GAO to @StateDept: Psst! Leadership Attention and Focus, Please!

 

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released its report  on Tillerson’s redesign projects (although those projects were no longer called that).  GAO looked into the status of the reform efforts that the State Department reported to Congress in February 2018 and also looked at the extent to which State addressed key practices critical to the successful implementation of agency reform efforts.
GAO has determined that “State leadership has not provided the focus necessary to support the officials responsible for implementing all these reform projects.”
Uh-oh! Some excerpts below.

Remember the Listening Tour?

In response to the March 2017 Executive Order 13781 and the ensuing OMB memo, State launched a “listening tour” intended to gather ideas and feedback from State and USAID employees. As a key component of this outreach effort, State hired a contractor to design and administer a confidential online survey, which was sent to all State and USAID employees in May 2017. According to the contractor’s report, the survey had a 43 percent response rate, with 27,837 State employees and 6,142 USAID employees responding to the survey. The contractor also conducted in-person interviews with a randomly selected cross section of personnel, which included 175 employees from State and 94 from USAID.

17 Reform Projects Plus

The planning teams developed specific reform projects, listed below in table 2 (17 reform projects, see page7-8 of report), which State described in the fiscal year 2019 budget justification it submitted to Congress in February 2018.9  According to implementing officials, all these projects predated the Executive Order and OMB memo issued in the spring of 2017. They also noted, however, that the administration’s reform-related directives helped advance State’s preexisting efforts by focusing management attention and agency resources on these projects.  (9 In addition to these reform projects, State’s Congressional Budget Justification also reported seven changes related to its reform efforts that are complete or underway. State reported that it is (1) expanding employment opportunities for eligible family members; (2) implementing cloud-based email and collaboration; (3) increasing flexibilities for employees on medical evacuations; (4) streamlining the security clearance process; (5) simplifying the permanent change-of-station travel process; (6) improving temporary duty travel options and experience; and (7) integrating USAID and State global address lists.

Status: Completed-1, Continuing-13, Stalled-2, Discontinued-1

As of April 2019, according to State officials and status reports, State had completed one of its 17 reform projects; 13 projects were continuing; two projects were stalled pending future decisions or actions; and one project was discontinued.
[…]
According to State officials, as of April 2019, although 13 of the reform projects described in the fiscal year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification were considered by State to be continuing, some had been scaled back, slowed down, or both as a result of senior leadership’s shifting priorities and attention.

Leadership Focus and Attention

In February 2018, State reported to  Congress in its fiscal year 2019 budget justification that it was pursuing the reform projects we described above. In March 2018, the first transition affecting the implementation of those projects occurred when the President removed the then Secretary of State and nominated the then CIA director to replace him; in April 2018, the Senate confirmed the current Secretary. According to senior State officials, when the new Secretary took office, his top priority was ending the hiring freeze and restarting a concerted recruitment effort because vacancies in key positions and a general staffing shortfall would otherwise have led to what one senior official described as a “cataclysmic failure” at State. These senior officials noted that the new Secretary decided some of the existing reform projects were not well designed and that he wanted greater emphasis on cybersecurity and data analytics. They said he also wanted to pursue other initiatives, including a new proposal to create a Global Public Affairs Bureau by merging two existing bureaus. The senior officials told us that the Secretary authorized responsible bureaus and offices to determine whether to continue, revise, or terminate existing reform efforts or launch new initiatives. However, State did not formally communicate other changes in its reform priorities to Congress, such as its plan to no longer combine State and USAID’s real property offices.
[…]
State initiated another transition in leadership of the reform efforts in April 2018 when it disbanded the dedicated planning teams overseeing the reform efforts and delegated responsibility for implementing the reform projects to relevant bureaus and offices. As the planning teams finished working on their particular reform efforts and prepared to transfer these projects to the bureaus, some planning teams provided memos and reports on the status of their efforts and offered recommendations for the bureaus to consider when determining next steps in implementing the projects. Some implementing officials, however, reported that they received little or no direction regarding their projects or any other indication of continued interest in their project from department or bureau leadership aside from the initial notification that the project had been assigned to them.
[…]
Various State officials noted that the prolonged absence of Senate confirmed leadership in key positions posed additional challenges. We have previously testified that it is more difficult to obtain buy-in on longterm plans and efforts that are underway when an agency has leaders in acting positions because federal employees are historically skeptical of whether the latest efforts to make improvements are going to be sustained over a period of time

Leadership Transition Effects:

Taken together, the leadership transitions at State had two significant effects on State’s reform efforts. First, the transition of departmental leadership and lack of direction and communication about subsequent changes in leadership’s priorities contributed to uncertainty among implementing officials about the future of individual reform projects. Second, according to implementing officials, the transition of project responsibility from dedicated teams to bureau-level implementing officials resulted in fewer resources and a lack of senior leadership involvement and attention for some projects. Absent leadership decisions, implementing officials will continue to struggle with understanding leadership priorities with regard to State’s reform efforts. Similarly, for any projects that are determined to be leadership priorities, day-to-day implementation activities will continue to be hampered by the lack of a dedicated team to guide and manage the agency’s overall reform effort.

Don’t Forget USAID: Continuing Projects? Where? What?
GAO has not made any recommendations to USAID and yet, the agency has submitted a written response to highlight the State Department’s unwillingness to coordinate with them. What’s this about? (see Appendix III-Comments from the U.S. Agency for International Development – PDF/page25-26):

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Snapshot: @StateDept’s Redesign Timeline and USAID’s Suspended Cooperation

 

 

 

State and USAID submitted a joint reform plan to OMB in September 2017. According to USAID documents, USAID suspended its coordination with State in January 2018 because State could not articulate the objectives for the joint reform effort. GAO has ongoing work reviewing the status of USAID’s reform efforts.

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GAO Calls For Pompeo’s “Personal Attention” to Address Priority Open Recommendations

 

The Government Accountability Office’s Gene L. Dodaro, the Comptroller General of the United States has written to Secretary Pompeo calling for his “personal attention” to the GAO’s multiple “open recommendations that should be given high priority.”

In November 2018, we reported on a government-wide basis that 77 percent of our recommendations made in fiscal year 2014 had been closed as implemented.2 State’s recommendation implementation rate for the same time frame was 91 percent. As of March 2019, State had 101 open recommendations.

Among the recommendations are apparently 20 open priority recommendations. The State has implemented 10 of the 20 recommendations since GAO wrote Foggy Bottom a letter in February 2018. And now GAO has urged the secretary’s “personal attention” for the remaining recommendations. In addition, the GAO has added eight new recommendations as priorities in 2019; these are related to data quality, the administration of hardship pay, and embassy construction and now brings the total number of open priority recommendations to 18.

Here are some:

Security of Overseas Personnel and Facilities: Of the 18 open priority recommendations, eight are related to the security and safety of personnel serving overseas. State concurred with these eight recommendations and reported some steps taken to address them.

Fully implementing our two priority recommendations on personnel security could help ensure State personnel are prepared to operate in dangerous situations. In March 2014, we recommended that State take steps to ensure that U.S. civilian personnel are in compliance with the Foreign Affairs Counter Threat (FACT) training requirements. State has taken action to clarify agency responsibilities and plans to verify FACT compliance. To fully implement these recommendations, State needs to complete and carry out its plans to monitor and verify compliance with the FACT training requirement for permanent and temporary personnel.

Fully implementing our three priority recommendations on physical security at overseas posts could improve the safety and security of personnel serving overseas, particularly in high-threat locations. For example, in July 2015, we recommended that State take steps to clarify existing standards and security-related guidance for diplomatic residences. Although State has conducted a review of existing security standards for diplomatic residences, State needs to complete its efforts to update these standards and take several additional actions to improve its ability to identify and mitigate risks and enhance security policies.

Fully implementing our three recommendations related to transportation security, such as those related to armored vehicles, could improve State’s efforts to manage transportation-related security risks overseas. In October 2016, we recommended that State take steps to enhance its efforts to manage such security risks, including by improving its related guidance and developing monitoring procedures. Although State implemented a shared site for reporting and monitoring each post’s armored vehicle fleet, State needs to create consolidated guidance that specifies transportation security requirements to ensure that posts comply with State’s armored vehicle policy

Security Assistance: Every year the United States provides billions of dollars in assistance to other nations in the form of security equipment and technical assistance. In April 2016, we recommended that State develop time frames for establishing policies and procedures to help the U.S. government provide a more reasonable level of assurance that equipment is not transferred to foreign security forces when there is credible information that a unit has committed a gross violation of human rights. State concurred with this recommendation and reported that it drafted standard operating procedures for conducting equipment vetting globally. To fully implement this recommendation, State needs to finalize its revised guidance for overseas posts that are responsible for vetting foreign security forces prior to transferring equipment to them. Information

Technology: One open priority recommendation, if fully implemented, could improve information technology at State. In May 2016, we found that State spent approximately 80 percent of its information technology budget on operating and maintaining older systems. For example, three of State’s visa systems were more than 20 years old. The software for one of these systems was no longer supported by the vendor, creating challenges related to information security. We recommended that State identify and plan to modernize or replace legacy systems. State concurred with the recommendation. According to State, it is developing a plan for modernizing and migrating each eligible system to the cloud by the end of fiscal year 2019.

Data Quality: By fully implementing three priority recommendations we are adding this year, State could improve the quality of foreign assistance data, including data on democracy assistance, and ensure consistency in published information.

Administration of Hardship Pay: When fully implemented, two priority recommendations could improve State’s administration of hardship pay and its ability to identify and recover improper payments related to hardship pay. In September 2017, we recommended that State assess the cost-effectiveness of its policies and procedures for stopping and starting hardship pay and analyze available data to identify posts at risk of improper payments for hardship pay, among other things. State concurred with the recommendations and reported that it is working to identify changes in policy that would result in greater efficiencies and is planning to utilize the Overseas Personnel System to centrally collect and analyze arrival and departure data. To fully address these recommendations, State needs to provide documentation that the efforts are complete and that the actions have enabled the department to more easily identify and prevent improper payments.

Embassy Construction: By fully implementing three priority recommendations, State could improve budgetary decision-making as well as better align Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) staffing levels and capacity with workforce needs for its Capital Security Construction Program (CSCP). In September 2018, we recommended that State determine the estimated effects of cost inflation on planned CSCP embassy construction capacity and time frames and update this information for stakeholders on a regular basis, such as through the annual budgeting process. We also recommended State provide an analysis for stakeholders identifying those embassies that still need to be replaced to meet State’s security standards and estimating total CSCP costs and projected time frames needed to complete those projects. In addition, we recommended State conduct an OBO-wide workforce analysis to assess staffing levels and workload capacity needed to carry out the full range of OBO’s mission goals, to include the CSCP. State concurred with the recommendations and described several actions planned or under way to address these issues. To fully implement these recommendations, State needs to provide documentation that it has completed these efforts.

Click PDF for the full list of the the GAO’s 18 priority open recommendations for the Department of State as of April 2019.

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Snapshot: Student and Exchange Visitor Visas-Issuances/Refusals (2012-2017)

Via GAO | August 2018:

There are three categories of nonimmigrant visas for prospective students and exchange visitors. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement administers the Student and Exchange Visitor Program, under which schools are certified for enrollment of foreign students (i.e., F and M visa holders) pursuing academic, vocational, or other nonacademic studies. The Department of State’s Exchange Visitor Program manages the issuance of J visas to exchange visitors with programs for foreign nationals such as teachers, certain scholars, au pairs, camp counselors, and professorial programs. Foreign nationals on F, M, or J visas in the United States are monitored through U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Student and Exchange Visitor Information System.

  • F Student in an academic or language training program and their dependents.
  • J Exchange visitor and their dependents.
  • M Vocational student or other nonacademic student and their dependents.

Top 5 nationalities (FY 2017): Chinese 19%, Indian 10%, Korean 4%,  Vietnamese 4%,  Brazilian, 3%

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Snapshot: NIV Adjudications For Student and Exchange Visitor Visas, FY2012-2017

Via GAO:

NIV adjudications for student and exchange visitor visas decreased by about 2 percent from fiscal years 2012 through 2017 (1.01 million to 993,000) overall, but experienced a peak in fiscal year 2015 of 1.2 million.

State officials partly attributed the overall changes in student and exchange visitor visa adjudications to the extension of the validity period of such visas for Chinese nationals, which represented the largest single country of nationality for student and exchange visitor visas in fiscal year 2017 (19 percent). In November 2014, the United States extended the validity period of the F visa for academic students from 1 year to 5 years. State officials noted that similar to tourist and business visitor visas, there was an initial surge in Chinese F-visa applicants due to the new 5-year F-visa validity period that began in fiscal year 2015, but the number dropped subsequently because Chinese students with such 5-year visas no longer needed to apply as frequently for F visas. State data for this time period indicate that the number of visa adjudications for F visas for Chinese nationals increased from about 267,000 in fiscal year 2014 to 301,000 in fiscal year 2015, followed by a decline of 172,000 in fiscal year 2016 and 134,000 in fiscal year 2017.

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Oh, don’t forget to give this a read. WH considered ban for Chinese students? They make up 19% of all student visas issued in FY2017.

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Snapshot: Authorized/Ordered Departures and Suspended Ops at Overseas Posts (FY13-FY16)

Posted: 1:18 pm PT

 

Via GAO

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Contractor Seeks PR Consultant For State/OBO’s Ideal Operational State (IOS) Public Relations Initiatives

Posted: 3:11 am ET

 

We recently posted about an OBO survey in this blog (see @StateDept Building Ops Employees Asked to Pick Top Ten Core Values From a 99 Values Menu).

Related to State/OBO, Moss Cape LLC, an Alaskan Tribal 8(a) Certified Entity with corporate headquarters in Anchorage Alaska is currently seeking a Public Relations Consultant for the State Department’s Overseas Building Operations (OBO) Ideal Operational State (IOS) public relations initiatives. The job announcement is posted at the mosscape website as well as on Simply Hired and Indeed.

This PR consultant has some interesting responsibilities that include “Support the Organization and Transformation Advisor in developing a strategic PR/Communications schedule” and “Create thought leadership materials to include leveraging creative tools (i.e. Foreign Service Institute) for delivery of communications” among other things.

Why does OBO, the overseas buildings arm of the State Department have “public relations initiatives” and why does it need a PR consultant to “create thought leadership materials” for the Foreign Service Institute?

According to a March 2017 GAO report OBO recently established an initiative—termed the Ideal Operational State—to explore long-term ways to centralize and standardize data collection across OBO’s operations.

According to OBO officials, this Excellence-related initiative is intended to provide a long-term data solution that will allow for better program management across OBO’s business activities as well as better tracking of project metrics such as cost and schedule performance. The study group tasked with assessing OBO’s current information technology systems and potential market alternatives held a kickoff in May 2016 and, after a series of working sessions and vendor evaluations, recommended a series of actions to OBO’s senior management, including an upgrade and modification of existing OBO management software. OBO management approved action on these recommendations in October 2016.

For those interested, the job announcement is posted below:

Responsible for Overseas Building Operations (OBO) Ideal Operational State (IOS) public relations initiatives. Creates, manages, and implements PR campaigns with the goal of enriching the IOS Program’s position in the eyes of external and internal stakeholders. Maintains strong relationships with the client and key stakeholders. Will effectively disseminate and communicate the program mission, policies and goals to the entire organization. Will inform the organization of all initiatives, processes, and outcomes relating to the program, in such a way as to create interest, acceptance, and engagement.

Responsibilities

  • Plan and direct public relations initiative, designed to create and maintain a favorable public image for the client and the IOS program
  • Create IOS program literature, talking points, sound bites, and other content and user success stories for trifolds, videos, presentations, roadshows, and other marketing materials
  • Support the Organization and Transformation Advisor in developing a strategic PR/Communications schedule to be rolled up into a larger Integrated Master Schedule Coordinate scheduling and logistics w/ internal and external clients, as needed
  • Coordinate conference, trade shows, and press interviews
  • Develop content for the IOS Program’s website to attract more traffic and increase stakeholder engagement and interest; Recommend, implement and maintain site design and operation
  • Work with the IOS team for timely and useable content submissions
  • Copyedit, proofread, and revise communications
  • Design and launch email marketing campaigns
  • Plan pre-training communications rollout in anticipation of the execution of the training program
  • Promote IOS program successes and services through public relations initiatives
  • Create thought leadership materials to include leveraging creative tools (i.e. Foreign Service Institute) for delivery of communications
  • Identify, develop and execute communications strategy for key stakeholders (internal and external) contacts and customer references
  • Research lessons learned (UK Ministry of Defense, Smithsonian and DHS etc.) and industry trends to supplement narrative
  • Develop fresh story ideas
  • Conduct extensive stakeholder outreach
  • Prepare briefing materials
  • Manage and track communication dissemination
  • Prepare agendas, as needed
  • Help to clarify the organization’s point of view to their main constituency
  • Advise and keep PM/DPM informed of not only current state but also future strategies
  • Create high quality, well executed clear and engaging written materials
  • Develop promotional strategies to further engage the organization in the program’s mission
  • Organize communication events/opportunities to further educate/inform the organization of the program’s initiatives, processes, and outcomes
  • Develop and build key relationship with internal and external stakeholders
  • Coordinates with the program team to design and distribute bulletins, newsletters, website content, flyers, and media releases
  • Help gather information, write, edit and disseminate content for internal and external customers
  • Support comprehensive, proactive social media initiatives
  • Evaluate social media opportunities for reach, effectiveness, and required resource investment

Qualifications

  • Education:
    • Bachelor’s Degree in Communications, English or related field
  • Required Knowledge/Experience:
    • 5+ years of directly related experience
    • Full Microsoft Office Suite expertise, particularly in PowerPoint and Word functionality
    • Experience working in or directly with web-based media
    • Ability to write clearly and adapt writing to suit various audiences
    • Strong interpersonal and oral communications skills, experience with a variety of audiences
    • Collaborate with cross functional teams
    • Coordinate with and manage stake holders
    • Develop schedules and maintain deadlines
    • Strong technical and design skills to build visual layouts desired in conjunction with PM/DPM and Organizational Transformation Advisor, facilitate stakeholder workshops, roadshows, training sessions etc. as needed
    • Strong strategic planning capabilities with equally strong tactical execution skills
  • Preferred Knowledge/Experience:
    • Experience working with Department of State Customer

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Snapshot: Stop/Start Process For Hardship Pay For Employees Traveling Away From Post

Posted: 12:57 am ET
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Via GAO:

Stop/Start Process For Hardship Pay (click on image for larger view)

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Snapshot: @StateDept Process For Determining Danger Pay Eligibility

Posted: 3:07 am ET
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Via GAO:

Danger Pay Process, State Department via GAO, September 2017

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GAO Reviews @StateDept’s Hardship and Danger Pay Allowances

Posted: 4:21 am ET
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Back in February 2015, we blogged about the State Department then considering changes to its danger pay allowance (see Danger Danger, Bang Bang — State Department Eyes Changes in Danger Pay). In September 2015, we updated that post as new danger pay designation came into effect (see New Danger Pay Differential Posts: See Gainers, Plus Losers Include One Post on Evacuation Status.)

More recently, the Government Accountability Office was asked by the House Oversight and Government Reform (HOGR) Committee to review the State Department’s administration of hardship and danger pay for its employees. The GAO report examines the following:

(1) State’s spending at overseas posts for hardship and danger pay in fiscal years 2011-2016
(2) the extent to which State has followed its process for determining hardship and danger pay rates at overseas posts
(3) the procedures State uses to implement its policies for stopping and starting hardship and danger pay when employees temporarily leave their assigned overseas posts
(4) the extent to which State has identified improper payments related to hardship and danger pay.

The GAO made the following conclusions:

  • State mostly followed the new processes it established in 2015 for determining hardship and danger pay rates and locations, in a few cases it awarded Director Points that increased hardship pay for posts without clearly explaining in its documentation how the conditions at these posts met State’s criteria. Without clearer documentation, State cannot provide assurances that it is applying Director Points consistently across posts and tenures of ALS Directors, potentially leading to increased spending on hardship pay not otherwise justified under State’s current process for determining rates.  (The report notes that 12 of the 15 memos did not clearly document how the posts met State’s criteria for awarding Director Points.  State approved hardship rates for these posts that were 5 percent higher than the rate they would have received in the absence of Director Points. State policies note that Director Points may be awarded for extreme conditions not adequately captured in State’s written standards).
  • State has not assessed the cost- effectiveness of its policies and procedures for stopping and starting hardship pay when employees temporarily leave their overseas posts. State officials noted that these policies and procedures are resource intensive to implement and contribute to improper payments, which are costly to recover. Without reviewing the cost-effectiveness of these policies and procedures, State does not know whether they are effective, efficient, and economical.
  • By not analyzing available data compiled by CGFS, State may be missing an opportunity to identify, recover, and prevent improper payments related to hardship pay with the potential to produce cost savings for the U.S. government. Our independent analysis of State data identified overseas posts accounting for millions of dollars in hardship spending in fiscal years 2015 and 2016 that may be at high risk for improper payments.

It also offers the following recommendations for the following offices:

Director of Allowance/ALS — should clearly document how the conditions at relevant posts meet the criteria for Director Points to ensure that hardship pay rates for overseas posts are consistently determined across posts and tenures of ALS Directors.

Undersecretary of Management — should assess the cost- effectiveness of State’s policies and procedures for stopping and starting hardship pay for employees who temporarily leave their assigned overseas posts. (Recommendation 2)

Department’s Comptroller/CGFS — should analyze available diplomatic cable data from overseas posts to identify posts at risk of improper payments for hardship pay, identify any improper payments, and take steps to recover and prevent them. (Recommendation 3)

Other details:

FOUR POSTS: The GAO conducted fieldwork at four posts that receive hardship or danger pay: Islamabad, Pakistan; Mexico City, Mexico; New Delhi, India; and Tunis, Tunisia.

THREE-QUARTERS OF FS WORKFORCE:  According to State data, about three-quarters of the department’s Foreign Service overseas work force, as of September 30, 2016, was based at a post designated for hardship pay.

HARDSHIP PAY: As of February 5, 2017, State offered hardship pay at 188 of its 273 overseas posts (about 69 percent).

DANGER PAY: As of February 5, 2017, State had provided danger pay at 25 of its 273 overseas posts (about 9 percent).

SIX POSTS: As of February 5, 2017, 21 overseas posts were eligible for both hardship and danger allowances, and 6 posts were receiving the maximum 70 percent combined rate for hardship and danger pay: Bangui, Central African Republic; Basrah, Iraq; Kabul, Afghanistan; Mogadishu, Somalia; Peshawar, Pakistan; and Tripoli, Libya.

AFGHANISTAN AND IRAQ: State spent about $138 million on hardship pay in Afghanistan and Iraq in fiscal years 2011 through 2016— about 19 percent of its total spending on hardship pay. State spent about $125 million on danger pay in these two countries over the same period, almost half of its worldwide danger pay spending.

1 BILLION (FY2011-2015) :  State spent about $1 billion for hardship and danger pay in fiscal years 2011 through 2016, including $732 million for State employees serving in locations designated for hardship pay and $266 million for employees serving in locations designated for danger pay.

STOP/START PAYMENTS: According to CGFS data, overseas posts sent diplomatic cables requiring CGFS to make more than 10,000 manual adjustments to temporarily stop and start employees’ hardship pay in both 2015 and 2016.

IMPROPER PAYMENTS: CGFS identified a total of about $2.9 million in improper payments for hardship and danger pay in fiscal years 2015 and 2016.  As of March 2017, CGFS had recovered almost $2.7 million, or about 92 percent, of the improper payments it identified in 2015 and 2016 related to hardship and danger pay. According to CGFS officials, the bureau was continuing efforts to recover the remaining 8 percent.

The full report is available to read here: GAO OVERSEAS ALLOWANCES 9-2017.
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