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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Is @StateDept Reporting Its Vacant Positions Under the Vacancies Reform Act? Barely, According to GAO Database

Posted: 1:56 am ET
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The Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998 (Vacancies Reform Act) was enacted on October 21, 1998. (Pub. L. No. 105 -277, Div. C, tit. 1, §151, 112 Stat. 2681-611-16, codified at 5 U.S.C.§§3345-3349d.) The provides new rules for the temporary filling of vacant executive agency positions that require presidential appointment with Senate confirmation. According to the Government Accountability Office, under the Act, an acting officer may serve in a vacant position for no longer than 210 days, with adjustments to be made if the President submits a nomination to fill the position and under other specified circumstances.

The Act requires executive departments and agencies to report to the Congress and to the Comptroller General (GAO) certain information about a vacancy immediately upon the occurrence of events specified in the Act. The Act also provides that the Comptroller General report to specified congressional committees, the President, and the Office of Personnel Management if the Comptroller General determines that an acting officer is serving longer than permitted by the Act.

The GAO notes that its database includes only vacancy information that federal departments and agencies have actually submitted to GAO and may not be complete or the most up-to-date information regarding those vacancies.

The Partnership for Public Service’s  appointment update notes that 48 positions have been referred to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 16 have been reported out, and only 9 have been confirmed as of July 31, 2017. PPS’ Political AppointeeTracker for the State Department includes 131 positions.

The State Department has only 36 vacant positions reported to the GAO.  The GAO database for State Department includes one filled vacancy, the Secretary of State, zero officials with pending nominations, 24 positions with identified acting officials (some of those listed have since left the positions), and the rest are positions with no acting officials.

Here’s the relevant part going forward with a ghost town at the top floors of the State Department, via the GAO:

If a vacancy exists during the 60-day period beginning on a transitional inauguration day, the 210-day period begins 90 days after such transitional inauguration day or the date the vacancy occurs, whichever is later. 5 U.S.C. § 3349a(b). The State CFO position became vacant on January 20, 2009, the transitional inauguration day. Accordingly, the 210-day period began to run 90 days after January 20, 2009—on April 20, 2009—and ended on November 16, 2009. Consequently, the position should have been vacant beginning November 17, 2009, until June 12, 2012, when the position was filled.  […]  We have previously determined that using the acting title of a position during the period in which the position should be vacant violates the time limitations in the Vacancies Reform Act.

The item above is from the GAO report on the Violation of the 210-Day Limit Imposed by the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998—Chief Financial Officer, Department of State when James Millette served as Acting CFO at State after November 16, 2009, through on or about November 15, 2011.

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If @StateDept Refuses to Spend $80M Appropriated Funds, Could It End Up in Court? #GAO

Posted: 3:48 pm PT
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Last month, we wrote about the 1974 Congressional Budget and Impoundment Control Act; the Act  inspired by then President Nixon’s refusal to disburse nearly $12 billion of appropriated funds by Congress.

Today, Politico is reporting that Secretary Tillerson is resisting the pleas of State Department officials to spend nearly $80 million allocated by Congress for fighting terrorist propaganda and Russian disinformation.

“It is highly unusual for a Cabinet secretary to turn down money for his department. But more than five months into his tenure, Tillerson has not issued a simple request for the money earmarked for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, $60 million of which is now parked at the Pentagon. Another$19.8 million sits untouched at the State Department as Tillerson’s aides reject calls from career diplomats and members of Congress to put the money to work against America’s adversaries.”

The $60 million will expire on Sept. 30 if not transferred to State by then, current and former State Department officials told POLITICO.
[…]
Last month, Republican Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio pressed Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan on whether Tillerson considers the Global Engagement Center a priority and urged that hiring caps be lifted so the center can expand.

We anticipate that Congress could allocate more funds for the State Department than requested by the Trump Administration.  Given that the Administration has proposed some 30% cuts in its own request, it will be worth watching what Tillerson will do with the bulk of appropriated funds that the Administration did not ask for. The reported $80 million for the State Department’s Global Engagement Center that the State Department has not released could be the first test.

The State Department could violate the 1974 Impoundment Control Act (ICA) if it refuses to obligate funds for policy reasons without President Trump sending a special message to both Houses of Congress.  It is also considered a violation is if it sets aside funds or intentionally slows down spending, or if it proposes a deferral but the timing is such that funds could be expected to lapse before they could be obligated.

Under ICA, an impoundment is any action or inaction by an officer or employee of the federal government that precludes obligation or expenditure of budget authority.  The Act applies to salaries and expenses appropriations as well as program appropriations.

The Impoundment Control Act of 1974 (ICA) provides authority for agencies to “impound” or withhold the obligation of funds in certain circumstances. There are two ways for withholding funds, through a deferral or through proposed rescission. In both both cases, the President is required to send a “special message” to the House and the Senate specifying the following:

(1) the amount of budget authority which he proposes to be rescinded or which is to be so reserved;
(2) any account, department, or establishment of the Government to which such budget authority is available for obligation, and the specific project or governmental functions involved;
(3) the reasons why the budget authority should be rescinded or is to be so reserved;
(4) to the maximum extent practicable, the estimated fiscal, economic, and budgetary effect of the proposed rescission or of the reservation; and
(5) all facts, circumstances, and considerations relating to or bearing upon the proposed rescission or the reservation and the decision to effect the proposed rescission or the reservation, and to the maximum extent practicable, the estimated effect of the pro- posed rescission or the reservation upon the objects, purposes, and programs for which the budget authority is provided.

A deferral is used if the President wants to temporarily withhold obligation of funds (but not beyond the end of the fiscal year). A rescission is used if the President wants to permanently withhold funds from obligation and for Congress to cancel the budget authority (before that authority would otherwise expire). The latter can be accomplished only through legislation.

The GAO’s Principles of Federal Appropriations Law notes that “The President is authorized to withhold budget authority that is the subject of a rescission proposal for a period of 45 days of continuous session following receipt of the proposal. Unless Congress acts to approve the proposed rescission within that time, the budget authority must be made available for obligation.”

Since Congress is on break in August, and the fiscal year ends on Sept 30, we don’t think there’s enough time to notify Congress of the rescission if that’s something the State Department is considering for the $80 million GEC funds.

So what happens if an agency withholds appropriated funds, and refuses to spend it?

Continue reading

GAO Cites Gaps in @StateDept’s Crisis and Evacuation Preparedness for Overseas Posts

Posted: 3:11 am ET
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The GAO recently released its review of the State Department policies and procedures for evacuating overseas posts. The report notes that from October 2012 to September 2016, the State Department evacuated overseas post staff and family members from 23 overseas posts.  The evacuation was in response to various threats, such as terrorism, civil unrest, and natural disasters. Overseas posts undergoing evacuations generally have three types of movement: authorized departure (voluntary), ordered departure (mandatory) of specific post staff or family members, and suspended operations (closure).

The report also note that in fiscal years 2010 through 2016, State’s reported costs associated with evacuating from posts on 53 occasions were roughly $25.5 million.

“According to State officials, costs associated with evacuations varied due to several factors, including the number of post staff and family members evacuated. In fiscal year 2014, costs associated with evacuating Embassy Maseru in Lesotho were roughly $20,000, while in the same year, costs associated with evacuating Embassy Sana’a in Yemen were roughly $1.9 million.”

Certainly, a big chunk of that cost has to come from security and transportation. Below are the significant gaps cited by the GAO in the State Department’s crisis and evac preparedness:

U.S. personnel working at overseas posts, along with the family members who accompany them, face a range of threats to their safety and security—such as terrorism, civil unrest, and natural disasters. To help protect them, State has established processes to prepare overseas posts for crises and to conduct evacuations. However, State has significant gaps in implementation of its preparedness processes for crises and evacuations at overseas posts.

➥Overseas posts are not completing required annual Emergency Action Plans (EAP) updates

➥ Diplomatic Security is not identifying incomplete updates in its Emergency Action Plan (EAP) reviews

➥ The EAPs themselves are not readily usable during emergency situations

➥ Although regular drilling is a critical crisis preparedness task, very few overseas posts have completed all required annual drills

➥ Because overseas posts are not submitting required after-action reports containing lessons learned following evacuations, the State Department is missing important opportunities to identify challenges and best practices and to make changes to prepare for future evacuations from overseas posts.

The report concludes that “while State has taken initial actions— including some actions in response to our ongoing work—to improve implementation of its preparedness processes for crises and evacuations, significant shortcomings exist.” It also says that “while each of these gaps is of concern, taken together, they increase the risk that post staff are not sufficiently prepared to handle crisis and emergency situations.”

 Other details excerpted from the report:

Late Annual Updates:

In fiscal year 2016, about 1 in 12 overseas posts were late in completing required annual updates. On average, these posts were about 6 months late in completing their EAP updates. For fiscal year 2016, the list of posts that were late in completing their annual EAP updates included 7 posts rated high or critical in political violence or terrorism.

DS Does Not Fully Review Key Sections of EAPs Submitted by Overseas Posts

The FAH directs DS to review each EAP submitted by an overseas post during the annual EAP review cycle to ensure that EAPs include updated information needed by State headquarters and other agencies to monitor or assist in responding to emergency situations at posts.22 To conduct these annual reviews, DS Emergency Plans Review Officers in Washington use a list of 27 key EAP sections that the Emergency Plans Review Office has determined should be updated each year.23 According to DS officials, Emergency Plans Review Officers spot check these 27 key EAP sections to review and approve each EAP. In addition, DS officials told us that Review Officers consider forms included in key EAP sections that they spot check to meet the annual update requirement if the forms were updated up to 3 years prior to the check.24

DS does not document its annual EAP review process. We requested the results of the Emergency Plans Review Officer reviews, including data on who conducted them and what deficiencies, if any, were found. Federal internal control standards call for agency management to evaluate performance and hold individuals accountable for their internal control responsibilities.25 However, DS was unable to provide copies of the reviews completed because the Emergency Plans Review Officers do not document these results.

Emergency Action Plans Are Viewed As Lengthy and Cumbersome Documents That Are Not Readily Usable in Emergency Situations

While officials from State headquarters and all six posts we met with told us that EAPs are not readily usable in emergency situations, officials at five of the six posts we met with also said there is value for post staff to participate in the process of updating EAPs to prepare for emergencies. The process of updating the EAP, they noted, includes reviewing applicable checklists and contact lists before an emergency occurs, which can help post staff be better prepared in the event of an emergency. Officials at two of the six posts we met with also observed that EAPs contain large amounts of guidance because it is easier for responsible staff at post to complete required updates to their specific sections if all the guidance they need is directly written into each EAP.

The GAO reviewers were told that EAPs are often more than 800 pages long. “Our review of a nongeneralizable sample of 20 EAPs confirmed this; the 20 EAPs in our sample ranged from 913 to 1,356 pages long,” the report said.

One other footnote says that “while each major section, annex, and appendix of an EAP had its own table of contents, the full EAP lacked a single, comprehensive table of contents or index.”

A new system sometime this year?

The State Department is reportedly in the process of developing a new electronic system for overseas posts to draft and update their EAPs to address issues with the current system, according to State headquarters officials. According to the report, the State Department plans to launch the new system in the second half of 2017.

Absent a functioning lessons learned process …

The GAO reviewers talk about lessons not learned:

We learned of several challenges that posts faced in different evacuations in discussions with officials from the six posts with whom we met. Different posts mentioned various challenges, including disorganized evacuation logistics and transportation, unclear communication with local staff, confusion surrounding the policy for evacuating pets, problems with shipment and delivery of personal effects, difficulty tracking the destination of staff who were relocated, poor communication with senior State leadership regarding the post’s evacuation status, difficulties getting reimbursement for lodging or personal expenses related to the evacuation, and other similar challenges.

Absent a functioning lessons learned process, State’s ability to identify lessons learned and to share best practices from staff that have experienced evacuations may be constrained.

Back in 2009, Rep Howard Berman sponsored H.R. 2410 during the 111th Congress to provide for the establishment of a Lessons Learned Center for the State Department and USAID under the Under Secretary for Management.  That bill made no specific provision as to staff composition of the Center or its funding, and it also died in committee (H.R. 2410: Lessons Learned Center, Coming Soon?).

In 2016, the State Department and the Foreign Service Institute marked the opening (reportedly after two years of preparation) of its Center for the Study of the Conduct of Diplomacy. Then D/Secretary Tony Blinken said that the Center ensures “that we apply the lessons of the past to our conduct and actions in the future.” Some media outlet called it a ‘lessons learned’ center but its aim is on the study and analysis of diplomatic best practices to study how to effectively apply policy.

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