Department of State:

Persistent Staffing and Foreign Language Gaps Compromise Diplomatic Readiness

GAO-09-1046T: Published: Sep 24, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 2009.

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Jess T. Ford
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Office of Public Affairs
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This testimony discusses 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 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. This testimony discusses (1) State's progress in addressing staffing gaps at hardship posts, and (2) State's efforts to meet its foreign language requirements.

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.

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