GAO report commends State oversight of SWT, acknowledges program’s public diplomacy value

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report on the Summer Work Travel (SWT) program, released this afternoon, commends the Department of State on its strengthened oversight of SWT, while acknowledging the public diplomacy value of this exchange program that brings up-and-coming leaders to the U.S. for summer cultural experiences. The GAO report notes that, over the past several years, the Department of State “has strengthened program requirements and expanded its oversight [of SWT] with the intention of better ensuring the health, safety, and welfare of SWT participants:”

“To better protect the SWT program from misuse and participants from abuse, State amended federal requirements in 2011 and 2012, imposing tighter restrictions on participants and sponsors. State also capped the size of the program to maintain it at a manageable size while State addresses the identified concerns. Additionally, State expanded its internal requirements and guidance for visa adjudication, with a goal of better ensuring participants’ health, safety, and welfare after they arrive in the United States.”

The Department has taken steps, the report notes, to emphasize the program’s cultural component relative to its work component, including adding cultural requirements to the program regulations.

Extensively reviewing the numerous activities of program sponsors to support and protect SWT participants, the report notes the key activities meant to protect participants, including:

  • Vetting potential host employers and positions;
  • Vetting overseas and domestic partners; and
  • Overseeing participant welfare through field site reviews and complaints and incident reports.

The report commends State for taking initial steps to “leverage the SWT program’s long-term public diplomacy value” by beginning to engage with SWT alumni around the world.

The report concludes by providing three recommendations for the Department to further improve its administration of SWT:

  • Establish a mechanism to ensure that sponsors provide complete and consistent lists of fees that participants must pay;
  • Establish a mechanism to ensure that information about these participant fees is made publicly available; and
  • Establish detailed criteria that will allow State to assess the sufficiency and appropriateness of opportunities for cultural activities outside the workplace that sponsors provide to SWT participants.