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GAO: State Could Learn Lessons from its COVID-19 Repatriation Efforts

The State Department brought home more than 100,000 U.S. citizens and permanent residents from 137 countries during the first 6 months of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the previous five years, State had repatriated fewer than 6,000 people.

Despite acting quickly to assist Americans abroad, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) says State didn’t follow some of its own policies and didn’t have guidance needed for certain aspects of the effort. 

Most responses to a GAO survey of repatriated individuals expressed positive views of State’s communication, among other things, though some expressed concerns about matters such as the prices of repatriation flights. State reported learning several lessons from challenges it faced, such as the importance of using social media and cell phones to communicate with U.S. citizens.

GAO’s November 2 report notes that as of May 2021, an interagency group State established to coordinate plans to evacuate U.S. citizens abroad in emergencies had not met since April 2019, hampering interagency communication early in the crisis. The watchdog found that incomplete guidance for calculating and documenting actual costs of State-chartered flights led to missing or inconsistent documentation and limited State’s ability to show that the prices it charged passengers complied with its fare policy.

Additionally, while State requires overseas posts to take steps to prepare for crises, GAO found its oversight of their preparedness has gaps. State requires posts to update emergency action plans but does not ensure timely submission of those plans. In the 20 countries from which State helped repatriate the largest numbers of people, 17 of 30 posts did not submit their updated plans for certification within required time frames in 2020.

In addition, State requires posts to complete annual emergency preparedness drills, but does not ensure completion of the drills. In 2019, 16 of the 30 posts failed to complete all the drills within the required time frames.

GAO found State also lacks a mechanism for assessing posts’ crisis preparedness. 

The government watchdog is making six recommendations to the Secretary of State:

Ensure that the Deputy Director for CMS reconvenes quarterly meetings for the WLG, to maintain interagency communication regarding crisis preparedness and response. 

Ensure that the Deputy Director for CMS develops guidance for initiating task forces that is consistent with State’s policies and practices.

Ensure that the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Consular Affairs works with key stakeholders—including the Deputy Assistant Secretary for A/LM and Deputy Controller for CGFS—to develop guidance for systematically collecting information for, and formatting, flight manifests.

Ensure that the Executive Secretary, the Under Secretary for Management (M), and the Under Secretary for Political Affairs work with the regional bureaus to develop a mechanism for ensuring that each post certifies required annual updates of its EAP as required by State policy.

Ensure that the Executive Secretary, the Under Secretary for Management (M), and the Under Secretary for Political Affairs work with the regional bureaus to develop a mechanism for ensuring that each post completes, and documents completion of, required emergency preparedness drills.

Ensure that the relevant bureaus and offices establish a mechanism to systematically assess overseas posts’ preparedness to respond to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. 

State agreed with all six recommendations.

Read the full report at GAO

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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