State Department:

Targets for Hiring, Filling Vacancies Overseas Being Met, but Gaps Remain in Hard-to-Learn Languages

GAO-04-139: Published: Nov 19, 2003. Publicly Released: Nov 19, 2003.

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Jess T. Ford
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During the 1990s, the State Department lost more people than it hired. The resultant shortfalls in the number and skills of Foreign Service officers have endangered U.S. diplomatic readiness. Furthermore, recent studies, including several by GAO, have questioned whether State's recruitment system identifies people with the appropriate skills and whether State is assigning officers with specialized skills, such as the ability to speak a difficult language, to positions where they can be utilized. GAO was asked to review State's processes for determining the number and skills of junior officers the department needs and to determine whether it is hiring and assigning officers with the general skills to carry out foreign policy overseas. GAO was also asked to examine the challenges State still needs to address, especially regarding officers' foreign language skills.

State used critical elements of workforce planning to identify the number of junior officers it needs to hire within the next 5 to 10 years. State implemented key elements of workforce planning, including setting strategic direction and goals, identifying gaps in its workforce, and developing strategies to address these gaps. State's analysis showed that it had a deficit of 386 positions, mainly at the mid level, and in 2001, State launched a $197 million plan to address the gaps. State has met its 2002 to 2003 hiring targets for junior officers and is filling overseas positions with junior officers with the general skills and competencies required to do their job well. However, State officials said it will take up to 10 years to hire and promote junior officers in sufficient numbers to significantly decrease the shortage of midlevel officers. While State is able to fill overseas positions with junior officers who have the necessary general skills, the department continues to face challenges filling the gaps in staff with proficiency in certain hard-to-learn languages, such as Arabic and Chinese. State has implemented a plan to target applicants who speak these difficult languages. However, this plan does not include numeric goals, and State has collected limited data to assess the effectiveness of its efforts. Other challenges include new officers' public diplomacy skills and training in this area, increased supervisory and on-the job requirements when State assigns junior officers to positions above their experience level, and the impact of rotational assignments on junior officers' performance and managers' time.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: State had not specifically addressed our recommendation at the time of our subsequent FY 2006 review of staffing and language gaps at State. Consequently, we recommended that the Secretary of State systematically evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts to improve the language proficiency of its FSOs and specialists, establishing specific indicators of progress in filling gaps and adjusting its efforts accordingly. Since that time, State has reported some actions, but the actions cannot be directly linked to the FY 04 report. For example, State has reported that the department has developed employee to position ratio indicators for tracking its foreign language proficiency and that it periodically reports on the indicators as part of the President's Management Agenda.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of State should collect and maintain data on the effectiveness of State's efforts to address language gaps. State should use these data to, among other things, report on filling such gaps through its outreach efforts to recruit more junior officers with hard language skills and its pilot programs to increase training in hard-to-learn languages for junior officers.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2003, we recommended that the Secretary of State collect and maintain data on the effectiveness of State's efforts to address language gaps. We stated that the data should be used to, among other things, report on filling such gaps through its outreach efforts to recruit more junior officers with hard language skills. We noted that although State had a system for awarding candidates with foreign language skills additional points on their oral assessment scores, the system did not provide any additional points to test-takers with hard languages versus other languages. State generally agreed with our findings and observations. Partially in response to our work, State reported in April 2004 that it has implemented a new hiring policy to provide additional credit to speakers of critical needs languages.

    Recommendation: State should also explore additional opportunities to maximize assignment of junior officers who have skills in these languages to overseas posts where they can use these languages.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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