September 28, 2022

ACN Center

Area Control Network

COVID-19: State Should Strengthen Policies to Better Maintain Overseas Operations in Future Crises

28 min read

What GAO Found

The Department of State 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 did not communicate them to other overseas agencies before they went into effect. State created a new global evacuation policy with flexibilities that were different from the pre-existing policies for post-specific evacuations, which created confusion for staff on timelines, allowances, and conditions for returning to post. According to federal internal control standards, policies should be documented in the appropriate level of detail. However, State has not yet established an evacuation policy that could be used for future crises affecting multiple posts. In addition, State’s decisions for posts affected all U.S. government staff overseas but State did not communicate these key decisions, and related policies, to other overseas agencies before announcing them to all staff. As a result, other overseas agencies had to develop guidance for their staff to follow after State’s public announcements.

Timeline of State’s Key Decisions during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Timeline of State's Key Decisions during the COVID-19 Pandemic

Evacuations of key personnel and public health restrictions reduced some operations at posts, but information technology improvements and other adjustments largely allowed staff to continue to work. Nevertheless, some posts reported they did not have sufficient information to help them determine which staff should remain overseas and which could be evacuated. Posts implemented a maximum telework policy and State used COVID-19 relief funds to provide equipment and better network access. Federal internal control standards state that agencies should use quality information to make decisions. However, State does not track telework at overseas posts and, as a result, does not have the information needed to inform future decisions about its use overseas.

State has identified lessons learned on telework and communication but does not have a procedure for ensuring their collection from posts. According to State’s guidance, lessons learned are required to be gathered and preserved after critical operational events. Individual posts reported lessons learned on communication, including the utility of informal communication between staff, but not all posts submitted required lessons learned. State does not have a procedure to ensure the collection of lessons learned from posts—a significant component of improving its future crisis response.

Why GAO Did This Study

The U.S. government has over 22,000 U.S. staff working in more than 290 overseas posts. State made operational adjustments in an effort to balance overseas staff’s health with the pursuit of diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CARES Act includes a provision for GAO to report on its ongoing oversight efforts related to COVID-19. In addition, GAO was asked to examine State’s overseas operational response to COVID-19. This report examines, among other things, actions State took to respond to COVID-19 and how it communicated them to overseas employees, posts’ operational adjustments and the effect on operations, and lessons learned identified by State.

GAO reviewed relevant State documents, including agency guidance and post-level reporting, and interviewed State and other U.S. agency officials. GAO also met with four selected overseas posts based on various factors, such as geographic location and proportion of U.S. overseas staff evacuated.

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  • Intellectual Property: Additional Agency Actions Can Improve Assistance to Small Businesses and Inventors
    In U.S GAO News
    The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) offers multiple programs that help small businesses and inventors with acquiring intellectual property protections, which can help protect creative works or ideas. These programs, such as the Inventors Assistance Center, are aimed at assisting the public, especially small businesses and inventors, with intellectual property protections. Several stakeholders GAO interviewed said that USPTO programs have been helpful, but they were also not aware of some USPTO programs. Although these programs individually evaluate how they help small businesses and inventors, the agency does not collect and evaluate overall information on whether these programs are effectively reaching out to and meeting the needs of these groups. Under federal internal control standards, an agency should use quality information to achieve its objectives. Without an agency-wide approach to collect information to help evaluate the extent to which its programs serve small businesses and inventors, USPTO may not have the quality information needed to fully evaluate the effectiveness of its outreach and assistance for these groups and thus make improvements where necessary. Although the Small Business Administration (SBA) coordinates with USPTO through targeted efforts to provide intellectual property training to small businesses, it has not fully implemented some statutory requirements that can further enhance this coordination. While SBA and the Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) coordinate with USPTO programs at the local level to train small businesses on intellectual property protection (see figure), this coordination is inconsistent. For example, two of the 12 SBDCs that GAO interviewed reported working primarily with USPTO to help small businesses protect their intellectual property, but the other 10 did not. The Small Business Innovation Protection Act of 2017 requires SBA and USPTO to coordinate and build on existing intellectual property training programs, and requires that SBA’s local partners, specifically the SBDCs, provide intellectual property training, in coordination with USPTO. SBA officials reported that they are in the process of implementing requirements of this act. Incorporating selected leading practices for collaboration, such as documenting the partnership agreement and clarifying roles and responsibilities, could help SBA and USPTO fully and consistently communicate their existing resources to their partners and programs, enabling them to refer these resources to small businesses and inventors. Figure: The Small Business Administration (SBA) and the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) Coordinate at the Local Level, but Are Inconsistent Small businesses employ about half of the U.S. private workforce and create approximately two-thirds of the nation’s jobs. For many small businesses, intellectual property aids in building market share and creating jobs. Among the federal agencies assisting small businesses with intellectual property are USPTO, which grants patents and registers trademarks, and SBA, which assists small businesses on a variety of business development issues, including intellectual property. GAO was asked to review resources available to help small businesses and inventors protect intellectual property, and their effectiveness. This report examines, among other things, (1) the extent to which USPTO evaluates the effectiveness of its efforts to assist small businesses and (2) SBA’s coordination with USPTO to assist small businesses. GAO analyzed agency documents and interviewed officials who train and assist small businesses. GAO also interviewed stakeholders, including small businesses, and, among other things, reviewed federal internal control standards and selected leading practices for enhancing interagency collaboration. GAO is making four recommendations, including that USPTO develop an agency-wide approach to evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts to help small businesses and inventors, and that SBA document its partnership agreement with USPTO and clarify roles and responsibilities for coordinating with USPTO to provide training. Both agencies agreed with GAO’s recommendations. For more information, contact John Neumann, (202) 512-6888, NeumannJ@gao.gov. 

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  • Small Business Contracting: Better Documentation and Reporting Needed on Procurement Center Representatives
    In U.S GAO News
    The Small Business Administration (SBA) does not maintain complete documentation to support data on the activities of procurement center representatives (PCR), which is information used to oversee PCRs and assess their performance. PCRs are responsible for helping small businesses gain access to federal contracting and subcontracting opportunities—for example, by making set-aside recommendations to federal agency contracting officers. SBA area offices generate a monthly report that summarizes data on PCRs’ activities and accomplishments, and SBA procedures require PCRs to maintain these reports and the supporting documentation. GAO found that they do not consistently do either. According to SBA officials, in some cases the supporting documentation, which PCRs store on their individual computers or in their offices, either was destroyed or was not maintained after PCRs left their positions. Officials told GAO that SBA recently implemented a new database and established a policy requiring the monthly reports to be maintained in the database. However, SBA has not established a centralized means of maintaining the supporting documentation. A central repository for PCRs to store their supporting documentation would provide greater assurance that the documentation is maintained as required and help SBA verify the accuracy of the data PCRs report on their activities. SBA assigns PCRs to buying activities, divisions in federal agencies that purchase goods and services based on geographic coverage and other factors. Specifically, PCRs are assigned within one of six regional areas to ensure geographic coverage, at specific federal agencies, and at buying activities that have significant opportunities for small business contracting. However, SBA has not submitted required reports to Congress on its rationale for assigning PCRs to cover buying activities. The Small Business Act, as amended, requires that SBA submit a report (1) identifying each area for which SBA has assigned a PCR, (2) explaining why SBA selected the areas for assignment, and (3) describing the activities performed by PCRs. SBA was required to submit the first report to Congress by December 26, 2010, and subsequent reports every 3 years thereafter. SBA officials told GAO they were not aware of the reporting requirement. As a result, Congress lacks the information these reports were intended to provide, information that could be useful for its oversight of PCRs. The Small Business Act establishes tools to enhance procurement opportunities for small businesses, such as set-asides and requirements that large contractors set goals for using small business subcontractors. SBA’s PCRs advocate for the inclusion of small businesses during the procurement process. GAO was asked to examine how PCRs help small businesses gain access to federal contracting and subcontracting opportunities. This report addresses, among other objectives, (1) documentation SBA maintains on the activities of PCRs and (2) how SBA assigns PCRs to cover buying activities and its requirement to report to Congress on these assignments. GAO reviewed SBA policies and procedures, data on PCR assignments, and selected data reported by PCRs and related documentation. GAO also interviewed agency officials. GAO recommends that SBA (1) develop a central repository for PCRs to store the supporting documentation for the data they report on their activities and (2) ensure that it submits required reports to Congress on PCRs’ assignments and activities. SBA concurred with both recommendations. For more information, contact William B. Shear at (202) 512-8678 or shearw@gao.gov.

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  • Priority Open Recommendations: U.S. Agency for International Development
    In U.S GAO News
    What GAO Found In April 2020, GAO identified three priority recommendations for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Since then, USAID has implemented all three of those recommendations by taking actions to improve management and oversight of international food assistance projects, project performance data collection, and reform efforts. In May 2021, GAO identified three additional priority recommendations for USAID, bringing the total number to three. These recommendations involve the following areas: Complying with Equal Employment Opportunity requirements Improving financial information USAID’s continued attention to these issues could lead to significant improvements in government operations. Why GAO Did This Study Priority open recommendations are the GAO recommendations that warrant priority attention from heads of key departments or agencies because their implementation could save large amounts of money; improve congressional and/or executive branch decision-making on major issues; eliminate mismanagement, fraud, and abuse; or ensure that programs comply with laws and funds are legally spent, among other benefits. Since 2015 GAO has sent letters to selected agencies to highlight the importance of implementing such recommendations. For more information, contact Thomas Melito at (202) 512-9601 or melitot@gao.gov.

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  • Secretary Blinken’s Call with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Office of the [Read More…]
  • On the Passing of Rayan Oram
    In Crime Control and Security News
    Ned Price, Department [Read More…]

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