Reams of reports burdening diplomats

Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 7:52 PM

The nation's diplomats are drowning in paperwork, the State Department's inspector general says, churning out hundreds of mind-numbing reports every year that are too long, too expensive, hard to understand and nearly impossible to track.

The reports, mandated year after year by Congress and the State Department, cost the agency's far-flung embassy staff more than $50 million a year to complete, Inspector General Harold W. Geisel concluded in a 55-page report released this month. Completion of some reports, covering issues from human rights to child labor, has become a full-time job for employees based Washington and stationed abroad.

And the same data and the level of detail must be collected by thinly staffed embassies in Liechtenstein (pop. 33,000) and as well as those in China (pop. 1.17 billion).

"The reports themselves have become encyclopedic in detail and length," Geisel wrote. "Shorter would be better," he said, adding that they contain "considerable" overlap in how data are compiled. He urged brevity.

Investigators surveyed staff at 55 embassies and visited small foreign posts in Bridgetown, Barbados, and in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. More than a third of staffs cited the burden of paperwork.

Geisel stressed that the required reports provide policymakers with vital tools but that what goes into them needs to change so that those in small posts aren't overwhelmed. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

The report describes overlapping and unnecessary paperwork. The report on "Goods Produced by Child or Forced Labor" (required by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000) contains much of the same information as the annual report on "Products Produced by Forced or Indentured Child Labor" (required by an executive order in 1999). Both overlap with a report on "Worst Forms of Child Labor" (required by the Trade and Development Act of 2000).

The instructions for preparing reports could intimidate any young embassy employee. The guide to compiling the 2009 report, "International Religious Freedom," for example, is 16 pages long. Basic instructions for the 2009 "Human Rights Report" fill 36 pages and are augmented by a 41-page supplement on style.

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