board

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2004, GAO reported that the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS) did not efficiently deliver services at overseas posts (see GAO-04-511). GAO recommended that the ICASS Executive Board work to eliminate duplicative administrative support structures by consolidating and streamlining support services, particularly during the planning phases for new embassy compounds. In 2004, ICASS, two main stakeholders, the State Department (State), and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) announced the creation of the Joint Management Council. The Council will guide the consolidation of agreed-upon management services in overseas missions in which State and USAID are already collocated (Tier One posts). This action is designed to ensure a leaner administrative structure that can respond more flexibly to the needs of both agencies, as well as those of other ICASS customers. Agreed-upon shared services and processes include warehouse management, expendable supplies, residential property, leasing motor pools, residential and non-residential maintenance, customs and shipping, custodial services, reproduction services, mail and pouch services, cashiering, FSN payroll, non-programmatic acquisitions procurement, local recruitment, and joint IT applications. Additionally, it was reported in June 2007 that State and USAID had agreed to consolidate most services relating to Locally Employed Staff Human Resource services. Finally, State reported that as of October 1, 2007, 33 out of 39 Tier One posts had completed consolidation, and the remaining six expected to fully consolidate by October 1, 2008.

    Recommendation: To ensure more efficient delivery of embassy administrative support services, the ICASS Executive Board should aggressively pursue the elimination of duplicative administrative support structures at U.S. overseas facilities with the goal of limiting each service to the one provider that local ICASS Councils have determined can provide the best quality service at the lowest possible price. This effort should include (1) encouraging agencies not subscribing to ICASS services to submit detailed explanations (business cases) of how they will fulfill these service needs and at what cost so that potential benefits can be shared by all ICASS customers at post, and (2) ensuring that the consolidation and streamlining of support services are key factors when posts develop staffing projections for new embassy compounds, as required by State.

    Agency Affected: Department of State: International Cooperative Administrative Support Services Executive Board

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS) Executive Board and the ICASS Service Center continued to provide post-specific training to post management and ICASS staff. From 2005-2006, the Service Center provided ICASS training to 40 overseas posts. According to the Service Center, approximately 2,400 individuals participated in these post-specific training sessions. The Service Center conducted further post-specific ICASS training from 2007-2008, but data on the number of pasts and individuals participating were not available. In addition, the Foreign Service Institute also continues to provide 4 separate ICASS courses, including 1-day executive seminar, a 2-day course on ICASS basics, a hand-on 4-day course on working with the ICASS database, and a 10-day course on Overseas Administrative Management for post administrators. Finally, the ICASS Service Center continued to sponsor seminars for management counselors and ICASS council officers. For example, in May 2008, the Service Center sponsored two regional workshops in Cape Town, South Africa to discuss a variety of issues, including how ICASS can be used to accomplish mission objectives. Approximately 30 U.S. posts from across Africa attended this workshop.

    Recommendation: To ensure more efficient delivery of embassy administrative support services, the ICASS Executive Board should ensure that all personnel responsible for implementing ICASS operations at overseas posts receive detailed training on their roles, responsibilities, and authorities, including detailed customer service and other technical training for Americans and foreign nationals responsible for the actual delivery of services.

    Agency Affected: Department of State: International Cooperative Administrative Support Services Executive Board

 

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