New Embassy Compounds:

State Faces Challenges in Sizing Facilities and Providing for Operations and Maintenance Requirements

GAO-10-689: Published: Jul 20, 2010. Publicly Released: Jul 20, 2010.

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In response to the 1998 bombings of two U.S. embassies, the Department of State (State) embarked on a multiyear, multibillion dollar program to replace insecure and dilapidated diplomatic facilities. Since 2001, State has constructed 52 new embassy compounds (NECs) under this program, and moved over 21,000 U.S. government personnel into more secure and safe facilities. GAO was asked to examine (1) the extent to which new facilities match the space and functionality needs of overseas missions and State's actions to address space and functionality challenges; and (2) operations and maintenance challenges at these new facilities and State's steps to address them. GAO analyzed staffing data and other documentation for 44 NECs built from 2001 to 2009 and interviewed State headquarters and embassy officials at 22 of these 44 NECs to obtain information on their functionality and operations and maintenance issues.

State has located nearly one-quarter of overseas staff in NECs, which posts said are an improvement over older facilities. However, NECs do not fully meet the space and functionality needs of overseas missions. Current staffing levels exceed the originally-built desk--or office--space at over half of the 44 NECs GAO analyzed. Post management has dealt with space limitations by converting spaces, like conference rooms, into offices, but 4 posts have had to retain space outside the compound for staff that could not fit in the NECs. Also, officials at almost all of the 22 NECs that GAO reviewed in depth reported some spaces, like consular affairs spaces, did not fully meet their functional needs. According to State officials, it is difficult to predict changing foreign policy priorities that can affect staffing levels, and the process for planning NECs has been unable to fully account for these changes. Budget constraints also affected decisions about the size of NECs and types of features provided. State has taken some actions to improve NEC sizing, but does not have sufficient flexibility in its staffing projection and design processes to better address sizing challenges. To address problems with functionality, State implemented a lessons learned program to analyze issues in completed NECs and modify design criteria for future NECs, but State has not completed, in a timely manner, planned evaluations that are designed to identify such issues. While NECs are state-of-the-art buildings, they have presented operations and maintenance challenges, and the larger size and greater complexity of NECs, compared to facilities they replaced, have resulted in increased operations and maintenance costs. In 2010, State developed its first long-range maintenance plan that identifies $3.7 billion in maintenance requirements over 6 years for all overseas facilities, but it does not include time frames for implementing identified maintenance projects or address increased operating costs. Problems with testing, or "commissioning," new building systems have contributed to problems with building systems that do not function as they should, causing higher maintenance costs. State strengthened its commissioning process, though this change only applies to future NECs and does not address problems at existing NECs. Further, State does not currently recommission--or retest--NECs to ensure they are operating as intended. In addition, more than half of the 22 NECs that GAO reviewed in detail experienced problems with some building systems, resulting in the need for premature repair and replacement. Through its lessons learned program, State has changed some design criteria for future NECs to avoid problems with building systems. Finally, State has had problems hiring and training personnel who have the technical skills necessary to manage the complex NEC systems. State has taken initial steps to improve its staff hiring and training, but does not have an overall plan to establish its NEC human resource needs and the associated costs.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State has initiated some efforts to improve its process for identifying future staffing needs; however, it has not made any changes to its process for determining how growth space is allocated in NECs. State has initiated improvements to its position database, developed and refined modeling indices to enhance and refine its rightsizing process, and taken steps to compare actual current staffing at completed NECs with their original five-year projections. However, it has not initiated changes that would affect how growth space is allocated in NECs. Prior to the issuance of our report in July 2010, State modified its growth factor to account for potential growth in both desk spaces as well as shared common spaces (conference rooms, work rooms, storage, etc.). In our response to State's comments, we acknowledged its intent to provide additional growth space in NECs, but noted that its plan did not address our concern that State had not provided any analytical basis to demonstrate that a growth factor of 10 percent, applied uniformly across all projects, is appropriate. As we noted in the report, some new construction projects had substantially exceeded their projected staffing levels shortly after moving into their new facilities, but others had substantially fewer staff than projected, resulting in excess space. We also noted that State had not provided an analytical basis for using a standard, uniform growth factor across all NECs and that it had not conducted any analysis to determine whether post-specific characteristics, such as overall size, geographic location, or the presence of rapidly-growing agencies or functions, might help forecast growth not explicitly planned for in a post's rightsizing review. State has made no changes to the NEC growth factor since our report was issued.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen the operations of the extensive U.S. program that provides for new embassy compounds around the world, the Secretary of State should take steps to improve the process for determining the appropriate size for an NEC, including reassessing the analytical basis for projecting future staffing levels and determining how much growth space is allocated.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State has ensured that it conducts post-occupancy evaluations of completed NECs as planned. During the past 4 years, State has conducted over 30 post-occupancy evaluations of newly-constructed embassy and consulate projects. State has taken actions to clear its backlog of evaluations from earlier projects by conducting post-occupancy evaluations at several posts during each of the post-occupancy evaluation team's overseas trips. In the past, the post-occupancy evaluation team had generally conducted only an evaluation at one post per trip. State is also conducting a lookback study across post-occupancy evaluations to identify any recurring design and construction issues. As issues are identified, State follows up with focused studies to address the issues, such as providing privacy in open plan offices and improving the applicant flow and signage within consular sections.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen the operations of the extensive U.S. program that provides for new embassy compounds around the world, the Secretary of State should ensure that Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) conducts post-occupancy evaluations of completed NECs as planned.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State agreed with this recommendation and has taken actions to include developing a recommissioning process and a 5-year work plan, which is updated annually, to recommission NECs constructed before 2008. State uses a three phase recommissioning process which entails (1) assessing building systems to identify any deficiencies, (2) undertaking repairs based on those assessments, and (3) certifying that recommissioning activities are complete. As of 2013, State had conducted assessments at six posts. In 2014, State contracted with outside engineering consultants to conduct assessments for six additional posts. State reported that corrective repairs are underway for some of the posts where assessments had been conducted, including repairs to some building systems, such as power and building automation systems. Building automation systems remotely monitor, adjust, and optimize the performance of building systems, in part, to ensure efficient operations and minimize energy use.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen the operations of the extensive U.S. program that provides for new embassy compounds around the world, the Secretary of State should develop a plan to recommission those NECs completed before 2008 to, for example, resolve any problems posts may still have with building systems, and ensure that the operating costs are not being incurred unnecessarily as a result of building systems that are not operating as efficiently as intended.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State concurred with our principle findings, conclusion, and recommendation. For example, in its response to our recommendation, State indicated it would work on identifying timeframes for implementing LROMP projects. State officials told us that, starting in fiscal year 2013, State has consolidated the LROMP and LROBP into one plan, the Long Range Plan. That new plan includes a 6-year major rehab program. In general, major rehabs projects include larger, more expensive maintenance projects, which cannot be addressed through routine and preventative maintenance activities, and are directed at rehabilitating or replacing building systems to extend the life-cycle of a building. The new plan identifies time frames for selected posts where major rehab projects are planned within 6 years.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen the operations of the extensive U.S. program that provides for new embassy compounds around the world, the Secretary of State should identify time frames for implementing the maintenance projects that are outlined in the Long-Range Overseas Maintenance Plan (LROMP).

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State has not expanded on its Long Range Overseas Maintenance Plan (LROMP), now Long Range Plan (LRP), to include reporting on actual NEC operating costs to allow for a more complete assessment of the full costs to both maintain and to operate NECs. While State's Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) is responsible for funding the maintenance of NECs, through both State and other agencies' cost sharing funds, according to officials, OBO is not responsible for capturing and reporting actual NEC operating costs, generally consisting of (a) local maintenance labor costs; (b) local service contract costs, such as custodial and landscaping services; and (c) utility costs (e.g., heating, cooling, and lighting). State reports that it and other overseas agencies are responsible for funding building operations costs through the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS) process. State reports it has not included reporting on actual building operating costs in State's Long Range Plan, in part, because information on building operating costs is resident in multiple data systems, such as its utilities tracking database, and State is reviewing options for efficiently capturing operating costs.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen the operations of the extensive U.S. program that provides for new embassy compounds around the world, the Secretary of State should expand on future editions of the LROMP to include reporting on operating costs to allow for a more complete assessment of the costs to maintain and operate NECs.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  6. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State has taken some actions to address training of local maintenance staff, such as developing on-line training courses to assist locally employed maintenance staff at posts to carry out their maintenance duties. However, State has not developed a comprehensive human resource plan that addresses how the staffing requirements and cost implications for hiring required facilities maintenance personnel will be met. State's Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) does develop post-specific staffing plans that recommend the number of maintenance staff and type of skills needed when an NEC opens. According to State officials, posts are individually responsible for making decisions on those staffing recommendations and funding those through either the International Cooperative Administrative Support Services (ICASS) funds, or State's Diplomatic and Consular Program funds for posts where State is the only agency. State officials reported that some posts place a higher priority on hiring needed facilities maintenance staff than other posts. Further, according to State officials, because of budget limitations, staffing needs can go unfulfilled at times when not approved by posts' ICASS members, who represent State and other agencies at post.

    Recommendation: In order to strengthen the operations of the extensive U.S. program that provides for new embassy compounds around the world, the Secretary of State should develop a human resource plan that addresses the requirements and cost implications for hiring required NEC facilities maintenance staff and sufficiently training the local maintenance staff.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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