Agencies split over how to 'rightsize' overseas presence

The Bush administration would like to trim the number of federal employees who work overseas, but agencies are still trying to figure out how many employees they need to fulfill their missions around the world.

In a report issued last week, the General Accounting Office proposed a framework for "rightsizing" overseas staff levels, but State Department and Office of Management and Budget officials say the GAO plan is inadequate.

Overseas staffing decisions should be based on mission priorities, security concerns and costs of operations, GAO recommended in "Overseas Presence: Framework for Assessing Embassy Staff Levels Can Support Rightsizing Initiatives" (GAO-02-780). In a case study of staffing levels at the Paris embassy, GAO found that 210 positions could be relocated using its rightsizing tool. The State Department intends to shift more than 100 of these employees back to the United States.

But State contends that mission needs should take precedence over security and cost in staffing decisions. "The first question that must be answered before all others is whether the United States has a compelling reason to be in a particular location," said State in its comments to GAO. "If the answer is 'Yes,' then it may be necessary to place personnel there, even in the face of serious security concerns or excessive costs."

State also took issue with a GAO recommendation to move more employees out of embassies and into regional centers that the department maintains in the United States and abroad. Regional centers are safer and less expensive to maintain than embassies. But in State's view, personnel need first-hand contact with people in the countries they serve to be effective.

"One drawback to locating personnel away from the posts they serve is reduced linguistic and cultural awareness and knowledge that is required to function well-issues for which GAO has previously criticized State," said the department.

OMB was more optimistic about GAO's rightsizing tool, but expressed doubt that it could work worldwide. "While the results seem to work well in Paris, there are a multitude of other posts with widely varied issues and needs that may not be addressed in this methodology," said OMB Director Mitch Daniels in a written response to the report.

The State Department launched its overseas rightsizing effort following the 1998 terrorist bombings of two U.S. embassies in Africa. Determining the proper overseas presence for federal employees is one of ten issue-area initiatives in President Bush's management agenda.

The government currently supports more than 60,000 Americans and foreign nationals working overseas. It costs an average of $339,100 annually to support an American embassy employee with three additional family members.

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