State Department:

Wide Range of Emergency Services Provided to American Citizens Overseas, but Improved Monitoring Is Needed

GAO-09-989: Published: Sep 24, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 2009.

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In 2008, the Department of State (State) estimated nearly 5 million U.S. citizens lived overseas, and 64 million trips were taken overseas by U.S. citizens. Since protecting and serving U.S. citizens abroad are among State's chief priorities, State must be prepared to provide emergency assistance to Americans abroad. This report describes (1) what services State provides to U.S. citizens who are the victims of crimes, suffer accidents, or otherwise need emergency services; (2) how State is prepared to assist U.S. citizens who are in need of emergency services; and (3) how State monitors the assistance it provides to U.S. citizens in need of emergency services.

State provides a number of emergency services to American citizens abroad through its network of 267 embassies and consulates in 174 countries. State's emergency services cover circumstances including deaths, arrests, medical or financial concerns, crime, and missing persons' cases. State provides emergency assistance to Americans at all hours, and provides information such as travel warnings to travelers and U.S. citizens living overseas through a variety of mechanisms, including the department's embassy and consulate Web sites. However, our review of a random sample of posts' Web sites found that only 14 percent had emergency phone numbers on the Web sites' main page. State also maintains a warden system to disseminate information from the embassy to U.S. citizens living in the country, and can send messages directly to Americans who provide contact information to the department. State has trained staff dedicated to providing emergency assistance overseas as well as in Washington, D.C. Depending on the size of the post, American Citizen Services (ACS) may be provided by multiple staff, or a single consular officer serving as the sole provider of all consular services including emergency services. Locally engaged staff are a key component of posts' provision of emergency services, as is State's ability to deploy staff where needed when emergencies arise. State provides guidance, largely through the Foreign Affairs Manual, formal on-the-job training, and other resources to ensure staff are able to carry out these services. The Bureau of Consular Affairs has a variety of mechanisms to monitor its provision of emergency services; however, all of these mechanisms have limitations and, as a result, Consular Affairs cannot be assured it is allocating its resources effectively. The ACS system, which is intended to track emergency services provided by posts, and the consular package, which provides post-specific workload information to guide consular resource allocations, both contain unreliable data. For example, reporting weaknesses and unclear guidance associated with the ACS system prevent posts from accurately monitoring and evaluating their workload or using the data to make management decisions. Although State shifts its consular resources to meet emergency demands, absent current and reliable data on the worldwide demand for emergency services, Consular Affairs may not make decisions based on a clear understanding of the global workload.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State concurred with the recommendation. In response, in December 2009, State sent all posts a cable noting that it agreed with GAO's recommendation and that posts should review their consular Web sites to ensure that emergency contact information was prominently displayed. In July 2012, GAO conducted a review of a sample of posts' Web sites and found that some still did not have emergency contact information prominently displayed on their homepages. Subsequently, the Bureau of Consular Affairs conducted a review of 35 post Web sites and found that each site contained emergency contact information. Also in July 2012, State sent another cable to all posts requesting that they ensure emergency contact information was prominently displayed on their Web sites. Finally, State sent another cable to all posts in April 2013 that repeated this instruction, noting that GAO's July 2012 spot check of posts' Web sites found that such information was still not easy to locate on some posts' Web sites. The cable further had underlined the importance of providing Americans abroad with clear emergency contact information prominently displayed on posts' Web site homepages. State also provided a copy of a April 2013 template posts are required to use in designing Web sites to ensure uniformity and that emergency contact information is easily accessible.

    Recommendation: To ensure American citizens who experience an emergency overseas can easily find and identify emergency contact information on post Web sites, the Secretary of State should require posts' main Web site pages to include emergency contact information.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State concurred with the recommendation. In response, on December 11, 2009, State noted that it was developing a new system to replace ACS by the end of 2014 and that it was revising the Foreign Affairs Manual with clearer guidelines on what information should be entered into ACS. In 2012, State provided an update on the system that will replace ACS, ConsularOne. In addition, State noted that it had made improvements to ACS, including more rigorous and efficient processing of citizenship applications and passports and enhanced interaction between ACS and the data management and reporting software used for workload calculations and staffing adjustments. In June 2013, Stated noted that it continued to improve ACS by adding various enhancements. For example, in October 2012, a major update began providing direct integration of ACS with State's fraud case and lookout tracking application form "wizards" to improve data entry were also updated. Finally, State noted, in June 2013, its ConsularOne effort progressed, with the first module of ConsularOne slated for development in the coming year.

    Recommendation: To ensure the Bureau of Consular Affairs has accurate and reliable data from the mechanisms used to monitor and evaluate its provision of emergency services worldwide, and therefore make informed resource allocation decisions, the Secretary of State should direct the Bureau of Consular Affairs to improve functionality in the ACS system so that Consular Affairs and posts can use the system more effectively.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June and July 2012, in response to GAO's recommendation, the Bureau of Consular Affairs issued new guidance through its Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM), making it explicit that information related to cases such as welfare and whereabouts or arrests must be entered into the ACS system, whereas in the previous version of the FAM this was not the case. As a result, it is now clear to ACS staff what work must be entered into the ACS system, which will now allow posts to more accurately reflect their workload, and thus have improved information for making management decisions.

    Recommendation: To ensure the Bureau of Consular Affairs has accurate and reliable data from the mechanisms used to monitor and evaluate its provision of emergency services worldwide, and therefore make informed resource allocation decisions, the Secretary of State should direct the Bureau of Consular Affairs to provide guidance on the information to be entered into the ACS system to ensure that data are consistently captured across posts and accurately reflect workload.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State concurred with the recommendation. In response, in December 2009 State sent a cable to all posts with instructions to review their consular Web sites to ensure that emergency contact information was prominently displayed. In July 2012, GAO conducted a review of a sample of posts' Web sites and found that some still did not have emergency contact information prominently displayed on their homepages. Subsequently, State conducted a review of 35 post Web sites and found that each site contained prominently displayed emergency contact information. In August 2012, State noted that it had formed a working group to develop best practices for sharing emergency information on posts' Web site homepages. In May 2013, State sent instructions to American Citizen Services (ACS) country officers to contact their posts to request written confirmation that posts were in compliance with previous guidance on prominently displaying emergency contact information on posts' Web site homepages. According to a State document, every post Web site that State's ACS reviewed listed emergency contact information. Finally, in June 2013, State revised its Country Specific Information (CPI) template to incorporate instructions related to periodic testing of emergency contact information on posts' Web sites. The instructions require consular officers at posts and ACS country officers to confirm biannually that emergency contact information on posts' Web sites is both operational and easily accessible. The Foreign Affairs Manual, 7 FAM 054 a, also states that State's Bureau of Consular Affairs will work with posts to update CPI document at least biannually.

    Recommendation: To ensure American citizens who experience an emergency overseas can easily find and identify emergency contact information on post Web sites, the Secretary of State should periodically test the accuracy of the emergency contact information provided on the posts' main Web site pages.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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