COVID-19: State Carried Out Historic Repatriation Effort but Should Strengthen Its Preparedness for Future Crises

GAO-22-104354 Published: Nov 02, 2021. Publicly Released: Nov 02, 2021.
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Fast Facts

The State Department brought home more than 100,000 U.S. citizens and permanent residents from 137 countries during the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite acting quickly to assist Americans abroad, State didn't follow some of its own policies and didn't have guidance needed for certain aspects of the effort. For example, State couldn't show that the prices it charged passengers for some chartered flights complied with its fare policy because it didn't have written guidance for calculating and documenting actual costs.

Our recommendations to State could help to improve its preparedness for future repatriations during crises.

State Department personnel greet passengers and collect information before repatriation flights in India.

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Highlights

What GAO Found

From January to June 2020, the Department of State carried out a historic effort in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to repatriate more than 100,000 individuals who were in 137 countries. In the previous 5 years, State had repatriated fewer than 6,000 people. Most responses to a GAO survey of repatriated individuals expressed positive views of State's communication, among other things, though some expressed concerns about matters such as the prices of repatriation flights. State reported learning several lessons from challenges it faced, such as the importance of using social media and cell phones to communicate with U.S. citizens.

State Personnel Assisting with Repatriations in Tanzania (Left) and Montenegro (right)

State Personnel Assisting with Repatriations in Tanzania (Left) and Montenegro (right)

Despite acting swiftly to assist Americans abroad, State did not follow some of its policies and lacked guidance for certain aspects of its repatriation effort. For example, as of May 2021, an interagency group State established to coordinate plans to evacuate U.S. citizens abroad in emergencies had not met since April 2019, hampering interagency communication early in the crisis. Also, incomplete guidance for calculating and documenting actual costs of State-chartered flights led to missing or inconsistent documentation and limited State's ability to show that the prices it charged passengers complied with its fare policy.

Additionally, while State requires overseas posts to take steps to prepare for crises, its oversight of their preparedness has gaps.

  • State requires posts to update emergency action plans but does not ensure timely submission of those plans. In the 20 countries from which State helped repatriate the largest numbers of people, 17 of 30 posts did not submit their updated plans for certification within required time frames in 2020.
  • State requires posts to complete annual emergency preparedness drills, but does not ensure completion of the drills. In 2019, 16 of the 30 posts failed to complete all the drills within the required time frames.
  • State lacks a mechanism for assessing posts' crisis preparedness. Though State encourages posts to assess their own preparedness annually, data from these assessments are not current or complete.

As a result of these gaps, State lacks assurance that posts will be prepared to respond to a future global crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

Why GAO Did This Study

State provides repatriation assistance to U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents abroad during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. State's Office of Crisis Management and Strategy and Bureau of Consular Affairs were primarily responsible for State's COVID-19 repatriation effort.

The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing COVID-19 monitoring and oversight efforts. In addition, GAO was asked to examine State's COVID-19 repatriation effort. This report examines, among other things, (1) the results of State's repatriation effort, including lessons State reported learning from challenges it faced; (2) the consistency of selected aspects of State's repatriation effort with its policies and procedures; and (3) State's oversight of its overseas posts' crisis preparedness.

GAO reviewed relevant State documents, such as cables and guidance. GAO also interviewed State officials in Washington, D.C., and in Ghana, Honduras, India, Morocco, and Peru. In addition, GAO surveyed a generalizable sample of passengers repatriated on State-chartered flights.

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Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations to improve State's preparedness to repatriate U.S. citizens during crises—including three recommendations to improve agencywide preparedness and three to improve State's oversight of posts' preparedness. State agreed with all of the recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status Sort descending
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Deputy Director for CMS reconvenes quarterly meetings for the WLG, to maintain interagency communication regarding crisis preparedness and response. (Recommendation 1)
Open
State concurred with this recommendation. State officials indicated they have developed a quarterly schedule for calendar year 2022 and have documented one official meeting of the Washington Liaison Group. According to State officials, they continue to communicate with the Washington Liaison Group on the authorized and ordered departure of U.S. government personnel. As of 9/21/22 we have not received any additional information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Deputy Director for CMS develops guidance for initiating task forces that is consistent with State's policies and practices. (Recommendation 2)
Open
State concurred with this recommendation. State officials indicated that they are assessing existing policies to develop additional procedures to provide more clarity on task force processes. As of 9/21/22 we have not received any additional information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs works with key stakeholders—including the Deputy Assistant Secretary for A/LM and Deputy Controller for CGFS—to develop guidance for systematically collecting information for, and formatting, flight manifests. (Recommendation 3)
Open
State concurred with this recommendation. According to State officials, Consular Affairs (CA) will work with A/LM and CGFS among other offices to develop criteria for future evacuations including the roles and responsibilities of each office. CA has also developed a template K fund memo request, which was used in recent evacuations from Kazakhstan (January 2022) and Ethiopia (February 2022). According to State officials, the template can be deployed quickly in future evacuations using charter flights. In addition, CA has created a new case management system (CACMS), which can quickly pull requisite information to form a flight manifest, according to State officials. As of 9/21/22 we have not received any additional information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Executive Secretary, the Under Secretary for Management (M), and the Under Secretary for Political Affairs work with the regional bureaus to develop a mechanism for ensuring that each post certifies required annual updates of its EAP as required by State policy. (Recommendation 4)
Open
State concurred with this recommendation. State is assessing existing policies and practices that mandate each post maintain a current EAP and certify it annually, with a focus on how to improve compliance with those policies and practices, according to State officials. We met with State on 9/21/22 and they are working to address the recommendation.
Department of State
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of State should ensure that the Executive Secretary, the Under Secretary for Management (M), and the Under Secretary for Political Affairs work with the regional bureaus to develop a mechanism for ensuring that each post completes, and documents completion of, required emergency preparedness drills. (Recommendation 5)
Open
State concurred with this recommendation. State is assessing existing policies and practices that mandate each post completes, and documents completion of required emergency preparedness drills, with a focus on how to improve compliance with those policies and practices, according to State officials. We met with State on 9/21/22 and they are working to address the recommendation.
Department of State
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of State should ensure that the relevant bureaus and offices establish a mechanism to systematically assess overseas posts' preparedness to respond to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. (Recommendation 6)
Open
"State concurred with this recommendation. State has existing policies and practices, including a Crisis Management Training (CMT) program administered by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). FSI's crisis management trainers visit posts every 24 to 30 months (except those high-threat, high-risk posts, which conduct training annually). Trainers review emergency planning with post's Emergency Action Committee (EAC) members and stress-test post readiness through tabletop or full-scale exercises. FSI also provides in-person and online training and resources for all post employees on crises preparedness. Posts are also responsible for continually updating their EAPs and certifying it annually. The Department has received several recommendations from GAO regarding crisis management planning over the past two years. Through the Secretary's Modernization Agenda, the Department will be taking a closer, holistic look at crisis management planning to assess where improvements might be made, according to State officials. We met with State on 9/21/22 and they are working to address the recommendation.

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