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Bureau of the Month:

Still 'A Work in Progress'

By Elizabeth Cemal
The author is a customer service representative with ICASS. Also contributing to the article were ICASS Service Center director Gregory Engle and team leader Barbara Hazelett.


ICASS Service Center director.

ICASS Service Center director Gregory Engle.
Photo by Carl Goodman

The International Cooperative Administrative Support Services, or ICASS--a system to manage shared administrative support services and distribution of costs for U.S. government agencies at our diplomatic missions abroad--recently marked its third year of operation.
So how is the system performing? Has it resulted in significant cost savings? And where does ICASS go from here?


ICASS is intact and working at 162 overseas posts with a focus on economies, efficiencies and the quality of services. Post councils have been established and communication between provider and customer improved substantially. New software makes it much easier to determine the cost and distribution of various services and to explain to each post agency how its bill is calculated.

As an instrument for enhanced financial management, ICASS is still a work in progress. Post councils are beginning to identify economies and efficiencies. The ICASS Service Center's Report to Congress in March 1999, for example, included the following:

Vienna: "We are now well on the way to outsourcing administrative supplies for the unclassified sections of the tri-mission, potentially saving the U.S. government $240,000 annually."

Bonn/Berlin: "A fleet-leasing proposal for ICASS vehicles has been cleared and will soon be in place with estimated savings over six years at $475,000 in personnel, motor pool, parts and fuel costs."

Antananarivo: "We have consolidated the majority of maintenance and repair operations throughout the mission with an estimated cost savings to the U.S. Agency for International Development alone of over $70,000 in rent and utilities."

ICASS budget team.

ICASS budget team, from left, Lynne Boland, Richard Sizemore and Janis Cook.


As with any new system, ICASS has had its problems. There have been minor glitches in the budget and cost distribution software. Some ICASS councils spend an inordinate amount of time establishing prudent funding levels, while others don't spend enough. Dick Stephens, former chairman of the ICASS Working Group, said, "ICASS is vulnerable to council apathy, lack of support from the top and managers who cannot work as part of a team."

State's budget constraints drive the ICASS post targets. Thus investments needed to improve service or position posts to reduce costs over the long run are often deferred indefinitely. There is also a growing realization of the full scope of funding needed to repair an eroded administrative infrastructure overseas. Together, these factors challenge and frustrate those charged with implementing ICASS overseas and in Washington, D.C.

An ICASS Primer

International Cooperative Administrative Support Services, also known as ICASS, is an innovative change in managing shared administrative support services and the distribution of these costs to U.S. agencies at diplomatic missions abroad. Designed as a full-cost recovery system, ICASS enlists the support of all customer agencies--State being the largest--by guaranteeing them a voice in the management of administrative resources. As a customer-driven, voluntary, interagency system, ICASS seeks to create a vehicle to reduce the cost of overseas administrative support, freeing up scarce appropriated dollars for the Department's and other agencies' programs.

Behind the Scenes

ICASS is fundamentally an overseas support system. Its customers and beneficiaries are primarily the personnel assigned to the posts where the system is in place. Many agencies and offices throughout Washington, D.C., have invested much time and energy to ensure the success of the ICASS system overseas. Although deliberations among and within agencies have not always been easy, an elevated spirit of cooperation was fostered by an all-day ICASS offsite at the Foreign Service Institute last June, drawing 60 participants from 15 customer agencies, including State, the system's largest customer and principal service provider.

Discussions at the offsite were wide-ranging and candid and forged a consensus on what areas required action: more comprehensive training of both service providers and ICASS Council members, better use of technology, broader overseas service provider staffing and increased local empowerment. In the process, committees were formed to prepare specific recommendations for presentation to the ICASS Executive Board in late October. This joint problem-solving partnership between customers and service providers at the headquarters level bodes well for ICASS's ultimate success.

Under Secretary for Management Bonnie Cohen, who visits with ICASS Councils during her travels overseas, said, "We have learned that ICASS works best where the ambassador and deputy chief of mission are committed, there is a good chair and everyone works together. There is growing trust and an appreciation of what everyone brings to the table."

Assistant Secretary for Administration Patrick Kennedy, who chairs the ICASS Executive Board, said, "I am very pleased at the progress that has been made in implementing ICASS on a worldwide basis. The transparency of its procedures and its emphasis on customer service stand to benefit all agencies and all overseas employees."

Credit for the ICASS initiative, Mr. Kennedy said, "must be shared with Congress, the many individuals who helped develop and install its new processes and all of those who have worked so diligently to make it a success."

ICASS customer service team.

ICASS customer service team, from left, Felipe Cruz, Elizabeth Cemal and Barbara Hazelett.
Photo by Carl Goodman


After receiving Vice President Gore's Hammer Award for building a government that works better and costs less, the ICASS Service Center established an awards program for the field in 1998. The first year's call for nominations produced 36 individual, group and post awards for U.S. and overseas employees for outstanding leadership, best practices and customer satisfaction.

Recognizing outstanding contributions made by U.S. foreign missions to the success of the ICASS program, the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok received ICASS's Post Best Practices Award last November for establishing a set of objectives that thoroughly reviewed each cost center for customer satisfaction, quality of service, cost basis per unit of service provided, responsiveness and service provider staffing. Operations were streamlined and excess positions eliminated. The team-building and supportive environment established in Bangkok is serving as a model of partnership and cooperation for other posts. The post is using its $10,000 award to benefit the entire embassy community by constructing a shelter on the annex grounds for such community events as the July 4th embassy picnic and the Thai New Year celebration.

The Birth of ICASS

    ICASS was created as part of the Vice President's National Performance Review. The President's Management Council undertook a study to identify specific steps to streamline administrative operations, reduce the costs of services and make better use of information systems and communications technology. A January 1995 report from the council's working group reported "an uneven playing field in the delivery of goods and services." It noted, "Those providers who receive a direct appropriation and who are not reimbursed for their services subsidize their customers who have no incentives to make rational choices on the quantity of services they receive."

    The report further stated that "funding should be allocated to the customer rather than the provider as a means of reducing unnecessary expenditures and overall administrative costs."

    Congress agreed and mandated that State, the principal service provider abroad, should establish by fiscal year 1997 a system that "allocates to each department and agency the full costs of its presence outside the United States." An extensive interagency effort developed the ICASS system that was implemented worldwide on a test basis in fiscal year 1997 and became fully operational the following year.