COVID-19: The State should strengthen its policies to better maintain operations abroad during future crises


What the GAO found

The Department of State has made key decisions for overseas posts (e.g., U.S. embassies and consulates) during the COVID-19 pandemic, as shown in the figure below, but does not not communicated to other overseas agencies prior to their entry into force. The state created a new overarching evacuation policy with different flexibilities from pre-existing policies for position-specific evacuations, which created confusion for staff about timelines, compensation, and conditions for returning to position . According to the Federal Internal Control Standards, policies must be documented with the appropriate level of detail. However, the state has not yet established an evacuation policy that could be used for future crises affecting multiple posts. In addition, state decisions regarding positions affected all U.S. government personnel overseas, but the state did not communicate these key decisions and related policies to other overseas agencies before releasing them. announce to all staff. As a result, other foreign agencies have had to develop guidelines for their staff to follow after the state’s public announcements.

Timeline of key state decisions during the COVID-19 pandemic

Evacuations of key personnel and public health restrictions have curtailed some post operations, but information technology improvements and other adjustments have largely enabled staff to continue working. Nevertheless, some Posts reported that they did not have sufficient information to help them determine which staff should remain abroad and which could be evacuated. Posts have implemented a maximum telecommuting policy and the state has used COVID-19 relief funds to provide equipment and better network access. The Federal Internal Control Standards state that agencies must use quality information to make decisions. However, the state does not track telework in overseas posts and therefore does not have the information needed to inform future decisions regarding its use overseas.

The State has identified the lessons learned on telework and communication but has no procedure to ensure their collection from the posts. According to state guidelines, lessons learned must be collected and retained after critical operational events. Individual posts reported lessons learned on communication, including the usefulness of informal communication between staff, but not all posts submitted required lessons learned. The State has no procedure to ensure the collection of lessons learned from missions, an important element for improving its future response to the crisis.

Why GAO Did This Study

The US government has more than 22,000 American employees working in more than 290 overseas posts. The state has made operational adjustments in an effort to balance the health of overseas personnel with the pursuit of diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing surveillance efforts related to COVID-19. Additionally, the GAO has been asked to review the state’s overseas operational response to COVID-19. This report examines, among other things, the measures taken by the state to respond to COVID-19 and how it communicated them to overseas employees, operational adjustments of positions and the effect on operations, as well as lessons learned identified by the State.

The GAO reviewed relevant state documents, including agency guidelines and post-level reports, and interviewed state officials and other U.S. agencies. The GAO also met with four overseas posts selected based on various factors, such as geographic location and the proportion of U.S. overseas personnel evacuated.

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