The Swine Line: The Staff Blog of Citizens Against Government Waste

Waste in the State Department

The Swine Line is the staff blog of Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) and the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW). For questions, contact blog@cagw.org.

Citizens Against Government Waste (CAGW) has detailed the federal government’s failure to keep up with modernizing technology for decades. As far back as 1984, the Grace Commission found that the federal government’s computer systems were outdated and incompatible, and much more needed to be done to upgrade and improve the efficiency of federal information technology (IT). Yet, federal agencies continue to waste taxpayer dollars on IT systems that are either antiquated or fail to deliver. 

A report released by the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) on June 30, 2017, said that both the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) still lack the ability to centrally oversee and manage foreign assistance funds, despite being pressed in 2015 by the OIG to build the infrastructure necessary to do so. 

The State Department and the USAID combined spend approximately $30 billion annually to support an array of U.S. policy objectives around the world, aimed at enhancing security, public health, democracy and governance, humanitarian relief, and nonproliferation, among other goals. In addition, the USAID may also transfer funds to other federal agencies to implement programs on its behalf.

This has been an ongoing problem. In 2015, the OIG’s Management Assistance Report revealed shortcomings in foreign assistance funds tracking and reporting. That report showed that many individual offices within the State Department had implemented their own ad hoc systems and informal records to manage foreign assistance funds. In response, the OIG urged the State Department to address the inefficiency of stove-piped IT systems and stressed the need for the standardization of financial data across the department.

The department’s failure to update its IT infrastructure has led to millions of dollars in wasteful spending. More alarmingly, the disjointed systems require department managers to manually draw data from multiple uncoordinated databases, which is both time consuming and subject to human error. As a result, the department cannot glean timely and accurate data necessary to oversee foreign assistance activities and meet the OIG’s statutory and regulatory reporting requirements. 

In addition to creating wasteful outlays, the State Department’s inaction makes it difficult to assess which funds remain unspent. Thus, State Department leadership is hindered from determining whether programs are achieving their objectives. For example, the 2017 OIG investigation at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt revealed that vital program funding information was spread among more than fifty separate documents and systems.

Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has consistently cited the department’s inability to provide authoritative foreign assistance financial information as a program management challenge. GAO evaluations of both the Central America Regional Security Initiative and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership found that the department was unable to produce reliable data on its foreign assistance activities.

In response to these findings, the OIG has issued two recommendations to newly-confirmed Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who is responsible for general supervision of all elements of the department. First, the Deputy Secretary should issue clear requirements for the data needs of senior State Department policymakers, and should set priorities to guide efforts to address the department’s weaknesses in foreign assistance management, as well as legal and regulatory oversight. Second, the Deputy Secretary should assign a senior department official to oversee the process of developing and executing a plan with clear milestones and target completion dates to address foreign assistance tracking and reporting requirements.

Sullivan has captured the hearts of department career staff because of his long record of respect for foreign service, his aplomb and his professionalism. Hopefully, Sullivan’s popularity with State Department employees will enable him to reform the department’s financial management and IT systems.

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