Effort to adjust federal staffing overseas stalled

The government has little to show for a two-year effort aimed at "rightsizing" the number of federal personnel serving overseas, the General Accounting Office has found in a new study. But the Bush administration's interest in embassy staffing may force a reshuffling of civil servants abroad in coming years. It's been two years since a blue-ribbon panel formed after the 1998 American embassy bombings in Africa reported that overseas staffing levels don't match changing missions and requirements. Some posts are overstaffed and others are understaffed, the Overseas Presence Advisory Panel reported in November 1999. GAO said that an interagency committee representing 10 agencies with overseas staff, formed in February 2000, failed to develop criteria for determining the appropriate size and location of U.S. posts abroad, even after conducting several pilot studies last year. "In view of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the rightsizing of embassies and consulates has become more important than ever," GAO said in its report, "Overseas Presence: More Work Needed on Embassy Rightsizing" (GAO-02-143). "Regrettably, the pilot studies conducted in 2000 do not provide a strong basis upon which the administration can pursue rightsizing around the world." The Overseas Presence Advisory Panel, headed by attorney Lewis B. Kaden, recommended that the State Department and other agencies with overseas personnel, including the Defense, Commerce, Justice and Transportation departments, form a permanent committee that would periodically review the country's overseas presence. As many as 60,000 federal personnel from 30 agencies are stationed abroad at any time. At some posts, ambassadors have complained that burgeoning staff levels are overcrowding facilities. Some observers worry that some posts aren't needed at all and pose an unnecessary security risk. The Clinton administration organized the interagency rightsizing committee in early 2000, which sent representatives to six embassies for two to five days per embassy from March to May 2000. The teams had no written guidelines for assessing staffing levels at the posts, and representatives told GAO that they didn't have enough time to conduct full analyses of the posts' operations. The committee's subsequent report concluded that there wasn't a way to come up with a methodology for determining staffing levels at all the posts, since the work of embassies varies so much from country to country. The report also questioned the need for rightsizing, since budget constraints in the 1990s forced agencies to pare back non-essential activities. The report then recommended against regular rightsizing reviews, arguing that the costs of the reviews would probably outweigh the savings from rightsizing. If anything, the committee reported, agencies are understaffed overseas and unable to handle their heavy workloads. Kaden said that there has been little progress over the past two years in getting overseas posts to the right staffing levels. "Rightsizing requires leadership," said Kaden, an attorney with the New York law firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. "It requires a push from the White House." That push may be coming. Despite the interagency committee's report, the State Department this August issued a report saying that rightsizing would be a Bush administration priority. On Aug. 25, President Bush announced that staffing issues overseas would be one of the 14 initiatives included in his management agenda. "The U.S. overseas presence is costly, increasingly complex and of growing security concern," the administration said in the agenda. "U.S. national security interests are best served by deploying the right number of people at the right posts with the right expertise." At the same time, Secretary of State Colin Powell has launched a major hiring drive to beef up the Foreign Service. The department's human resources plan calls for adding an additional 1,100 employees over the next few years. State, however has been complaining about the growing number of personnel from other agencies stationed overseas. The FBI, for example, has dramatically increased its overseas presence. The President's Management Agenda said that rightsizing would be integrated into agencies' workforce plans as part of the 2003 budget process. The Bush administration is requiring all agencies to develop plans aimed at making sure the right number of people with the right skills are in place throughout government. Certain functions may be relocated to the United States, the agenda said. The State Department is already planning to transfer financial support services from Paris to Charleston, S.C.
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