Overseas Staffing:

Rightsizing Approaches Slowly Taking Hold but More Action Needed to Coordinate and Carry Out Efforts

GAO-06-737: Published: Jun 30, 2006. Publicly Released: Jul 28, 2006.

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In 2001, the administration identified the rightsizing of embassies and consulates as one of the President's management priorities. Rightsizing initiatives include: aligning staff overseas with foreign policy priorities and security and other constraints; demonstrating results by moving administrative functions from posts to regional or central locations; and eliminating duplicative functions at posts. This report (1) discusses the size and recent trends in the U.S. government overseas presence, (2) assesses the congressionally mandated Office of Rightsizing's progress in managing the U.S. government's overseas rightsizing efforts, and (3) assesses the process and outcomes of the legislatively mandated rightsizing reviews of overseas posts.

Almost five years into the President's Management Initiative on rightsizing, the U.S. government does not yet have accurate data on the size of the U.S. overseas presence. At various times, we received estimates ranging from 66,000 to 69,000 American and non-American personnel. In addition, State estimated that there are approximately 78,000 U.S. government positions overseas, as of December 2005. State Department (State) officials said that they are working on a unified database which, if periodically updated by posts, will provide an accurate depiction of the overseas presence. State officials indicated that the database will be completed later this year. Because of the importance of having accurate data on overseas staffing and the length of time it has taken to develop this data, management oversight may be needed to ensure completion of this task. Several agencies reported that they have added staff overseas as a result of new mission requirements, and other agencies reported that they have repositioned their personnel to better meet mission needs and in response to rightsizing efforts. State established the congressionally mandated Office of Rightsizing the United States Government Overseas Presence (Office of Rightsizing) in 2004, which, after a slow start, has begun to provide overall direction to the government-wide rightsizing process. Some of the office's activities have included coordinating staffing requests of U.S. government agencies, developing guidance for and analyzing post rightsizing reviews, and formulating a rightsizing review plan. We found that coordination on rightsizing issues between State and other agencies with an overseas presence was initially slow, but has since improved. Nevertheless, non-State agencies have voiced a number of concerns regarding their interaction with the Office of Rightsizing, including their desire to be more included in the rightsizing process. Congress requires Chiefs of Mission to conduct rightsizing reviews at every overseas post at least once every 5 years. Between late 2004 and summer 2005, about 35 posts participated in the first cycle of reviews. However, the Office of Rightsizing provided limited guidance to posts on how the reviews should be conducted and did not have a systematic process for reporting the outcomes of the reviews. In fall 2005, officials in the Office of Rightsizing developed more comprehensive guidance, which posts we interviewed found useful. We found that cost was not considered a key element in the post reviews. Nevertheless, the Office of Rightsizing reported over $150 million in cost savings or avoidance to the U.S. government based on its analysis of these reviews. Although we have not been able to independently assess the Office of Rightsizing's estimates, it has presented evidence to show that some major cost avoidance and cost savings have occurred. Management officers identified various challenges to the review process, such as resistance from non-State agencies and a lack of time to conduct the review. It is unclear how posts will implement the rightsizing review decisions, such as elimination of duplicative functions, according to post officials and officials in State's regional bureaus.

Status Legend:

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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 the U.S. government's overseas presence under chief of mission authority is accurately accounted for and to ensure that the U.S. government's rightsizing goals are being coordinated and that posts can maximize savings and gain efficiencies through rightsizing, the Secretary of State should provide oversight to ensure the timely development and use of a single database that accurately accounts for U.S. overseas personnel staffing numbers and has accountability measures to encourage posts and agencies to keep the database accurate and up to date.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2006, GAO recommended (Overseas Staffing: Rightsizing Approaches Slowly Taking Hold but More Action Needed to Coordinate and Carry Out Efforts, GAO-06-737) that State should provide oversight to ensure timely development and use of a single database that accurately accounts for U.S. overseas personnel staffing numbers and has accountability measures to encourage posts and agencies to keep the database accurate and up to date. State had been in the process of developing a better database but was moving forward very slowly and had not yet completed it. After our report, officials from State's Office of Rightsizing and the Bureau of Human Resources told us that a single gold standard database to keep track of U.S. government personnel numbers and functions overseas has been in operation since October 2006 and action to address our recommendation has been taken. The database, known as Post Personnel, tracks U.S. personnel overseas from all agencies. State officials told us that the data in the system is owned and maintained by the posts and that the Human Resource officers are responsible for inputting the personnel data. In addition, non-State agencies have visibility into the system and can take a look at the existing data and validate the information. State officials told us that audits of the data in Post Personnel are conducted in Washington and invalid information in the system is corrected. Moreover, State officials said that the staffing data they now have is significantly better than what was available two years ago.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the U.S. government's overseas presence under chief of mission authority is accurately accounted for and to ensure that the U.S. government's rightsizing goals are being coordinated and that posts can maximize savings and gain efficiencies through rightsizing, the Secretary of State should increase outreach activities with non-State agencies so that all relevant agencies with an overseas presence can discuss and share information on rightsizing initiatives on a regular and continuous basis.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2006, GAO recommended (Overseas Staffing: Rightsizing Approaches Slowly Taking Hold but More Action Needed to Coordinate and Carry Out Efforts, GAO-06-737) that State should increase outreach activities with non-State agencies so that all relevant agencies with an overseas presence can discuss and share information on rightsizing initiatives on a regular and continuous basis. In June 2008, officials in State's Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing and Innovation (M/PRI) told us that they established a number of continuous outreach activities with agencies with an overseas presence. For example, they told us that the Office of Rightsizing is now in daily contact with agencies with an overseas presence on topics related to rightsizing issues and that the office has given presentations at a number of OBO meetings which generally have participants from all agencies with an overseas presence. In addition to the meetings and contacts with non-State agencies, the Office of Rightsizing has sent out guidance to overseas posts on rightsizing issues as well as published information on State's website with detailed guidance for agencies. Moreover, since our initial work with the Office of Rightsizing in 2006, the acting director of the office told us that there were plans to hold an interagency rightsizing summit in fall 2008 where agencies could discuss rightsizing initiatives and issues on a continuous basis. Since our report, M/PRI has held several summits. State officials told us that the summits are generally held twice yearly - in the spring and fall - and cover topics such as the ongoing rightsizing activities, including how to accomplish programmatic rightsizing overseas.

    Recommendation: To ensure that the U.S. government's overseas presence under chief of mission authority is accurately accounted for and to ensure that the U.S. government's rightsizing goals are being coordinated and that posts can maximize savings and gain efficiencies through rightsizing, the Secretary of State should require that posts develop action plans to transition to and meet the agreed upon outcomes of their rightsizing reviews. This could include developing milestones for posts reaching agreement on streamlining and eliminating duplicative functions.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2006, GAO recommended (Overseas Staffing: Rightsizing Approaches Slowly Taking Hold but More Action Needed to Coordinate and Carry Out Efforts, GAO-06-737) that State require that posts develop action plans to transition to and meet the agreed upon outcomes of their rightsizing reviews. A rightsizing review eliminates or justifies any duplicative or parallel functions currently at posts, considers the possibilities for reducing U.S. Government employees by taking advantage or regionalized services, determines whether some jobs can be performed by locally engaged staff, and outsources non-core and non-governmental functions as appropriate. In June 2008, officials in State's Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing and Innovation told us that they now require posts to provide the office with action plans in response to the posts' rightsizing review, six months after the review has been completed. The plan includes actions completed and pending in staffing changes related to consolidation, competitive sourcing, and regionalization.

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