State Department:

Leadership Focus Needed to Guide Agency Reform Efforts

GAO-19-450: Published: Aug 1, 2019. Publicly Released: Aug 1, 2019.

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Jason Bair
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BairJ@gao.gov

 

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In response to an Executive Order, the State Department launched an initiative to streamline its programs and processes in 2017 and reported specific reform projects to Congress in 2018.

We found that State is implementing most of these projects. However, some projects have been stalled or discontinued due to top leadership transitions, shifting priorities, and a lack of confirmed officials in key positions. State also lacks a dedicated team to manage these projects, which could slow its overall reform efforts.

We recommended that State establish a team to manage the implementation of all reform projects that the Secretary decides to pursue.

State Department Headquarters

State Department Headquarters

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Jason Bair
(202) 512-6881
BairJ@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Department of State (State) is implementing most of the 17 reform projects it reported to Congress in February 2018, but a few are stalled or discontinued. State completed one project streamlining policy formulation, and continues working to implement 13 projects on topics including human resources, information technology, and data analytics. Progress on two projects related to overseas presence has stalled, and State has discontinued a project to consolidate real property management.

State has not addressed certain key practices related to leadership focus and attention in implementing its reform efforts. Multiple transitions in State's leadership and changing priorities contributed to uncertainty about leadership support for reform projects.Top leadership is expected to drive any needed transformation by clarifying priorities and communicating direction to employees and stakeholders.

In March 2018, the President replaced the Secretary of State, a transition that created uncertainty within the agency regarding the future of ongoing reform projects. While some officials stated that the new Secretary had expressed support for data analytics and cyber security reform efforts, other officials said they were unclear as to whether their projects remained a priority. According to senior officials, the current Secretary has focused on critical needs, such as ending the hiring freeze and increasing recruitment, and on launching new initiatives.

In April 2018, State disbanded the dedicated teams overseeing its reform efforts and shifted responsibility to bureaus and offices. In some cases, officials assigned to lead reform projects reported receiving little or no direction from department leadership. GAO's prior work has highlighted the benefits of having a dedicated team to manage agency transformations.

In addition, State officials indicated that the challenges posed by these transitions were compounded by a lack of Senate-confirmed leadership in key positions. Specifically, during the first 2 years of State's reform efforts, bureaus and offices responsible for implementing 12 of State's 13 continuing reform projects reported directly to one or more officials serving in an acting capacity. For example, State did not have a Senate-confirmed Under Secretary for Management from January 2017 to May 2019, which, according to senior officials, hindered State's reform efforts.

According to State officials, taken together these leadership transitions led to several projects being scaled back, slowed down, or both.

Although uncertainties exist about leadership priorities regarding the reform efforts, the bureaus and offices responsible for implementing reform projects have taken steps to manage and monitor them, consistent with key practices. Each of the continuing projects has implementation plans that include milestones and deliverables, and some report their progress publicly. For example, State reports on the progress of some projects in its annual performance plans and reports. The lack of a dedicated team to manage the reform process, however, could slow State's overall efforts.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2017, State initiated a series of reform efforts in response to an executive order by the President and guidance issued by the Office of Management and Budget aimed at reorganizing and streamlining the government. GAO's prior work has shown that successful agency reform efforts follow key implementation practices, such as establishing a dedicated team to manage the implementation of reforms, and ensuring transparency by setting public goals and milestones to monitor progress.

This report examines (1) the status of the reform efforts that State reported to Congress in February 2018 and (2) the extent to which State addressed key practices critical to the successful implementation of agency reform efforts. GAO reviewed State's reform plans, proposals, and related documents; met with officials involved in State's reform efforts; and assessed implementation of the reform efforts against relevant key practices identified in GAO's prior work.

What GAO Recommends

The Secretary of State should (1) determine which unimplemented reform projects, if any, should be implemented and communicate this determination to Congress and appropriate State personnel, and (2) establish a single dedicated team to manage the implementation of all reform efforts that the Secretary decides to pursue. State generally concurred with the recommendations.

For more information, contact Jason Bair at (202) 512-6881 or BairJ@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on the report, State indicated that it concurred with this recommendation, but suggested it should inform OMB instead of Congress. While we agree that it is important for State to share information regarding its reform efforts with OMB, we remain concerned about State's lack of communication with Congress regarding the status of the projects State initially reported in its fiscal year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification. Congress is a key stakeholder in State's reform efforts and should be informed of changes in State's priorities and the status of these projects to help ensure successful implementation. We will continue to monitor State's implementation of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should determine which of the unimplemented reform projects included in its fiscal year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification, if any, should be implemented and communicate this determination to Congress and appropriate State personnel. (Recommendation 1)

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In its comments on the report, State suggested that leadership of its reform projects should be decided on a case-by-case basis with the latitude to determine whether projects will be assigned to a higher level or within individual bureaus. We stand by our recommendation that State should establish a single dedicated team to manage the implementation of all its reform efforts. This is a key practice for implementing agency reforms identified in previous GAO reports, as well as in State's Foreign Affairs Manual (1 FAM 014.2), which calls for State to "dedicate an implementation team to manage the transformation process" for major reorganizations of bureaus or offices. Because reform efforts can span several years, dedicating a strong and stable team is important to ensure that the transformation receives the needed attention to be sustained and successful. We will continue to monitor State's implementation of the recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should establish a single dedicated team to manage the implementation of all reform efforts that the Secretary decides to pursue. (Recommendation 2)

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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