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Before the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the 
Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia, Committee on Homeland 
Security and Governmental Affairs, U.S. Senate: 

United States Government Accountability Office: 

For Release on Delivery: 
Expected at 2:30 p.m. EDT:
Thursday, September 24, 2009: 

Department of State: 

Persistent Staffing and Foreign Language Gaps Compromise Diplomatic 

Statement of Jess T. Ford, Director: 
International Affairs and Trade: 


[End of section] 

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee: 

I am pleased to be here to discuss U.S. diplomatic readiness, and in 
particular the staffing and foreign language challenges facing the 
Foreign Service. The Department of State (State) faces an ongoing 
challenge of ensuring it has the right people, with the right skills, 
in the right places overseas to carry out the department's priorities. 
In particular, State has long had difficulty staffing its hardship 
posts[Footnote 1] overseas, which are places like Beruit and Lagos, 
where conditions are difficult and sometimes dangerous due to harsh 
environmental and extreme living conditions that often entail pervasive 
crime or war, but are nonetheless integral to foreign policy priorities 
and need a full complement of qualified staff. State has also faced 
persistent shortages of staff with critical language skills, despite 
the importance of foreign language proficiency in advancing U.S. 
foreign policy and economic interests overseas. 

In recent years GAO has issued a number of reports on human capital 
issues that have hampered State's ability to carry out the President's 
foreign policy objectives (see appendix I for a complete list of 
related GAO products). My statement today is based on two GAO reports 
that were released on September 22.[Footnote 2] I will discuss (1) 
State's progress in addressing staffing gaps at hardship posts, and (2) 
State's efforts to meet its foreign language requirements. 

To address these objectives in our two reports, we analyzed key 
planning documents and other data provided by State; reviewed relevant 
reports by GAO and other agencies and organizations; and met with a 
number of State officials from various bureaus in Washington and 
overseas. We also conducted fieldwork in China, Egypt, India, Nigeria, 
Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Turkey, and convened an expert roundtable of 
several retired senior State officials, all of whom previously served 
as ambassadors to hardship posts. We conducted these performance audits 
in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. 
Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain 
sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our 
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that 
the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and 
conclusions based on our audit objectives. See our reports for a 
complete scope and methodology. 

In brief, Mr. Chairman, we found that, despite a number of steps taken 
over a number of years, the State Department continues to face 
persistent staffing and experience gaps at hardship posts, as well as 
notable shortfalls in foreign language capabilities. A common element 
of these problems has been a longstanding staffing and experience 
deficit, which has both contributed to the gaps at hardship posts and 
fueled the language shortfall by limiting the number of staff available 
for language training. State has undertaken several initiatives to 
address these shortages, including multiple staffing increases intended 
to fill the gaps. However, the department has not undertaken these 
initiatives in a comprehensive and strategic manner. As a result, it is 
unclear when the staffing and skill gaps that put diplomatic readiness 
at risk will close. 

State Faces Continuing Staffing and Experience Gaps at Hardship Posts: 

Despite some progress in addressing staffing shortfalls since 2006, 
State's diplomatic readiness remains at risk for two reasons: 
persistent staffing vacancies and experience gaps at key hardship posts 
that are often on the forefront of U.S. policy interests. First, as of 
September 2008, State had a 17 percent average vacancy rate at the 
posts of greatest hardship (which are posts where staff receive the 
highest possible hardship pay). Posts in this category include such 
places as Peshawar, Pakistan, and Shenyang, China. This 17 percent 
vacancy rate was nearly double the average vacancy rate of 9 percent at 
posts with no hardship differentials.[Footnote 3] Second, many key 
hardship posts face experience gaps due to a higher rate of staff 
filling positions above their own grades (see table 1).[Footnote 4] As 
of September 2008, about 34 percent of mid-level generalist positions 
at posts of greatest hardship were filled by officers in such above- 
grade assignments--15 percentage points higher than the rate for 
comparable positions at posts with no or low differentials. At posts we 
visited during our review, we observed numerous officers working in 
positions above their rank. For example, in Abuja, Nigeria,[Footnote 5] 
more than 4 in every 10 positions were staffed by officers in 
assignments above grade, including several employees working in 
positions two grades above their own. Further, to fill positions in 
Iraq and Afghanistan, State has frequently assigned officers to 
positions above their grade. As of September 2008, over 40 percent of 
officers in Iraq and Afghanistan were serving in above-grade 

Table 1: Number and Percentage of Mid-Level Generalist Positions Filled 
by Officers Working above Grade, as of September 2008: 

Posts with no or low differentials: 210 of 1,093 (19 percent); 
Hardship posts: 328 of 1,053 (31 percent); 
Posts of greatest hardship: 189 of 551 (34 percent). 

Source: GAO analysis of State data. 

[End of table] 

Several Factors Contribute to Staffing Gaps: 

Several factors contribute to gaps at hardship posts. First, State 
continues to have fewer officers than positions, a shortage compounded 
by the personnel demands of Iraq and Afghanistan, which have resulted 
in staff cutting their tours short to serve in these countries. As of 
April 2009, State had about 1,650 vacant Foreign Service positions in 
total. Second, State faces a persistent mid-level staffing deficit that 
is exacerbated by continued low bidding on hardship posts. Third, 
although State's assignment system has prioritized the staffing of 
hardship posts, it does not explicitly address the continuing 
experience gap at such posts, many of which are strategically 
important, yet are often staffed with less experienced officers. 
Staffing and experience gaps can diminish diplomatic readiness in 
several ways, according to State officials. For example, gaps can lead 
to decreased reporting coverage and loss of institutional knowledge. In 
addition, gaps can lead to increased supervisory requirements for 
senior staff, detracting from other critical diplomatic 
responsibilities. During the course of our review we found a number of 
examples of the effect of these staffing gaps on diplomatic readiness, 
including the following. 

* The economic officer position in Lagos, whose responsibility is 
solely focused on energy, oil, and natural gas, was not filled in the 
2009 cycle. The incumbent explained that, following his departure, his 
reporting responsibilities will be split up between officers in Abuja 
and Lagos. He said this division of responsibilities would diminish the 
position's focus on the oil industry and potentially lead to the loss 
of important contacts within both the government ministries and the oil 

* An official told us that a political/military officer position in 
Russia was vacant because of the departure of the incumbent for a tour 
in Afghanistan, and the position's portfolio of responsibilities was 
divided among other officers in the embassy. According to the official, 
this vacancy slowed negotiation of an agreement with Russia regarding 
military transit to Afghanistan. 

* The consular chief in Shenyang, China, told us he spends too much 
time helping entry-level officers adjudicate visas and, therefore, less 
time managing the section. 

* The ambassador to Nigeria told us spending time helping officers 
working above grade is a burden and interferes with policy planning and 

* A 2008 OIG inspection of N'Djamena, Chad, reported that the entire 
front office was involved in mentoring entry-level officers, which was 
an unfair burden on the ambassador and deputy chief of mission, given 
the challenging nature of the post.[Footnote 6] 

State Has Not Systematically Evaluated Incentive Programs for Hardship 
Post Assignments: 

State uses a range of incentives to staff hardship posts at a cost of 
millions of dollars a year, but their effectiveness remains unclear due 
to a lack of evaluation. Incentives to serve in hardship posts range 
from monetary benefits to changes in service and bidding requirements, 
such as reduced tour lengths at posts where dangerous conditions 
prevent some family members from accompanying officers. In a 2006 
report on staffing gaps, GAO recommended that State evaluate the 
effectiveness of its incentive programs for hardship post assignments. 
In response, State added a question about hardship incentives to a 
recent employee survey. However, the survey does not fully meet GAO's 
recommendation for several reasons, including that State did not 
include several incentives in the survey and did not establish specific 
indicators of progress against which to measure the survey responses 
over time. State also did not comply with a 2005 legal requirement to 
assess and report to Congress on the effectiveness of increasing 
hardship and danger pay from 25 percent to 35 percent in filling "hard 
to fill" positions. The lack of an assessment of the effectiveness of 
the danger and hardship pay increases in filling positions at these 
posts, coupled with the continuing staffing challenges in these 
locations, make it difficult to determine whether these resources are 
properly targeted. Recent legislation increasing Foreign Service 
officers' basic pay will increase the cost of existing incentives, 
thereby heightening the importance that State evaluate its incentives 
for hardship post assignments to ensure resources are effectively 
targeted and not wasted. 

Although State plans to address staffing gaps by hiring more officers, 
the department acknowledges it will take years for these new employees 
to gain the experience they need to be effective mid-level officers. In 
the meantime, this experience gap will persist, since State's staffing 
system does not explicitly prioritize the assignment of at-grade 
officers to hardship posts. Moreover, despite State's continued 
difficulty attracting qualified staff to hardship posts, the department 
has not systematically evaluated the effectiveness of its incentives 
for hardship service. Without a full evaluation of State's hardship 
incentives, the department cannot obtain valuable insights that could 
help guide resource decisions to ensure it is most efficiently and 
effectively addressing gaps at these important posts. 

State Faces Persistent Foreign Language Shortfalls: 

State continues to have notable gaps in its foreign language 
capabilities, which could hinder U.S. overseas operations. As of 
October 31, 2008, 31 percent of officers in all worldwide language- 
designated positions did not meet both the foreign language speaking 
and reading proficiency requirements for their positions, up slightly 
from 29 percent in 2005. In particular, State continues to face foreign 
language shortfalls in areas of strategic interest--such as the Near 
East and South and Central Asia, where about 40 percent of officers in 
language-designated positions did not meet requirements. Gaps were 
notably high in Afghanistan, where 33 of 45 officers in language- 
designated positions (73 percent) did not meet the requirement, and in 
Iraq, with 8 of 14 officers (57 percent) lacking sufficient language 
skills. State has defined its need for staff proficient in some 
languages as "supercritical" or "critical," based on criteria such as 
the difficulty of the language and the number of language-designated 
positions in that language, particularly at hard-to-staff posts. 
[Footnote 7] Shortfalls in supercritical needs languages, such as 
Arabic and Chinese, remain at 39 percent, despite efforts to recruit 
individuals with proficiency in these languages (see figure 1). In 
addition, more than half of the 739 Foreign Service specialists--staff 
who perform security, technical, and other support functions--in 
language-designated positions do not meet the requirements. For 
example, 53 percent of regional security officers[Footnote 8] do not 
speak and read at the level required by their positions. When a post 
fills a position with an officer who does not meet the requirements, it 
must request a language waiver for the position. In 2008, the 
department granted 282 such waivers, covering about 8 percent of all 
language-designated positions. 

Figure 1: Percentage of Foreign Service Officers Who Do Not Meet the 
Language Requirements for Their Positions, by Language Type and 
Selected Languages: 

[Refer to PDF for image: 2 vertical bar graphs] 

Language type: Noncritical; 
Percent unqualified: 29.6%. 

Language type: Critical; 
Percent unqualified: 26.3%. 

Language type: Super Critical; 
Percent unqualified: 39.0%. 

Selected language: Arabic; 
Percent unqualified: 43.1%. 

Selected language: Chinese; 
Percent unqualified: 30.6%. 

Selected language: Dari; 
Percent unqualified: 65.6%. 

Selected language: Korean; 
Percent unqualified: 30%. 

Selected language: Russian; 
Percent unqualified: 18.9%. 

Selected language: Turkish; 
Percent unqualified: 37.5%. 

Selected language: French; 
Percent unqualified: 40.4%. 

Selected language: Spanish; 
Percent unqualified: 18.9%. 

Source: GAO analysis of State data. 

[End of figure] 

Foreign Language Shortfalls Could Compromise Diplomatic Readiness: 

Past reports by GAO, State's Office of the Inspector General, the 
Department of Defense, and various think tanks have concluded that 
foreign language shortfalls could be negatively affecting U.S. national 
security, diplomacy, law enforcement, and intelligence-gathering 
efforts. Foreign Service officers we spoke to provided a number of 
examples of the effects of not having the required language skills, 
including the following. 

* Consular officers at a post we visited said that because of a lack of 
language skills, they make adjudication decisions based on what they 
"hope" they heard in visa interviews. 

* A security officer in Cairo said that without language skills, 
officers do not have any "juice"--that is, the ability to influence 
people they are trying to elicit information from. 

* According to another regional security officer, the lack of foreign 
language skills may hinder intelligence gathering because local 
informants are reluctant to speak through locally hired interpreters. 

* One ambassador we spoke to said that without language proficiency-- 
which helps officers gain insight into a country--the officers are not 
invited to certain events and cannot reach out to broader, deeper 

* A public affairs officer at another post said that the local media 
does not always translate embassy statements accurately, complicating 
efforts to communicate with audiences in the host country. For example, 
he said the local press translated a statement by the ambassador in a 
more pejorative sense than was intended, which damaged the ambassador's 
reputation and took several weeks to correct. 

State's Approach to Meeting Foreign Language Requirements Faces Several 

State's current approach for meeting its foreign language proficiency 
requirements involves an annual review process to determine language- 
designated positions, training, recruitment, and incentives; however, 
the department faces several challenges to these efforts, particularly 
staffing shortages. State's annual language designation process results 
in a list of positions requiring language skills. However, the views 
expressed by the headquarters and overseas officials we met with 
suggest State's designated language proficiency requirements do not 
necessarily reflect the actual language needs of the posts. For 
example, because of budgetary and staffing issues, some overseas posts 
tend to request only the positions they think they will receive rather 
than the positions they actually need. Moreover, officers at the posts 
we visited questioned the validity of the relatively low proficiency 
level required for certain positions, citing the need for a higher 
proficiency level. For example, an economics officer at one of the 
posts we visited, who met the posts' required proficiency level, said 
her level of proficiency did not provide her with language skills 
needed to discuss technical issues, and the officers in the public 
affairs section of the same post said that proficiency level was not 
sufficient to effectively explain U.S. positions in the local media. 
State primarily uses language training to meet its foreign language 
requirements, and does so mostly at the Foreign Service Institute in 
Arlington, Virginia, but also at field schools and post language 
training overseas. In 2008, the department reported a training success 
rate of 86 percent. In addition, the department recruits personnel with 
foreign language skills through special incentives offered under its 
critical needs language program and pays bonuses to encourage staff to 
study and maintain a level of proficiency in certain languages. The 
department has hired 445 officers under this program since 2004. 

However, various challenges limit the effectiveness of these efforts. 
According to State, two main challenges are overall staffing shortages, 
which limit the number of staff available for language training, and 
the recent increase in language-designated positions. The staffing 
shortages are exacerbated by officers curtailing their tours at posts, 
such as to staff the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, which has led to 
a decrease in the number of officers in the language training pipeline. 
For example, officials in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs 
told us of an officer who received nearly a year of language training 
in Vietnamese, yet canceled her tour in Vietnam to serve in Iraq. These 
departures often force their successors to arrive at post early without 
having completed language training. As part of its effort to address 
these staffing shortfalls, in fiscal year 2009, State requested and 
received funding for 300 new positions to build a training capacity, 
intended to reduce gaps at posts while staff are in language training. 
State officials said that if the department's fiscal year 2010 request 
for 200 additional positions is approved, the department's language 
gaps will begin to close in 2011; however, State has not indicated when 
its foreign language staffing requirements will be completely met. 
Another challenge is the widely held perception among Foreign Service 
officers that State's promotion system does not consider time spent in 
language training when evaluating officers for promotion, which may 
discourage officers from investing the time required to achieve 
proficiency in certain languages. Although State Human Resources 
officials dispute this perception, the department has not conducted a 
statistically significant assessment of the impact of language training 
on promotions. 

State Lacks a Comprehensive, Strategic Approach for Meeting Foreign 
Language Requirements: 

State's current approach to meeting its foreign language proficiency 
requirements has not closed the department's persistent language 
proficiency gaps and reflects, in part, a lack of a comprehensive 
strategic direction. Common elements of comprehensive workforce 
planning--described by GAO as part of a large body of work on human 
capital management--include setting strategic direction that includes 
measurable performance goals and objectives and funding priorities, 
determining critical skills and competencies that will be needed in the 
future, developing an action plan to address gaps, and monitoring and 
evaluating the success of the department's progress toward meeting 
goals.[Footnote 9] In the past, State officials have asserted that 
because language is such an integral part of the department's 
operations, a separate planning effort for foreign language skills was 
not needed. More recently, State officials have said the department's 
plan for meeting its foreign language requirements is spread throughout 
a number of documents that address these requirements, including the 
department's Five-Year Workforce Plan. However, these documents are not 
linked to each other and do not contain measurable goals, objectives, 
resource requirements, and milestones for reducing the foreign language 
gaps. We believe that a more comprehensive strategic approach would 
help State to more effectively guide and assess progress in meeting its 
foreign language requirements. 

Recommendations for Executive Action: 

In our recently-issued reports we made several recommendations to help 
State address its staffing gaps and language proficiency shortfalls. 

* To ensure that hardship posts are staffed commensurate with their 
stated level of strategic importance and resources are properly 
targeted, GAO recommends the Secretary of State (1) take steps to 
minimize the experience gap at hardship posts by making the assignment 
of experienced officers to such posts an explicit priority 
consideration, and (2) develop and implement a plan to evaluate 
incentives for hardship post assignments. 

* To address State's long-standing foreign language proficiency 
shortfalls, we recommend that the Secretary of State develop a 
comprehensive strategic plan with measurable goals, objectives, 
milestones, and feedback mechanisms that links all of State's efforts 
to meet its foreign language requirements. 

State generally agreed with our findings, conclusions, and 
recommendations and described several initiatives that address elements 
of the recommendations. In addition, State recently convened an inter- 
bureau language working group, which will focus on and develop an 
action plan to address GAO's recommendations. 

Mr. Chairman, this concludes my prepared statement. I would be pleased 
to respond to any questions you or other Members of the Subcommittee 
may have at this time. 

GAO Contact and Staff Acknowledgments: 

For questions regarding this testimony, please contact Jess T. Ford at 
(202) 512-4268 or Individuals making key contributions 
to this statement include Godwin Agbara and Anthony Moran, Assistant 
Directors; Robert Ball; Joseph Carney; Aniruddha Dasgupta; Martin de 
Alteriis; Brian Hackney; Gloria Hernandez-Saunders; Richard Gifford 
Howland; Grace Lui; and La Verne Tharpes. 

[End of section] 

Appendix I: Related GAO Products: 

Department of State: Comprehensive Plan Needed to Address Persistent 
Foreign Language Shortfalls. [hyperlink,]. Washington, D.C.: September 
17, 2009. 

Department of State: Additional Steps Needed to Address Continuing 
Staffing and Experience Gaps at Hardship Posts. [hyperlink,]. Washington, D.C.: September 
17, 2009. 

State Department: Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist 
Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps. [hyperlink,]. Washington, D.C.: August 1, 

U.S. Public Diplomacy: Strategic Planning Efforts Have Improved, but 
Agencies Face Significant Implementation Challenges. [hyperlink,]. Washington, D.C.: April 26, 

Department of State: Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist 
Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps. [hyperlink,]. Washington, D.C.: August 4, 

Overseas Staffing: Rightsizing Approaches Slowly Taking Hold but More 
Action Needed to Coordinate and Carry Out Efforts. [hyperlink,]. Washington, D.C.: June 30, 

U.S. Public Diplomacy: State Department Efforts to Engage Muslim 
Audiences Lack Certain Communication Elements and Face Significant 
Challenges. [hyperlink,]. 
Washington, D.C.: May 3, 2006. 

Border Security: Strengthened Visa Process Would Benefit from 
Improvements in Staffing and Information Sharing. [hyperlink,]. Washington, D.C.: September 
13, 2005. 

State Department: Targets for Hiring, Filling Vacancies Overseas Being 
Met, but Gaps Remain in Hard-to-Learn Languages. [hyperlink,]. Washington, D.C.: November 19, 

Foreign Affairs: Effective Stewardship of Resources Essential to 
Efficient Operations at State Department, USAID. [hyperlink,]. Washington, D.C.: September 
4, 2003. 

State Department: Staffing Shortfalls and Ineffective Assignment System 
Compromise Diplomatic Readiness at Hardship Posts. [hyperlink,]. Washington, D.C.: June 18, 

[End of section] 


[1] State defines hardship posts as those locations where the U.S. 
government provides differential pay incentives--an additional 5 to 35 
percent of basic salary, depending on the severity or difficulty of the 
conditions--to encourage employees to bid on assignments to these posts 
and to compensate them for the hardships they encounter. For the 
purposes of this statement, we refer to these differential pay 
incentives as hardship differentials. We define posts with no 
differentials as those where the hardship differential is 0 percent. We 
define posts with low differentials as those where the hardship 
differential is 5 or 10 percent. We define hardship posts as those 
posts where the hardship differential is at least 15 percent. We define 
posts of greatest hardship as those where the hardship differential is 
at least 25 percent. 

[2] GAO, Department of State: Additional Steps Needed to Address 
Continuing Staffing and Experience Gaps at Hardship Posts, [hyperlink,] (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 17, 
2009); and GAO, Department of State: Comprehensive Plan Needed to 
Address Persistent Foreign Language Shortfalls, [hyperlink,] (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 17, 

[3] As of the same date, the average vacancy rate for all hardship 
posts was 15 percent, as compared to an average rate of 10 percent for 
all posts with no or low differentials. 

[4] We used data from State's GEMS database to calculate rates of staff 
filling positions above their own grades. Due to limitations in the 
GEMS data on positions in Iraq, we do not include Iraq in these 
calculations of staff filling positions above their own grades or in 
Table 1. 

[5] At the time of our visit, Abuja had a 25 percent hardship 

[6] Department of State, OIG, Report of Inspection: Embassy N'Djamena, 
Chad, ISP-I-09-02A (Washington, D.C., December 2008). As of December 
2008, N'Djamena had a 30 percent hardship differential. 

[7] Currently, supercritical needs languages are Arabic (Modern 
Standard, Egyptian, and Iraqi), Chinese (Mandarin), Dari, Farsi, Hindi, 
and Urdu. Critical needs languages are Arabic (forms other than Modern 
Standard, Egyptian, and Iraqi), Azerbaijani, Bengali, Chinese 
(Cantonese), Kazakh, Korean, Kurdish, Kyrgyz, Nepali, Pashto, Punjabi, 
Russian, Tajik, Turkish, Turkmen, and Uzbek. 

[8] Regional security officers are special agents operating out of 
State's Bureau of Diplomatic Security assigned to U.S. diplomatic 
missions overseas, responsible for the protection of personnel and 
their families, facilities, and classified information. 

[9] GAO Human Capital: Key Principles for Effective Strategic Workforce 
Planning, [hyperlink,] 
(Washington, D.C.: Dec. 11, 2003). 

[End of section] 

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