Department of State:

Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps

GAO-06-894: Published: Aug 4, 2006. Publicly Released: Aug 4, 2006.

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GAO has reported in recent years on a number of human capital issues that have hampered the Department of State's ability to carry out U.S. foreign policy priorities and objectives, particularly at posts central to the war on terror. In 2002, State implemented the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative (DRI) to address shortfalls in the number and skills of State employees. This report discusses State's progress in (1) addressing staffing shortfalls since the implementation of DRI and (2) filling gaps in the language proficiency of foreign service officers and other staff. To accomplish these objectives, GAO analyzed staffing and language data and met with State officials.

State has made progress in addressing staffing shortages since implementing the DRI. However, the initiative did not fully meet its goals, and mid-level vacancies remain a problem at many posts, including some critical to the war on terror. State implemented various incentives to attract more mid-level officers to these locations, including offering extra pay to officers who serve an additional year at certain posts. However, it has not evaluated the effectiveness of these incentives and continues to have difficulties attracting qualified applicants. Mid-level positions at many posts are staffed by junior officers who lack experience, have minimal guidance, and are not as well-equipped to handle crises as more seasoned officers. This experience gap can severely compromise the department's readiness to carry out foreign policy objectives and execute critical post-level duties. State has made progress in increasing its foreign language capabilities, but serious language gaps remain. State initiated a number of efforts to improve its foreign language capabilities. However, it has not evaluated the effectiveness of these efforts, and it continues to experience difficulties filling its language-designated positions with language proficient staff. Almost one third of the staff in these positions do not meet the language requirements. The percentage is much higher at certain critical posts--for example, 60 percent in Sana'a, Yemen. Several factors--including the perception that spending too much time in one region may hinder officers' and specialists' promotion potential--may discourage employees from bidding on positions where they could enhance and maintain their language skills over time and limit State's ability to take advantage of those skills and the investment it makes in training. Gaps in language proficiency can adversely impact State's ability to communicate with foreign audiences and execute critical duties.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State took limited steps that we do not believe fully addressed the recommendation. We examined this issue again in 2009 in our report, Department of State: Comprehensive Plan Needed to Address Persistent Foreign Language Shortfalls (GAO-09-955). In that report, we made a new recommendation that incorporates elements of this 2006 recommendation. For more current information, see (GA0-09-955).

    Recommendation: To enhance staffing levels and skills at hardship posts as well as the language proficiency of FSOs and other staff, the Secretary of State should systematically evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts to improve the language proficiency of its FSOs and specialists, establishing specific indicators of progress in filling language gaps and adjusting its efforts, accordingly.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State has taken several actions that address this recommendation. First, the department has extended tours of duty for at least two posts in the Middle East. Second, the department has implemented two programs that encourage employees to serve repeated or longer tours in certain countries. Finally, the department has implemented an initiative that would provide additional language pay incentives for staff it they choose to take a reassignment to use existing Arabic skills.

    Recommendation: To enhance staffing levels and skills at hardship posts as well as the language proficiency of FSOs and other staff, the Secretary of State should consider an assignment system that allows for longer tours, consecutive assignments in certain countries, and more regional specialization in certain areas, in order to hone officers' skills in certain superhard languages and better leverage the investment State makes in language training.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State took limited steps that we do not believe fully addressed the recommendation. We examined this issue again in 2009 in our report, Department of State: Additional Steps Needed to Address Continuing Staffing and Experience Gaps at Hardship Posts (GAO-09-874). That report contained a recommendation that incorporates elements of this 2006 recommendation. For more current information, see (GAO-09-874).

    Recommendation: To enhance staffing levels and skills at hardship posts as well as the language proficiency of FSOs and other staff, the Secretary of State should systematically evaluate the effectiveness of the department's incentive programs for hardship post assignments, establishing specific indicators of progress and adjusting the use of the incentives based on this analysis.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: After our report was issued, State's Director General publicly indicated he would direct assignments when needed and the Department considered it to fill positions in Iraq- a top foreign policy priority. While State has not yet used directed assignments, official told us that the Department's increased willingness to do so has helped convince some qualified staff to accept critical assignments.

    Recommendation: To enhance staffing levels and skills at hardship posts as well as the language proficiency of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and other staff, the Secretary of State should consider using directed assignments, as necessary, using a risk-based approach, to fill critical positions with fully qualified officers who have the skills and experience necessary to effectively manage and supervise essential mission functions at hardship posts.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  5. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State did not take any action to address this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To enhance staffing levels and skills at hardship posts as well as the language proficiency of FSOs and other staff, the Secretary of State should conduct a risk assessment of critical language needs in regions and countries of strategic importance, make realistic projections of the staff time and related training float necessary to adequately train personnel to meet those needs, and target its limited resources for language training, as needed, to fill these critical gaps.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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