Posted: 12:57 am ET
Posted: 12:57 am ET
Posted: 3:07 am ET
Posted: 4:21 am ET
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:
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)
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.
Posted: 3:59 am ET
Posted: 1:56 am ET
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.
Posted: 3:48 pm PT
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?
Posted: 3:11 am ET
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.
Posted: 2:34 am ET
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]
According tot he GAO, many of the worst attacks on U.S. diplomatic personnel—including 10 of the 19 attacks that prompted State to convene ARBs—occurred while victims were in transit. It recently released its report on the State Department’s efforts to protect U.S. diplomatic personnel in transit overseas. See Diplomatic Security: State Should Enhance Its Management of Transportation-Related Risks to Overseas U.S. Personnel (GAO-17-124). For this report, GAO evaluated the extent to which State, with regard to transportation security at overseas posts, has (1) established policies, guidance, and monitoring; (2) provided personnel with training; and (3) communicated time- sensitive information.
The Department of State (State) has established policies related to transportation security for overseas U.S. personnel, but gaps exist in guidance and monitoring. GAO reviewed 26 posts and found that all 26 had issued transportation security and travel notification policies. However, policies at 22 of the 26 posts lacked elements required by State, due in part to fragmented implementation guidance on what such policies should include. State also lacks a clear armored vehicle policy for overseas posts and procedures for monitoring if posts are assessing their armored vehicle needs at least annually as required by State. These gaps limit State’s ability to ensure that posts develop clear policies that are consistent with State’s requirements and that vehicle needs for secure transit are met.
While State provides several types of training related to overseas transportation security, weaknesses exist in post-specific refresher training. Regional security officers (RSO) receive required training related to transportation security in special agent courses, and nonsecurity staff reported receiving relevant training before departing for posts—including on topics such as defensive driving and the importance of taking personal responsibility for one’s security—as well as new arrival briefings at posts. At most of the 9 posts GAO visited, however, staff had difficulty remembering key details covered in new arrival briefings or described the one-time briefings as inadequate. State’s requirements for providing refresher briefings are unclear, potentially putting staff at greater risk.
State uses various systems at overseas posts to communicate time-sensitive information related to transportation security, but several factors hinder its efforts. RSOs and other post officials are responsible for communicating threat information to post personnel. However, at 4 of the 9 posts it visited, GAO learned of instances in which staff did not receive important threat information in a timely manner for various reasons. In one case, this resulted in an embassy vehicle being attacked with rocks and seriously damaged while traveling through a prohibited area. In addition, while all 9 of the posts GAO visited require that personnel notify the RSO before traveling to certain locations, personnel at more than half of the 9 posts said they were unaware of these requirements or had difficulty accessing required travel notification systems.
We should note that family members who do not work for our embassies and consulates do not have state.gov emails. And by the way, they are the ones who are driving around in their host countries — from homes to schools, to groceries, to playdates, etc — in their private vehicles with diplomatic plates. Excerpt from the GAO report:
RSOs at the nine posts we visited told us they communicated transportation-related threat information to post personnel through various methods, such as post-issued radios, personal and official e-mail, text messages to work and personal mobile phones, and phone trees. However, we learned of instances at four of the nine posts in which personnel did not receive important threat information in a timely manner. For instance, at one of the posts we visited, the RSO sent a security notice restricting travel along a specific road and warning that recent violent protests in the area had resulted in injuries and even death, but because the notice was sent exclusively to state.gov e-mail addresses, some non-State personnel at the post did not receive it at the e-mail address they regularly used and were unaware of the restriction. The personnel subsequently traveled through the restricted area, resulting in an embassy vehicle being attacked with rocks while on unauthorized travel through the area. While no one was hurt, the vehicle’s front windshield was smashed. The RSO told us that to avoid similar situations in the future, he would add the personnel’s regularly used e-mail addresses to his distribution list for security notices. At another post, focus group participants stated that they did not receive any information from the RSO or other post officials about the security-related closure of a U.S. consulate in the same country and instead learned about the closure from media sources. Participants in focus groups at two other posts stated that threat information is often either obsolete by the time they receive it or may not reach staff in time for them to avoid the potential threats.
Personnel at more than half of the nine posts we visited cited difficulty using travel notification systems or were unaware or unsure of their post’s travel notification requirements. While three of the nine posts we visited permit personnel to use e-mail or other means to inform the RSO of their travel plans, the remaining six posts require personnel to complete an official travel notification form that is only accessible through a State information system called OpenNet. However, according to officials responsible for managing State’s information resources, including OpenNet, not all post personnel have OpenNet accounts. Specifically, all State personnel at overseas posts have OpenNet accounts, but some non-State agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, typically only have a limited number of OpenNet account holders at each post; some smaller agencies, such as the Peace Corps, usually have none. One focus group participant from a non-State agency told us that because she does not have an OpenNet account, her ability to submit travel notifications as required depends on whether or not she is able to find one of the few individuals at the post from her agency that does have an OpenNet account. Similarly, the travel notification policy for another post requires that post personnel use an OpenNet-based travel notification system even though the policy explicitly acknowledges that not all post personnel have OpenNet accounts.
Armored Vehicles and the EAC
The FAH establishes a minimum requirement for the number of armored vehicles at each post. The FAH also states that post Emergency Action Committees (EAC) must meet at least annually to discuss post armored vehicle programs and requirements.21 According to the FAM, it is important that EACs provide information on posts’ armored vehicle requirements to ensure there is sufficient time to budget for the costs of such vehicles, including the extra costs associated with armoring them.22
We found that DS may not be meeting the first of these FAH requirements, and EACs are not meeting the second requirement at every post. With respect to the first requirement, DS officials initially explained that under the FAH, every embassy and consulate is required to have a certain number of armored vehicles, but we found that not every consulate met this requirement as of May 2016. These potential deficiencies exist in part because DS has not instituted effective monitoring procedures to ensure that every embassy or consulate is in compliance with the FAH’s armored vehicle policy.
The GAO recommend that the Secretary of State direct Diplomatic Security to take the following eight actions:
The GAO report notes that the State Department concurred with all its recommendations except one. State did not concur with the sixth recommendation to clarify guidance on refresher training. In its response, State described a number of efforts that RSOs take to keep post personnel informed, such as sending security messages via e-mails and text messages, and therefore State did not believe additional formal training was necessary. The GAO acknowledge the efforts but writes:
Nevertheless, participants in 10 of our 13 focus groups either had difficulty recalling certain security policies and requirements or described their security briefings as inadequate. Participants noted that this was, in part, because it can be challenging to remember the content of new arrival security briefings while they are simultaneously managing the process of moving and adjusting to a new post and because of the one-time nature of new arrival briefings. DS headquarters officials stated that most violations of post travel policies are due to personnel forgetting the information conveyed in the new arrival briefings.
This is the third in a series of GAO reports on diplomatic security. For GAO’s previous work on security at residences, schools, and other soft targets, see GAO-15-700 (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-15-700) and for the review of security at embassies and consulates, see GAO-14-655 (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-14-655).
Posted: 12:05 am ET
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]
Via gao.gov (PDF):
Posted: 2:01 am EDT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]