COVID-19: State Should Strengthen Policies to Better Maintain Overseas Operations in Future Crises

GAO-22-104519 Published: Mar 16, 2022. Publicly Released: Mar 16, 2022.
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Fast Facts

Employees from 26 U.S. agencies work overseas in embassies and consulates operated by the State Department.

The COVID-19 pandemic caused the evacuation of thousands of civilian staff overseas, with some embassies and consulates losing more than half their staff in 2020. Telework and other operational adjustments largely allowed work to continue.

Nevertheless, some posts reported they didn't have sufficient information to help them determine which staff should remain to maintain operations. We identified a variety of opportunities to improve State's preparedness for future crises, recommended State improve its evacuation policies, and more.

Percentages of Evacuated Overseas Staff, by Region, Jan. 2020-Dec. 2020

World map showing percentages, by region, of evacuated overseas staff

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of State made key decisions for overseas posts (e.g., U.S. embassies and consulates) during the COVID-19 pandemic, as shown in the figure below, but did not communicate them to other overseas agencies before they went into effect. State created a new global evacuation policy with flexibilities that were different from the pre-existing policies for post-specific evacuations, which created confusion for staff on timelines, allowances, and conditions for returning to post. According to federal internal control standards, policies should be documented in the appropriate level of detail. However, State has not yet established an evacuation policy that could be used for future crises affecting multiple posts. In addition, State's decisions for posts affected all U.S. government staff overseas but State did not communicate these key decisions, and related policies, to other overseas agencies before announcing them to all staff. As a result, other overseas agencies had to develop guidance for their staff to follow after State's public announcements.

Timeline of State's Key Decisions during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Timeline of State's Key Decisions during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Evacuations of key personnel and public health restrictions reduced some operations at posts, but information technology improvements and other adjustments largely allowed staff to continue to work. Nevertheless, some posts reported they did not have sufficient information to help them determine which staff should remain overseas and which could be evacuated. Posts implemented a maximum telework policy and State used COVID-19 relief funds to provide equipment and better network access. Federal internal control standards state that agencies should use quality information to make decisions. However, State does not track telework at overseas posts and, as a result, does not have the information needed to inform future decisions about its use overseas.

State has identified lessons learned on telework and communication but does not have a procedure for ensuring their collection from posts. According to State's guidance, lessons learned are required to be gathered and preserved after critical operational events. Individual posts reported lessons learned on communication, including the utility of informal communication between staff, but not all posts submitted required lessons learned. State does not have a procedure to ensure the collection of lessons learned from posts—a significant component of improving its future crisis response.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. government has over 22,000 U.S. staff working in more than 290 overseas posts. State made operational adjustments in an effort to balance overseas staff's health with the pursuit of diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing oversight efforts related to COVID-19. In addition, GAO was asked to examine State's overseas operational response to COVID-19. This report examines, among other things, actions State took to respond to COVID-19 and how it communicated them to overseas employees, posts' operational adjustments and the effect on operations, and lessons learned identified by State.

GAO reviewed relevant State documents, including agency guidance and post-level reporting, and interviewed State and other U.S. agency officials. GAO also met with four selected overseas posts based on various factors, such as geographic location and proportion of U.S. overseas staff evacuated.

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Recommendations

GAO is making six recommendations to State, including that it review its evacuation policies, maintain timely communication with other agencies present overseas, develop a plan to track overseas telework, and develop a procedure to ensure collection of lessons learned. State agreed with five of the recommendations and partially agreed with one.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Under Secretary for Management establishes a policy for evacuations that applies to more than one post to prepare for future global or regional crises. (Recommendation 1)
Open
The Department of State concurred with the recommendation and noted that it plans to update its existing policies to clarify their applicability for evacuations involving more than one post. When we confirm agency action, we will provide updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Under Secretary for Management conducts a review of existing evacuation policies and determines whether such policies should be updated to include new efficiencies and flexibilities used during COVID-19, such as a streamlined process for calculating monetary allowances and increased flexibility regarding the length of evacuations. (Recommendation 2)
Open
The Department of State concurred with the recommendation and indicated that it plans to conduct a review of its existing evacuation policies and determine whether such policies should be updated to include new efficiencies and flexibilities used during COVID-19. When we confirm agency action, we will provide updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Director of Crisis Management and Strategy establishes guidance that directs agency-wide groups responding to crises to maintain timely interagency communication with agencies present at overseas posts that would be affected by policies State implements during crises. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Department of State partially concurred with this recommendation, noting that it provides information to other agencies through an existing coordination forum. We maintain that improved interagency communication with agencies present at overseas posts would be beneficial for those agencies. When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security provides additional information to posts on how to assess and document in their Emergency Action Plans the staff resources and critical skills required at post for different types of emergencies. (Recommendation 4)
Open
The Department of State concurred with the recommendation and indicated that it plans to provide additional information to posts on how to assess and document in their Emergency Action Plans the staff resources and critical skills required at post for different types of emergencies. When we confirm agency action, we will provided updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure development of a plan that specifies how the department should collect information on overseas telework participation. (Recommendation 5)
Open
The Department of State concurred with the recommendation and noted that it intends to develop enhancements to its newly-created "eTelework" application that will enable data collection on telework by overseas U.S. direct hire employees. When we confirm agency action, we will provide updated information.
Department of State The Secretary of State should ensure that the Director of Crisis Management and Strategy develops a procedure to ensure that overseas posts submit required lessons learned. (Recommendation 6)
Open
The Department of State concurred with the recommendation and noted that it plans to update its policies and training to further enforce its lessons learned requirement. When we confirm agency action, we will provide updated information.

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