Category Archives: Contractors

Snapshot: Top 30 State Department Contractors (Based on Highest Dollar Amounts)

– Domani Spero

 

According to State/OIG, after several media reports were written about the use of confidentiality agreements that limit the ability of contractor employees to report fraud, waste, or abuse to Inspectors General or other oversight entities, it sent a letter in August 2014 requesting information from the thirty companies which have the highest dollar amount of contracts with the Department of State. The list does not indicate their rank in any particular order:

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State Department’s Embassy “Design Excellence” Initiative: Year in Review (Video)

– Domani Spero

 

The State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations has just released a ‘Year in Review 2013-2014′ video, primarily highlighting the new embassies built under its “design excellence”initiative. You will note that some of the projects in this video have been completed while others like the New London Embassy, and those buildings in artist’s renderings are still undergoing construction or in the early phases of the projects  and won’t be completed for a few more years.

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) “sets worldwide priorities for the design, construction, acquisition, maintenance, use, and sale of real properties and the use of sales proceeds” for the State Department. The bureau has recently caught congressional attention with its New London Embassy project and its “design excellence” initiative. See Congress to State Dept: We Want All Your Stuff on New London Embassy Except Paperclips and New Embassy Construction Hearing: Witnesses Not Invited, and What About the Blast-Proof Glass?

We understand that the bureau is still working on providing Congress with the documents requested during the latest congressional hearing. Congress won’t be back in session until September 8, and then, it will only conduct business for a couple of weeks before it runs out again.  Nonetheless, we are hearing that there may be personnel shuffles at the bureau in the offing.  We’ll update when we know more.

 

Related items:

-05/31/11   Compliance Follow-up Review of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (ISP-C-11-26)  [2452 Kb]  Posted June 8, 2011

-08/30/08   Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (ISP-I-08-34) Aug 2008  [1846 Kb]

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Filed under Congress, Construction, Contractors, Foreign Service, Functional Bureaus, New Embassy Compound, Social Media, State Department, U.S. Missions, Video of the Week

USAID’s undercover Latin youth — whose brainchild is this, pray tell (video)

– Domani Spero

 

Read more here. Documents about this program is at http://apne.ws/UxJ05x.

Whose brainchild is this, pray tell.

Alan Gross, the  65-year-old American citizen mentioned in this article has been imprisoned in Cuba since 2009. His family has mounted a petition demanding Mr. Gross’ “immediate release” and  that “the Cuban and U.S. governments sit down and resolve Alan’s case.”

This morning, USAID released a statement about what it calls, the AP’s “sensational claims,”excerpt below:

Congress funds democracy programming in Cuba to empower Cubans to access more information and strengthen civil society. USAID makes information about its Cuba programs available publicly at foreignassistance.gov. This work is not secret, it is not covert, nor is it undercover. Instead, it is important to our mission to support universal values, end extreme poverty and promote resilient, democratic societies. Chief among those universal values are the right to speak freely, assemble and associate without fear, and freely elect political leaders. Sadly, the Cuban people and many others in the global community continue to be denied these basic rights.

One paragraph in the article captures the purpose of these and many civil society programs, which is to empower citizens to “tackle a community or social problem, win a ‘small victory’ and ultimately realize that they could be the masters of their own destiny.” But the story then goes on to make sensational claims against aid workers for supporting civil society programs and striving to give voice to these democratic aspirations. This is wrong.

USAID remains committed to balancing the realities of working in closed societies–particularly in places where we do not have a USAID mission and governments are hostile to U.S. assistance–with our commitment to transparency, and we continuously balance our commitment to transparency with the need for discretion in repressive environments. In the end, USAID’s goal is to continue to support democracy, governance and human rights activities in multiple settings, while providing the maximum transparency possible given the specific circumstances.

A couple of items from that USAID statement: 1)   “the Cuban people and many others in the global community,” does that mean this happened in Cuba and elsewhere?; 2) “with our commitment to transparency” — USAID’s Cuba programs data available publicly at foreignassistance.gov only covers FY2013 and 2014 and not the years covered by the AP report. USAID also would not tell the AP how much the Costa Rica-based program cost.

These young “aid workers” from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru sent to Cuba could have been arrested and jailed for 10 years for the work they did for USAID, and the agency would have been able to claim that these are not USG employees.  The US has not been able to effect the release of USAID contractor Alan Gross, would it be any more successful intervening for the release of foreign nationals who are not?  Also, the notion that you can run democracy promotion operations like this in certain parts of the world and that it will not have a dangerous blowback against USAID employees advancing development work in other parts of the world, is frankly, lunacy.

Does USAID have a scenario planned for what happens after a ‘Cuban Spring’unfolds in Cuba? Is it publicly available at fomentingchange.gov?

Just a reminder, the nominee for USAID OIG, in case you’re wondering has been waiting for Senate confirmation since July 2013 (see Officially In: Michael G. Carroll – From Deputy IG to USAID/OIG).

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State Dept Answers FAQ on Ongoing Visa and Passport Database Performance Issues

– Domani Spero

 

Yesterday, we posted about the troubled Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) (see State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience).  During the Daily Press Briefing, yesterday, the State Department officially stated that it believed the root cause of the problem was “a combination of software optimization and hardware compatibility issues.” According to the deputy spokesperson, the servers are getting back online but that they are coming back in a queue and that fixes are not being done on a country-by-country basis. And by the way, it’s not just the peak summer travel season, there’s also the Africa Summit in D.C. next week.

“Obviously, there’s actually a huge crush right now because of the Africa Leaders Summit, so obviously that’s a huge priority for us to make sure everybody gets their visas for the Africa Leaders Summit. We do believe that a vast majority of the travelers who have applied for visas for the summit have been issued.”

CA’s FB folks have been regularly answering questions from angry complaints posted on its Facebook page and have announced that they will continue to monitor and respond to consular clients at 9:00 EDT tomorrow, Thursday, July 31.

Late yesterday, the Bureau of Consular Affairs also posted a new Frequently Asked Questions on Facebook and on its website (not easily accessible from the main visa page) concerning the CCD performance issues and the steps taken to address those issues. Perhaps the most surprising is that its back-up capability and redundancy built into the CCD were both affected killed by the upgrade that hobbled the system.  Something to look forward to by end of calendar year — CA is upgrading the CCD to a newer version of the Oracle commercial database software and that plan includes establishing two fully redundant systems. We are republishing the FAQ in full below.

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Information Regarding Ongoing Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) Performance Issues and Steps Taken| JULY 30, 2014

The Department of State continues to work to restore our visa system to full functionality.

We anticipate it will take weeks to resume full visa processing capacity.

We continue to prioritize immigrant visas, including adoption cases.  So far, we have been able to issue most cases with few delays.

Nearly all passports are currently being issued within our customer service standards, despite the system problems.

We are able to issue passports for emergency travel.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q:  What caused the system performance issues?  Hardware, software, or both?  Details?

On July 20, to improve overall system performance and address previous intermittent performance issues, we updated software as recommended. Our database began experiencing significant performance issues shortly after this maintenance was performed.

A root cause has not been identified at this time.  Current efforts are focused on bringing the system back to normal operations.  Once that has been accomplished, resources will be applied to determine the root cause.

Q:  What steps did we take to mitigate the performance issues?

Since July 20, our team has worked to restore operations to full capacity.  On July 23, the Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) was brought back online with limited capacity.

The Department of State is working with Oracle and Microsoft to implement system changes aimed at optimizing performance and addressing ongoing performance issues.

We are incrementally increasing the number of processed cases as our systems will allow.

Q:  Has the Bureau of Consular Affairs experienced these types of outages in the past?

CA has experienced minor outages in the past, but never of this magnitude.  We have a plan in place to mitigate these occurrences in the future.

Q:  Is the software to blame?  Are contractors at fault?  Why was this allowed to happen?

We have been working to improve our services through upgrades while maintaining existing operations worldwide.  However, we are limited by outdated software and hardware.

Q:  Why did those steps not work?  What’s the next step?

We have not determined why the problems occurred.  We are working with our contractor and the software vendor to address the problems.

We are bringing additional servers online to increase capacity and response time.

Q: Why wasn’t there a back-up server?

There was back-up capability and redundancy built into the system.  However, the upgrade affected not only our current processing capability, but also our ability to use our redundant system.

Q: What steps are being taken prevent this from happening again?

CA has a plan in place to upgrade the CCD to a newer version of the Oracle commercial database software by the end of the calendar year.  We are working to ensure the existing system will remain fully functional until the new database is up and running and thoroughly tested.  The plan includes establishing two fully redundant systems.

Q:  If CA is fee funded, why can’t it build a robust database that doesn’t fail?

The database has grown dramatically, in both quantity of data and functionality, and vastly improved border security.  In addition to checking names against databases, we review fingerprints and perform facial recognition.

We are working towards modernization of our software, hardware, and infrastructure.  Demand for our services outpaced our modernization efforts.

Consular Affairs has, and has had, a redundant system.  However, the upgrade affected not only our current processing capability, but also our ability to use our redundant system.  This is one of the issues we are urgently addressing now.

Q:  What do I need to know if I’m a passport applicant?

Almost all passports are currently being issued within our customer service standards, despite the system problems.

We are able to issue passports for emergency travel.

Q:  What do I need to know if I’m a visa applicant?

Visa applicants they can expect delays as we process pending cases.  We remain able to quickly process emergency cases to completion.

We are working urgently to correct the problem to avoid further inconveniencing travelers.

We are posting updates to the visa page of travel.state.gov, and our embassies and consulates overseas are communicating with visa applicants.

In addition to communicating through our websites, e-mail, and letters, we are also reaching out to applicants via Facebook and other social media sites, such as Weibo, to relay the latest information.

Q:  Why hasn’t the Department been more forthcoming until now?

We have experienced CCD outages in the past, but they have never disrupted our ability to perform consular tasks at this magnitude.

We informed the public as soon as it was apparent there was not a quick fix to bring the CCD back to normal operating capacity, and are briefing Congressional staffers regularly.

Q:  What is the outlook for Non-immigrant visas?  When do we estimate the backlog will be processed?

That will depend on a number of factors.  Current efforts are focused on bringing the system back to normal operations.

We must also continue processing new requests.  We are committed to reducing the number of pending visa cases as quickly as possible, but we want applicants to know that we will continue to be operating at less than optimal efficiency until the system is restored to full functionality.

Q:  Is the Department going to reimburse applicants who missed flights/canceled weddings/missed funerals?

We sincerely regret any delays, inconvenience, or expense that applicants have may have incurred due to the CCD performance issues.

While it might be of little solace to those who have experienced hardship, we are always very careful to tell travelers NOT to make travel plans until they have a visa in hand.  Even when the CCD is operating normally, there may be delays in printing visas.

The Department does not have the authority to reimburse applicants for personal travel, nor do we include these costs when calculating our fees.  The Department cannot refund visa fees except in the specific circumstances set out in our regulations.

Q:  What impact will this have on SIVs?

We have the highest respect for the men and women who take enormous risks in supporting our military and civilian personnel.  We are committed to helping those who have helped us.  While issuances of Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) to Afghans and Iraqis have been impacted, as have visa issuances around the world, SIV processing continues and remains a high priority.

Q: How is this impacting student visas?  They are scheduled to start the fall semester soon.

We are committed to issuing visas to all qualified students and exchange visitors.  Issuance of student and exchange visitor visas has been impacted in the past few days, but visa processing continues.

We understand the importance to international students and exchange visitors, their families, and their U.S. host institutions of timely visa issuance in order to facilitate travel and to ensure all students and exchange visitors may begin their programs on time.

Q: What about situations where the student won’t arrive to school on time?

Students should contact their educational institution’s Designated School Official (F and M visas) or designated U.S. sponsor’s Responsible Officer (J visas) and discuss with them what arrangements they can provide for you to begin your program after the start date on your Form I-20 (F and M visas) or Form DS 2019 (J visas), should such a circumstance become necessary.

Q:  Will this have any impact on the Diversity Visa program in September?

While issuances of all immigrant visas, including diversity visas, have been impacted in the past few days, IV processing continues and remains a high priority.  The Department expects to have used all numbers for DV-2014 when the program year ends on September 30, 2014.

Q:  What impact do we anticipate this will have on the U.S. economy?

Tourism and students have a major impact on our economy.  Last year, it was estimated that international visitors spent $180.7 billion and supported 1.3 million American jobs.  International students contribute $24.7 billion to the U.S. economy through their expenditures on tuition and living expenses, according to the Department of Commerce.

We recognize the significant impact that international travel and tourism has on the U.S. economy, and are taking all possible steps to ensure that the economic impact is minimal.

People traveling under the Visa Waiver Program are not affected at all; nor are those whose previously-issued visas remain valid.

We routinely advise applicants needing new visas to make appointments well in advance of their planned travel, and not to book their travel until they have their printed visas in hand.

The original post is available here.  If CA is reading this, it would be helpful if a link to the FAQ is posted on the main visa page of travel.state.gov and in the News section.  We were only able to find the FAQ from a link provided in Facebook and not from browsing around the travel.state.gov website.

 

 

 

 

 

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State Dept’s Critical National Security Database Crashes, Melts Global Travelers’ Patience

– Domani Spero

 

The first announcement about the troubled Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) went out on Wednesday, July 23:

The Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs is currently experiencing technical problems with our passport/visa system.  This issue is worldwide and is not specific to any particular country, citizenship document, or visa category.  We apologize to applicants who are experiencing delays or are unable to obtain a passport, Consular Report of Birth Abroad, or visa at this time. We are working urgently to correct the problem and expect our system to be fully operational again soon.

The AP reported on July 23 that unspecified glitches have resulted in performance issues since Saturday, which would be July 19.

On July 25, CA announced:” Our visa and passport processing systems are now operational, however they are working at limited capacity. We are still working to correct the problem and expect to be fully operational soon.”

A State Department official speaking on background told us the same day that this issue was not/not caused by  hackers. We were told that the CCD crashed shortly after maintenance was performed and that the root cause of the problem is not yet known.

On July 27, CA released an update:

As of July 27, the Department of State has made continued progress on restoring our system to full functionality. As we restore our ability to print visas, we are prioritizing immigrant cases, including adoptions visas. System engineers are performing maintenance to address the problems we encountered. As system performance improves, we will continue to process visas at U.S. Embassies and Consulates worldwide. We are committed to resolving the problem as soon as possible. Additional updates will be posted to travel.state.gov as more information becomes available.

On July 29, CA posted this on FB:

The Department of State Bureau of Consular Affairs continues to make progress restoring our nonimmigrant visa system to full functionality. Over the weekend, the Department of State implemented system changes aimed at optimizing performance and addressing the challenges we have faced. We are now testing our system capacity to ensure stability. Processing of immigrant visas cases, including adoptions, remains a high priority. Some Embassies and Consulates may temporarily limit or reschedule nonimmigrant visa interview appointments until more system resources become available to process these new applications. We sincerely regret the inconvenience to travelers, and are committed to resolving the problem as soon as possible. Additional updates will be posted to travel.state.gov as more information becomes available.

 

The CA Bureau’s Facebook page has been inundated with comments. There were complaints that at one post the visas were printing fine and then they were not. There were complains from people waiting for visas for adopted kids, for fiancees, for family members, for family waiting at the border, for students anxious to get to their schools, people worried about time running out for diversity visas, applicants with flights already booked, and many more.  One FB commenter writes, “I feel that the problem most people have is not that the system broke, but the lack of clear, meaningful information so people can make appropriate plans.

Other than what the CA Bureau chose to tell us, we cannot pry any substantial detail from official sources.  We, however, understand from sources familiar with the system but not authorized to speak for the bureau that the CCD has been having problems for sometime but it got worse in the last couple weeks.   If you’re familiar with the highs and lows of visa operation, this will not be altogether surprising.  Whatever problems already existed in the system prior to this “glitch” could have easily been exacerbated in July, which is the middle of the peak travel season worldwide. A source working in one of our consular posts confirmed to us that the system is back running, but not at the normal level and that the backlogs are building up. Another source told us that Beijing already had a 15k NIV backlog over the weekend.  We haven’t yet heard what are the backlogs like in mega visa-issuing posts like Brazil, Mexico and India.

We understand that everyone is currently doing all they can to get the process moving, but that some cases are getting through the system, while some are not. No one seems to know why this is happening. These machine readable visas are tied to the system and there are no manual back-ups for processing these cases (more of that below).

 

So who owns CCD?

The Consular Systems and Technology (CA/CST) manages the CCD.  We have previously blogged about its troubled past:

CST is currently headed by a new Director, Greg D Ambrose who reports to the CA Bureau’s Assistant Secretary.  It looks like despite the 2011 OIG recommendation, the CST deputy position remains vacant. We should also note that the  Asst Secretary for Consular Affairs Janice Jacobs retired this past April.  No replacement has been nominated to-date and Michele T. Bond has been Acting Assistant Secretary since Ms. Jacobs’ departure.

Last September, Mr. Ambrose was with FedScoopTV and talked about Consular One, the future of consular IT.

 

CST Just Got a New Data Engineering Contract

In Many 2014, ActioNet, Inc., headquartered in Vienna, Virginia,announced a 5-year task order for data engineering, supporting CST.

ActioNet, Inc. announced today the award of a five (5)-year task order entitled Data Engineering (DE) in support of Department of State (DOS). This task order will provide data engineering and database infrastructure support services necessary for planning, analysis, design, and implementation services for the Bureau of Consular Affairs.  These service also include contract and program management support to ensure that innovation, efficiency, and cost control practices are built into the program. [...] The Office of Consular Systems and Technology (CST) within the Bureau develops, deploys and maintains the unclassified and classified IT infrastructures that help execute these missions. The Bureau currently manages over 800 servers worldwide, in order to comply with the fast paced changes inherent to data processing and telecommunications, CST requires that contractor services provide for rapid provisioning of highly experienced and trained individuals with the IT (information technology) backgrounds and the security clearances required of CA’s environment of workstation-based local and wide-area network infrastructures.

Due to limited information available, we don’t know if the new Consular One and/or the new DE contract are related to ongoing issues or if there are hardware issues, given the multiple legacy systems, but we do know that CST has both an impressive and troubled history. Let’s take a look.


Records Growing by the Day

The 2010 Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) describes (pdf) the CCD as “one of the largest Oracle based data warehouses in the world that holds current and archived data from the Consular Affairs (CA) domestic and post databases around the world.”  According to the PIA, in December 2009, the CCD contained over 100 million visa cases and 75 million photographs, utilizing billions of rows of data, and has a current growth rate of approximately 35 thousand visa cases every day. The 2011 OIG report says that in 2010, the CCD contained over 137 million American and foreign case records and over 130 million photographs and is growing at approximately 40,000 visa and passport cases every day.

That was almost four years ago.


A Critical Operational and National Security Database with No Back-Up System?

According to publicly available information, the CCD’s chief functions are 1) to support data delivery to approved applications via industry-standard Web Service queries, 2) provide users with easy-to-use data entry interfaces to CCD, and 3) allow emergency recovery of post databases.  The CCD also serves as a gateway to IDENT and IAFIS fingerprint checking databases, the Department of State Facial Recognition system, and the NameCheck system. It  provides access to passport data in Travel Document Issuance System (TDIS), Passport Lookout Tracking System (PLOTS), and Passport Information Electronic Records System (PIERS).  The OIG says that the CCD serves 11,000 users in the Department and more than 19,000 users in other agencies, primarily the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and various law enforcement elements, and is accessed more than 120 million times every month.

Given that the CCD is considered “a critical operational and national security database,” there is surprisingly no redundancies or any back-up system.


Resurrect the Standard Register protectograph aka: `Burroughs visas’?

No one is actually suggesting that but when the CCD system is down, there is no manual way to issue a visa. No post can  handprint visas  because security measures prevent consular officers from printing a visa unless it is approved through the database system. Here is a quick history of the handprinted ‘Burroughs visas’ and the machine readable visas via the GPO:

November 18, 1988, mandated the development of a machine-readable travel and identity document to improve border entry and departure control using an automated data-capture system. As a result, the Department developed the Machine Readable Visa, a durable, long-lasting adhesive foil made out of Teslin.

Before MRVs, nonimmigrant visas were issued using a device called a Standard Register protectograph, otherwise known as a Burroughs certifier machine. It produced what was colloquially known as a “Burroughs visa,” an indelible ink impression mechanically stamped directly onto a page in the alien’s passport. Over time, Burroughs machines were gradually replaced by MRV technology, which is now used exclusively by all nonimmigrant visa issuing posts throughout the world.

Burroughs visas contained a space in which a consular employee was required to write the name of the alien to whom the visa was being issued. An alien’s passport might also include family members, such as a spouse, or children, who also had to be listed on the visa. In March 1983, in order to expedite the issuance of nonimmigrant visas and to improve operational efficiency, the Department authorized the use of a “bearer(s)” stamp for certain countries so that consular officers would not have to spend time writing in the applicant’s name (and those of accompanying family members). MRVs, however, must be issued individually to qualified aliens. Consequently, the “bearer”annotation has become obsolete.

The problem with the old Burroughs machine, besides the obvious, was maybe — you run out of ink, the plates are ruined/broken or you need it oiled. We could not remember those breaking down. With the MRV technology, all posts are connected to a central database, and the new machines by themselves cannot issue visas.  Which brings us to the security of that system.

 

Management Alert on Information System Security Program

The State Department PIA says that “To appropriately safeguard the information, numerous management, operational, and technical security controls are in place in accordance with the Federal Information Security Management Act (FISMA) of 2002 and information assurance standards published by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST).” Must be why in November 2013, the Office of the Inspector General issued a Management Alert  for significant and recurring weaknesses found in the State Department’s Information System Security Program over the past three fiscal years (FY 2011-2013).

In 2011, State/OIG also issued a report on CA’s CST division and has, what appears to be a lengthy discussion of the CCD, but almost all of it but a paragraph had been redacted:

Screen Shot 2014-07-30 at 8.40.37 AM

That OIG report also includes a discussion of the Systems Development Life Cycle Process and notes that decision control gates within CST’s SDLC process are weak. It cites a couple of examples where this manifested: 1) the development of the Consular report of Birth Abroad (CRBA) system. “The ownership of development and deployment shifted throughout the process, and the business unit’s requirements were not clearly communicated to the development team. As a result, CST designed and tested the CRBA for a printer that did not match the printer model identified and procured by the business unit;” 2)  the Crisis Task Force application, for which CST was tasked to enhance its Web-facing interaction. “The deployment of this application has been challenged by the lack of project ownership and decision controls, as well as by the incomplete requirements definition. The use of incorrect scripts that were provided by the CM group has further delayed the Crisis Task Force application’s deployment.”

 

If there’s somethin’ strange in your CCD, who ya gonna call? (Glitchbusters!)

The Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) is central to all consular operations. It is run by CST where according to the OIG, “the smooth functioning of every part of the office depends on its contractors.” And because it runs such an important element of U.S. national security systems, if all CST’s contractors, all 850 of them quit, this critical consular data delivery to the State Department and other Federal agencies would screech to a a halt.

To carry out its mandate, CST must provide uninterrupted support to 233 overseas posts, 21 passport agencies, 2 passport processing centers, and other domestic facilities, for a total of 30,000 end users across 16 Federal agencies and in nearly every country. CST faces 24/7/365 service requirements, as any disruption in automated support brings operations to an immediate halt, with very serious implications for travelers and the U.S. image.
[...]
CST is led by a director and is staffed by 68 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees (62 Civil Service and 6 Foreign Service). There are 12 positions (3 Foreign Service and 9 Civil Service) currently vacant. CA recently authorized CST 19 additional FTE positions. There are also more than 850 contractors operating under nearly 30 different contracts. In FY 2010, CST’s annual operating budget was approximately $266 million.

If CCD is compromised for a lengthy period such as the last couple of weeks, what is the back up plan to keep the operation going?  Obviously, none. It’s either down or running under limited or full capacity.  No one we know remember CCD problems persist this long.  Right now, we know from a reliable source that the system is not down, and some cases and going through but — what if the CCD is completely down for two weeks … four weeks … wouldn’t international travel come to a slow stop?

What if CCD goes down indefinitely whether by hardware or software glitch or through malicious penetration by foreign hackers, what happens then?

Currently, it appears nothing can be done but for folks to be patient and wait until the fixes are in.  We know they’re working hard at it but there’s got to be a better way.   Perhaps we can also agree that this has very serious national security implications on top of disgruntled travelers and a grave impact on the U.S. image overseas.

 

 Related items:

May 2011 |  Inspection of The Bureau of Consular Affairs, Office of Consular Systems and Technology (CST) Report Number ISP-I-11-51

-11/30/13   Audit of Department of State Information Security Program (FISMA) (AUD-IT-14-03)  [3610 Kb]  Posted January 29th, 2014

-01/13/14   Management Alert on OIG Findings of Significant, Recurring Weaknesses in Dept of State Info System Security Program (MA-A-0001)  [6298 Kb]  Posted on January 16, 2014

 

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Congress to State Dept: We Want All Your Stuff on New London Embassy Except Paperclips

– Domani Spero

 

We recently blogged about the congressional hearing on the new embassy construction (see New Embassy Construction Hearing: Witnesses Not Invited, and What About the Blast-Proof Glass?).  Well, a couple of weeks ago, the  House Oversight and Government Reform Committee sent a letter to Secretary Kerry asking for documents and information on the new embassy construction.  Presumably in preparation for the hearing.  Almost half of the docs requested were related to the New London Embassy.  Did not look like the Committee got the docs that they wanted in time for the hearing.  In any case, below is a partial list; it looks like they wanted everything including drafts and all, except paperclips.

Giant paper clip at BI Commercial College near...

Giant paper clip at BI Commercial College near Oslo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We must say that the HOGR has not been short on its version of HPD … way too much emotion and drama that draws attention to themselves and the nearest camera for our taste.  Really, if they just do their jobs without too much theatrics, our institutions would be a lot better for it.  Having said that, it’s the only Congress we’ve got and they have an oversight role to play even if more than one in five Americans (22%) are ready to start over entirely after all members are fired.  For now, we’re stuck with these folks.  Luckily for us, not all of them will stay in Congress for life. So — please give these angry folks the documents they need even if they occasionally drive you nuts; they may not be there next year. They want a cost/benefit analysis, give it to them, too. We suspect the analysis would be useful anyways, and these folks would have to write their own scripts on what to say on teevee.

Oh hey, they want to know about the blast testing of the curtain wall, so do we!

 

20.   All Action Memoranda and Information Memoranda, including drafts, referring or relating to the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom.

21.   All documents referring or relating to Value Engineering Studies relating to the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom, including all versions of any Value Engineering Studies.

22.   All documents and communications relating to changes and notices to proceed relating to the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom, including, but not limited to, all such communications with: a) KieranTimberlake Architects; b) B.L. Harbert International;  and, c) Weidlinger and Associates.

23.   All documents referring or relating to congressional Construction Security Certification for the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom, including, but not limited to, all communications with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

24.   All documents and communications referring or relating to Value Added Tax (VAT) relating to the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom.

25.   All documents and communications referring or relating to blast testing of the curtain wall, and curtain wall components, of the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom, including, but not limited to, all such communications with: a) the Bureau of Diplomatic Security; b) KieranTimberlake Architects; c) B.L. Harbert International; d) Weidlinger and Associates.

26.   All documents and communications referring or relating to the application of General Services Administration (GSA) Performance Conditions to blast testing of the curtain wall, and curtain wall components, of the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom, including, but not limited to, communications between OBO and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security.

27.   All documents and communications relating to the engineering and legal justifications for applying standards other than those of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security to blast testing of the curtain wall, and curtain wall components, of the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom.

28.   A document identifying all State Department overseas properties, the physical security of which were designed, tested or certified to GSA standards.

29.   All documents and communications relating to the decision to conduct blast testing of the curtain wall, and curtain wall components, of the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom, in both Ft. Polk, Louisiana and Socorro, New Mexico.

30.   The U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center report relating to blast testing of the curtain wall or curtain wall components, of the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom which occurred in Fort Polk, Louisiana.

31.   All reports prepared for the Committees on Appropriations on the New Embassy Compound in London, United Kingdom which, pursuant to P.L. 112-74, Section 7004 (f)(2), were to be delivered every six months from 60 days after enactment, and which were to include revenue and cost projections, cost containment efforts, project schedule and actual project status, the impact of currency exchange rate fluctuations on project revenue and costs, and options for modifying the scope of the project in the event that proceeds of real property sales in London fall below the total cost of the project.

32.   The estimated cost per square meter to rent office space in the vicinity of the current U.S. Embassy in London, United Kingdom.

33.   All documents related to any lease-back of current U.S. Embassy in London, United Kingdom if the New Embassy Compound in London is not completed on schedule.

 

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New Embassy Mexico City Estimated to Cost $350-$450M Now More Pricey At $763 Million

– Domani Spero

 

On June 20, 2014, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City announced the 50thanniversary of the building of the chancery in Mexico
City´s  Reforma Avenue. According to Embassy Mexico City, the building began in 1960 during the Kennedy Administration and under then Ambassador Thomas Mann. The building reportedly cost 5 million dollars and in 1964 became the second largest U.S. embassy in the world.

In 2011, the State Department solicitation on fedbiz announced that the New Embassy Compound (NEC) in Mexico City, Mexico will be a design-bid-build project estimated to cost between $350 million and $450 million.

The new Embassy compound will be constructed on U.S. Government-owned property located in the Nuevo Polanco neighborhood of Mexico City. It will be in the range of 40,000-45,000 gross square meters in area and will include a new Chancery, General Services Office/support buildings, parking structures, Marine Security Guard Quarters, and vehicular/pedestrian screening facilities.

In 2012, the estimated construction cost was $450 – $500 million.

In November 2013, FP’s The Cable reported that the State Department has quietly reversed course, saying its initial solicitation to industry is “cancelled in its entirety” because plans have been altered. The State Department did not explain why in its announcement, but said a new, future solicitation to industry for the project “is under acquisition review.” (See State Department Quietly Reverses Course On Its $500 Million Mexican Embassy).

Yesterday, the House Appropriations Committee’s draft report on the fiscal 2015 State and foreign aid spending bill notes that the new construction cost estimate of NEC Mexico City is now at $763,500,000.  The following is the section of the Committee draft report on the new embassy that will soon join our list of most expensive embassies in the world:

Enhanced notification requirements.—The  Congressional Budget Justification for Department of State Operations, Fiscal Year 2015 estimates the cost for construction of the New Embassy Compound in Mexico City, Mexico at $763,500,000. The Committee is troubled that this is an escalation in cost of more than 38 percent in the two years since the initial estimate was provided. Cost increases of this magnitude, as well as reports of other new embassy project cost escalations, are of great concern to the Committee. Accordingly, in order to enhance the oversight of new construction projects, the Committee recommendation modifies and expands section 7004(d) of the bill to require that all notifications for the purchase of land and for the award of construction contracts be subject to the regular notification procedures of, and prior approval by, the Committees on Appropriations.

Notifications made pursuant to section 7004(d) shall include the following information, at a minimum: (1) the location and size of the property to be acquired, including the proximity to existing United States diplomatic facilities and host government ministries; (2) the justification of need for acquiring the property and construction of new facilities; (3) the total projected cost of the project delineated by site acquisition, project development, design/construction, and any other relevant costs; (4) any unique requirements of the project which may drive up the cost of the project, such as consular workload, legal environment, physical and/or security requirements, and seismic capabilities; (5) any religious, cultural, or political factors which may affect the cost, location, or construction timeline; (6) the current and projected number of desks, agency presence, and the projected number of United States direct hire staff, Locally Engaged Staff, and Third Country Nationals; (7) the current and projected number of beds, if applicable; (8) the most recent rightsizing analysis; and (9) a justification for exceeding the staffing projections of such rightsizing analysis, if applicable.

Additionally, the Committee directs the Department of State to carefully review the design and cost of the Mexico City new embassy compound and to provide updated design plans and options for reducing the cost of the facility to the Committees on Appropriations prior to the obligation of additional funds for this project from funds made available in this Act or prior Acts.

 

In 2013, State/OBO awarded the New U.S. Embassy Mexico City project to Tod Williams Billie Tsien/ Davis Brody Bond Architects and Planners Joint Venture. It is listed as a capital program project for FY2015 (pdf).

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US Embassy Colombia: DEA Employee/Spouse Plead Guilty to False Statements in Kidnapping Hoax

– Domani Spero

Via USDOJ:

Nydia L. Perez and John A. Soto, both 44, of Haymarket, Virginia, pleaded guilty to one count of making false statements to law enforcement officials in federal court on Friday, announced Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and Assistant Director for International Operations John Boles of the FBI.

According to the plea agreement, in December 2013, Perez, an employee of the Drug Enforcement Administration, and her husband Soto, a private contractor in the United States Embassy in Bogotá, Colombia, designed and executed a hoax with the intention of defrauding the United States Embassy in Bogotá.   As part of the hoax, Perez and Soto fabricated a plot to kidnap minors who are United States citizens.

According to court filings, Perez and Soto sent, through electronic mail and courier services, information about a purported threat to the safety of minor United States citizens in Bogotá.   Perez and Soto added detailed descriptions of the targeted United States citizens, including information about their whereabouts and daily routines.   Perez and Soto included photographs of the citizens in order to enhance the seriousness of the threat, and attempted to implicate innocent individuals in the kidnapping plot.   Perez and Soto made numerous false representations to law enforcement and security officials in furtherance of the fabricated kidnapping plot.

Sentencing before U.S. District Judge Amy Berman-Jackson is scheduled for Aug. 21, 2014.

The investigation was conducted by the FBI Legal Attaché in Bogotá and the Extra-Territorial Squad of the FBI Miami Field Office.   Also participating in the investigation were the DEA, the U.S. Embassy Bogota Regional Security Office, and the U.S. Embassy Bogota Force Protection Detail.   The Department is grateful for the assistance of the Colombia National Police Directorate of Anti-Kidnapping and Anti-Extortion.

On the Factual Basis for Plea, the government provides the following details:

  • On December 14, 2013, PEREZ and SOTO caused an e-mail to be sent to the American Citizen Services section of the United States Embassy, which described a plan by unnamed individuals to kidnap SOTO’s minor children, who are United States citizens. The e-mail included photos of the minor children engaged in various everyday activities in order to enhance the seriousness of the threat. In furtherance of the hoax, PEREZ and SOTO also mailed a package to the United States Embassy. The package contained a written description of the threat and additional photos of the children, in order to demonstrate the seriousness of the threat.
  • PEREZ met with agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (“FBI”) on December 17, 2013 to discuss the kidnapping threat. PEREZ lied to the FBI as to her knowledge of the purported kidnapping plot, stating that the only person she could think of who was capable of creating a kidnapping plot was her family’s doorman, Heder Vargas. PEREZ falsely represented that she and SOTO, as well as SOTO’s minor children, were potential targets of the purported kidnapping plot, although she knew the kidnapping plot was in fact a hoax. During the December 17, 2013 meeting, PEREZ did not inform the FBI that she knew there existed no actual threat to herself, SOTO, or SOTO’s children.

 

U.S. Embassy Bogota, Colobia Photo via state.gov

U.S. Embassy Bogota, Colombia
Photo via diplomacy.state.gov

We really don’t get this.  The intention was to defraud the U.S. Embassy in Bogota? How were they doing to do that? Since the U.S. Government cannot participate in developing and implementing a ransom strategy in kidnappings, it follows that ACS Sections do not have hidden money in their vaults.  In any case, whatever was the plan, it didn’t work.

Which made us dig up this section of the FAMeven overseas, kidnapping of U.S. citizens are federal crimes for which the FBI has authority to investigate under the U.S. Criminal Code. And certainly, kidnapping threats against a mission employee/family would be handled beyond the Consular Section.

According to court filings, Count One, Making a Materially False Representation, in violation of Title 18, United States Code, Section 1001(a)(2) (a Class D Felony) carries a maximum sentence of five (5) years of imprisonment, a fine of $250,000, and a $100 special assessment, a three (3) year term of supervised release, an order of restitution, and an obligation to pay any applicable interest or penalties on fines or restitution not timely made.

Sentencing is scheduled for 8/21/2014 at 10:00 AM in Courtroom 3 before Judge Amy Berman Jackson. The case is USA v. PEREZ, Magistrate judge case number: 1:14-mj-00086-AK and USA v. SOTO, Magistrate judge case number: 1:14-mj-00087-AK.

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USAID Afghanistan — SIGAR, OIG Investigates Second Largest Recipient of Reconstruction Funds

– Domani Spero  

Via SIGAR — Snapshot of Top Ten Recipients of USAID Funds in Afghanistan Reconstruction (2002-2013):

Our analysis of USAID data indicated that the top ten implementing partners in total awards accounted for about $7.7 billion, or 58 percent of total obligations. The remaining 42 percent of obligations were awarded to a total of 193 implementers who averaged $29 million in total awards. The World Bank was the top overall recipient of USAID funds in Afghanistan, with total awards equal to approximately $1.75 billion. USAID provided $1.74 billion to the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF), which is administered by the World Bank, and awarded the Bank a $2 million grant for a project supporting business environment reform in Afghanistan. International Relief and Development, Inc. (IRD) received the second highest amount of total rewards at approximately $1.1 billion. Table 2 shows the top ten recipients by total obligation as reported by USAID. Figure 3 demonstrates the percentage of total USAID reconstruction awards received by each of the top ten recipients.

via SIGAR

via SIGAR

Via SIGAR

Via SIGAR

 

International Relief and Development, Inc. (IRD), number #2 on the list above is the subject of a recent WaPo investigation on Big budgets, little oversight in war zones. Quick notes from the report:

  • International Relief and Development increased its annual revenue from $1.2 million to $706 million, most of it from the USAID.
  • The nonprofit rewarded its employees with generous salaries and millions in bonuses. 38 IRD employees received more than $3.4 million in bonuses during the same period, according to the company’s tax filings.
  • IRD’s impressive board of advisers included former House majority leader Richard A. Gephardt and John D. Negroponte, who served as ambassador to several countries, including Iraq, and was the nation’s first director of national intelligence.
  • The company hired an all-star cast of humanitarian officials, drafting them from the top levels of USAID. In addition to the former acting administrator, the officials have included the deputy assistant administrator, the director of contracts and a key operations officer. According to WaPo, it has hired at least 19 employees from USAID. “Several of them came directly from their desks at the agency to occupy important posts at the company.”
  • As acting director of USAID, Alonzo Fulgham made $199,418. As vice president of IRD, he received $330,000. Jeffrey Grieco made $185,000 as the top public affairs official at USAID. As chief of public affairs at IRD, he received $225,000.

According to WaPo, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John F. Sopko had opened an investigation into allegations of “significant waste and mismanagement” and “kickbacks and bribery by IRD senior employees over a road project, which wound up costing $317 million.

We understand that SIGAR is also investigating IRD for  attempting to “use confidentiality agreements as a way of prohibiting its employees from making critical statements about IRD to “funding agencies” or “officials of any
government.” 

Via WaPo:
Some of the people who might know the most about what has happened with IRD-run programs — former company employees — say they have been barred from speaking about their experiences. Before leaving IRD, they said, they were asked to sign confidentiality agreements.

The agreements warn employees that they could be sued for making any “derogatory, disparaging, negative, critical or defamatory statements” about IRD to anyone, including “funding agencies” or “officials of any government.” Lawyers who reviewed the agreements at the request of The Post said it appeared that they could violate federal protections afforded to whistleblowers under the False Claims Act.

[Read a copy of the confidentiality agreement.]

In a letter to IRD, SIGAR Sopko writes that “IRD’s policy of prohibiting employees fiom informing government officials of critical information appears to violate the False Claims Act, 31 U.S.C. §§ 3729-3733, federal whistleblower statutes, and the Federal Acquisition Regulation. … The threat of retaliation for reporting problems to oversight agencies is all too real. I am simply not willing to tolerate an attempt to institutionalize employee intimidation. Therefore, I am initiating an inquiry into these allegations.”

SIGAR had also asked USAID to consider inserting a provision in all future contracts, cooperative agreements, and grant agreements for Afghanistan reconstruction that forbids the recipients of federal funds from using confidentiality agreements that prohibit their employees from talking to U.S. government officials.

Meanwhile at USAID/OIG — a “well-placed government source” told devex.com that the agency’s watchdog has been conducting an investigation into IRD for “months.” Devex.com reports that Bill Pierce, who serves as a spokesperson for IRD, told Devex that he was not aware of an OIG investigation that had been going on for months. 

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QDDR II Walks Into a Bar and Asks, What Happened to the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations?

– Domani Spero

The State Department says that the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) is “a sweeping assessment of how the Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) can become more efficient, accountable, and effective in a world in which rising powers, growing instability, and technological transformation create new threats, but also new opportunities.” 

In July 2009, Secretary Clinton announced that the State Department, for the first time ever, will conduct a QDDR. The report from a 17-month review was released in December 2010.

Yesterday, Secretary Kerry, joined by Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom, USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah, and recently appointed Special Representative for the QDDR, Thomas Perriello launched the State/USAID review process for the second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR II). Special Rep Thomas Perriello was appointed top QDDR II honcho by Secretary Kerry in February 2014. Previously, Mr. Perrielo served as the congressman from Virginia’s fifth district, and most recently served as CEO of the Center for American Progress.

Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the public launch of the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) review process for the second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) April 22, 2014 (state.gov photo)

Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the public launch of the Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) review process for the second Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) April 22, 2014
(state.gov photo)

Also yesterday at the DPB, the State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said that The 2014 QDDR builds on the foundation established by the 2010 review as a part of Department and USAID’s processes of continuous improvement.” And because AP’s Matthew Lee was in attendance, it was quite a show (see Erik Wemple’s AP reporter scorches State Department spokeswoman on Hillary Clinton initiative over at WaPo).

We understand that the Deputy Secretary will also host a QDDR II Town Hall meeting in Foggy Bottom today.  Perhaps somebody could ask how the State Department is going to fix QDDR I’s offspring, the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations?

Why fix it? Well, in March 2014, State/OIG posted its inspection report (pdf) of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations (CSO). It looks like a huge mess and may need more than therapy.

The CSO was created in November 2011, as directed by the 2010 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), to replace S/CRS and be “the institutional locus for policy and operational solutions for crisis, conflict, and instability” as a whole of government endeavor.  CSO is one of eight bureaus and offices that report to the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. The Under Secretary position was vacant for much of 2013— the second half of CSO’s 2-year existence.  Below are some of the OIG report’s key judgments:

  • The mission of the Bureau of Conflict and Stabilization Operations remains unclear to some of its staff and to many in the Department and the interagency. The bureau was established in 2011 but there remains a lack of consensus on whether coordination, analysis, or operations should dominate its mission.
  • The bureau does an inadequate job managing its large contingent of contractors. The inspection uncovered weaknesses in oversight, performance of inherently governmental functions, and incomplete contracting officer’s representative files. [Redacted] (b) (5)
  • Bureau practices violate basic Department regulations and procedures in several areas, including security, travel and hiring. Procedural and physical security programs require prompt attention.

But there’s more. The following bulleted items are extracted from the OIG report:

Leadership: Leading By Example

  • The Assistant Secretary’s leadership resulted in some progress toward establishing new directions for the bureau in a short time. There have been internal costs, however, as CSO struggles from a lack of directional clarity, lack of transparency, micromanagement, and re-organizational fatigue. The turnover of 54 percent of CSO staff between February 2012 and August 2013 created widespread internal suspicion and job insecurity in addition to confusion in the Department and the interagency.
  • The new noncareer leadership arrived with fresh models and analytics for conflict prevention and intervention, but some of them lacked basic understanding of the roles, responsibilities, and workings of the Department, especially of the regional and functional bureaus they are tasked to support.
  • The Assistant Secretary sought to demonstrate the bureau’s value to senior leaders in the Department and Congress in the bureau’s first year of operation. His early focus has been for CSO to operate where it can, rather than where it should. Relatively few of the bureau’s engagements to date have been in places or on issues of significant foreign policy importance.
  • In addition, the Assistant Secretary and several of his deputies promote a culture of bending and evading rules. For example, the OIG team heard in multiple interviews that CSO leadership loosely interpreted the level of bureau or embassy support for certain of its activities, arguing that doing so is justified by the urgent nature of its work and need to build a more innovative and agile bureau. Interviewees gave examples of disregard for the Department’s procedures, This laxity contributed to low staff scores for morale and leadership of some in the front office. The perceived CSO attitude that it does not have to follow [Redacted] (b) (5) rules is cited by some bureaus and ambassadors as reasons they seek to avoid working with CSO. The Assistant Secretary needs to lead by example and ensure that the deputies do the same.

Top-Heavy Bureau, Staffing “Churn” and Curtailments

  • Since the establishment of CSO, there have been curtailments in six of its 15 Foreign Service positions. The bureau had not been active in recruiting Foreign Service officers in the past, but for the past cycle it actively campaigned for candidates with some success.  Upon the departure of the remaining Foreign Service DAS, there will be no Senior Foreign Service officer in the front office.
  • Athough the bureau is new and its organizational structure in frequent motion, CSO has many relatively new, talented, and dedicated, staff who frequently impress bureaus and embassies when deployed. The staff includes Foreign Service, Civil Service , fellows, and contractors. They function in a chaotic atmosphere and sometimes lack familiarity with their portfolios and the Department.
  • The CSO front office promotes turnover among its staff to foster innovation. This philosophy creates considerable job insecurity and uncertainty. According to one study, 54 percent of CSO’s staff (direct hire and contractor) has turned over since the reorganization. The human resources team has started conducting exit interviews with departing staff to determine their reasons for leaving CSO.
  • Overseas deployments of 6 months or longer offer both opportunities and heavy responsibilities. Deployment burnout is evident as reported in interviews with staff and personal questionnaires, and the OIG team questions how long this model can endure.
  • The bureau is top-heavy. Its front office comprises the Assistant Secretary, a Civil Service Senior Executive Service principal deputy assistant secretary, two noncareer deputy assistant secretaries (DAS), a Senior Foreign Service DAS for administration, and two GS-15 senior advisors. In addition to the four DASes and two front office GS-15 advisors, CSO has 21 GS-15 and FS-01 positions.

The Traveling Band of Conflict Mitigators to Honduras, Nigeria Plus Conferences/Meetings in the UK, Belgium, and Switzerland — Oh, My!

  • In Honduras, CSO estimates the budget for its 2-year anti-violence program at $2 million. Six CSO staff in Washington support the program. According to CSO data, in FY 2013, 28 CSO staff members made 58 trips to Honduras, collectively spending 2,837 days there, at a cost of approximately $450,000. By contrast, USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives employs one staff member in Washington and two in Honduras to oversee a similar but larger $12 million program.
  • In Nigeria, CSO estimates that its anti-violence program in the Niger Delta region will cost $5.6 million. The central component is a television series that will advocate nonviolent ways to address grievances. CSO estimates it will broadcast one hour of programming a week for 13 weeks. It hopes to complement the television series with support to community groups and local governments. CSO envisions maintaining three Washington-based staff members on long-term temporary duty assignments in Nigeria in FY2014 and hiring two more staff locally. It expects to devote up to eight staff—four to five full-time—in Washington to support the program. In August 2013, to prepare for the program and begin implementing it, CSO travelers spent 578 days in Nigeria at a cost in excess of $111,000.
  • Many CSO employees commented in OIG personal questionnaires and interviews that some front office travel to conferences and meetings, especially to Europe, appeared to be linked more to personal interests than to the bureau’s mission. During FY 2013, CSO employees took 17 trips to the United Kingdom, 7 trips to Belgium, and 6 trips to Switzerland. In one case, the PDAS and two other DASes were in London at the same time for different meetings.
  • Justifications provided in the approved requests for travel authorization and invitational travel often do not contain sufficient detail to link the trips directly to CSO goals. According to 14 FAM 533.4-1, authorizing officials must ensure that conference travel is necessary to accomplish agency goals. Likewise, Department policy on gifts of invitational travel in 2 FAM 962.1-8e (1) (b) states that travel must relate to an employee’s official duties and represent priority use of the traveling employee’s time. Without adequate justification, funds and staff time devoted to travel and trip support could be wasted. More transparency in the travel approval process also could increase staff understanding of the purpose of travel.

Morale needs duct tape over there!

  • OIG’s pre-inspection survey results reflected lower than normal morale among bureau staff, in terms of both personal and office morale. Ninety-six percent of CSO staff who completed personal questionnaires responded to questions on morale. The bureau average for office morale was 2.75 and for personal morale 3.09, on a 5-point scale. Bureau leadership sought to attribute these low scores to dissatisfaction among former S/CRS staff who, due to reorganization and other changes, perceived themselves as marginalized in the new bureau. The OIG team found that dissatisfaction was more widespread than this explanation suggested.
  • Comments on morale in the personal questionnaires cited many factors behind low bureau morale. The most common included cramped office space/lack of privacy (cited by 20 percent of the respondents); too many reorganizations and physical moves; pressure from senior management (including the Assistant Secretary and deputies) to bend, force, or evade Department regulations and hire favored candidates; top management’s philosophy of “churn” to prevent people staying in CSO for more than 3 years; lack of clear communication or inconsistent application of policies; shifting priorities; fear of retribution from senior management; and the residual impact of the reorganization and layoffs during the creation of CSO.
  • The status of the former S/CRS staff and the impact the reorganization had on them merits attention. Although some have been promoted to leadership positions, surveys and interviews with other S/CRS staff indicate they feel they are treated shabbily, are encouraged to leave because they no longer fit the organization’s new needs, and are not valued. CSO leadership needs to find ways to address these perceptions.

Integrated Not Replicated — Really?

  • Several Department offices and other agencies work on issues similar to CSO’s. For example, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor promotes democracy and the rule of law, including free and fair elections. The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement trains police. The Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs’ Middle East Partnership Initiative manages programs that support democratic transition in the region. USAID has experience, infrastructure, and programs in place in most nations facing conflict.
  • USAID’s Office of Transition Initiatives has a mission statement almost identical to that of CSO. CSO and the Office of Transition Initiatives have worked together on several engagements with the participation of staff from both. The QDDR acknowledged that the capabilities of USAID and the Department often overlap. But their efforts must be integrated, not replicated. When asked about the imperative to engage in program activities overseas, many CSO staff told the OIG team that the bureau needs to implement overseas programs to be considered relevant and influential within the Department and interagency.

These are all troubling items, of course, and there’s more but this report is frankly, depressing to read. We should note that another disturbing content of the State/OIG report is the significant number of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaints within CSO in the last year. The per capita rate of informal complaints from direct-hire employees according to State/OIG is five times the Department average. So the bureau tasked with “operational solutions for crisis, conflict, and instability” not only had a 54 percent turnover (see page 8) since reorganization, it also has five times the agency’s average in informal EEO complaints.

Maybe this sounds crazy — but we think that the bureau with “Stability Operations” on its name ought to have stability, steadiness and firmness in its operation before it starts “fixing”, “mitigating” or what have you in conflict areas.

Perhaps QDDR II will provide an opportunity to do just that?

If not, there’s always QDDR III in 2018.

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