Department of State:

Additional Steps Are Needed to Improve Strategic Planning and Evaluation of Training for State Personnel

GAO-11-241: Published: Jan 25, 2011. Publicly Released: Mar 8, 2011.

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Because the U.S. Department of State (State) is the lead U.S. foreign affairs agency, its personnel require certain knowledge, skills, and abilities to address the global challenges and security threats facing the United States. State devoted about $255 million to personnel training in fiscal year 2010; the department's Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is the primary training provider for State's more than 66,000 Foreign Service, civil service, and locally employed staff (LE staff) worldwide. GAO was asked to examine (1) State's purpose and structure for training personnel and (2) the extent to which State's training incorporates elements for effective training programs. GAO reviewed and analyzed data and documentation related to the agency's training efforts; completed a training assessment using a tool developed based on prior GAO guidance; and interviewed officials in Washington, D.C., and at 12 overseas posts.

State's purpose for training personnel is to develop the men and women the United States requires to fulfill its leadership role in world affairs and to advance and defend U.S. interests. State guidance outlines key training roles, including FSI's primary role in developing training policies and facilitating necessary training, and the Bureau of Human Resources' role in assigning employees to training and working with FSI to help ensure it meets their needs. Other bureaus, offices, and posts also share responsibilities for training. FSI currently offers more than 700 classroom courses, and has recently increased its focus on distance learning. Overall, about 40 percent of personnel training over the last 5 fiscal years, on average, was in foreign language skills. Other training for personnel generally focused on developing leadership, management, and other professional and technical skills and knowledge. State has taken many steps to incorporate the interrelated elements of an effective training program--planning, design, implementation, and evaluation--into its extensive training for personnel; however, the department's strategic approach to workforce training has several key weaknesses. The department demonstrated a variety of ways in which it has endeavored to develop an effective training program, such as by compiling an annual training plan, and implementing a range of training evaluation mechanisms and a learning management system that can be used to track training delivery. However, GAO's analysis found several gaps in the department's efforts to strategically plan and prioritize training, ensure efficient and effective training design and delivery, and determine whether or how training and development efforts contribute to improved performance and desired results. For example: (1) State lacks a systematic, comprehensive training needs assessment process incorporating all bureaus and overseas posts. (2) State developed training continuums to provide information for employees about training opportunities, career paths, and how training can help employees attain career goals, but the continuums do not provide complete and accurate information, and other guidance does not cover all personnel. (3) State lacks formal guidance for curriculum design and for data collection and analysis, and thus cannot be assured that proper practices and procedures are systematically and comprehensively applied. (4) State could not sufficiently demonstrate consistent and appropriate support for training, because the department does not track detailed information on training cost and delivery that would allow for an analysis and comparison of employees in different groups, bureaus, regions, or posts. (5) State's performance measures for training generally do not fully address training goals, and are generally output- rather than outcome-oriented. GAO is making several recommendations for State to improve strategic planning and evaluation of the department's efforts to train personnel, including for improvements to State's efforts to assess training needs and efforts to ensure training achieves desired results. State reviewed a draft of this report and generally agreed with our recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State agreed that assessing training needs was a critical human resources function with this recommendation and in 2011, State implemented its first annual post and bureau training needs assessment. The survey solicits the top five training priorities from each bureau and post. The Office of the Executive Director at FSI reviews the survey results and provides them to the various departments, who in turn develop an action plan in response to the top five training needs identified. The finalized action plan is shared with the Director's office.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that State's personnel training is connected to improving individual and agency performance and that department resources are directed to actual training needs and priorities, the Secretary of State should direct FSI and the Bureau of Human Resources, in collaboration with other bureaus and offices, as appropriate, to develop and implement a plan for a systematic, comprehensive training needs assessment process, incorporating all bureaus and posts.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: State updated a Career Develop Plan for Foreign Service (FS) Generalists in Feb 2012 and is in the process of finalizing the development of 18 Career Development Plans for FS Specialists. For the Civil Service (CS), State has developed a Training Toolkit for CS Human Resources Management for HR employees. State/FSI has also developed "A Leadership Training Roadmap," a one-page resource that outlines mandatory courses, as well as examples of elective and external training for State employees at all career-levels.

    Recommendation: To enhance State's efforts to provide transparent, complete, and accurate information to help employees plan training and development throughout their careers, the Secretary of State should direct FSI and other bureaus and offices, as appropriate, to collaborate in developing and updating information for employees on training to ensure that employees have complete and accurate guidance, including information on any mandatory, required, and recommended training for specific employee groups.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: In the spring of 2012, Foreign Service Institute (FSI) added a new indicator related to training in the Bureau Resource Request and plans to review their indicators for the 2015 Bureau Resource Request. FSI collects the data for the indicator from the annual training survey.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that State's performance measures for training provide meaningful data and more fully address the department's training goals, the Secretary of State should direct FSI and the Bureau of Human Resources to review the performance measures and revise or enhance the measures, as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: Foreign Service Institute (FSI) provided information on its new evaluation process, but these efforts do not reflect a data collection and analysis plan. FSI has developed detailed reports that summarize their evaluation of courses offered at each of its schools. While these reports could be used to inform training planning efforts or be a significant action item in a plan, they are not data collection and analysis plans.

    Recommendation: To enhance State's capacity to evaluate workforce training, the Secretary of State should direct FSI and the Bureau of Human Resources to develop a data collection and analysis plan for training, including guidance for determining the methods, timing, and responsibilities for training data collection, as well as how results will be used.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: State is taking steps to make staff aware of data already gathered. For example, the Human Resource Bureau has developed "dashboards" to share information with supervisors on who has completed mandatory leadership training. Foreign Service Institute (FSI) also sends training reports to embassies twice a year. Classroom courses completed by Foreign Service Officers are not included. However, it is not clear that this reflects improvements in the collection and analysis of training data.

    Recommendation: To improve State's ability to determine whether it is providing consistent and appropriate support and funding for employee training and development across employee groups and locations, the Secretary of State should direct FSI and the Bureau of Human Resources to identify ways to improve the collection and analysis of training data and results, such as by enhancing the level of detailed information gathered to determine whether employees across groups and locations are getting needed training, and enhancing efforts to determine the impact of training. These efforts should also include steps to further incorporate locally employed (LE) staff into State's training evaluation mechanisms.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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