Department of State:

Comprehensive Plan Needed to Address Persistent Foreign Language Shortfalls

GAO-09-955: Published: Sep 17, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 22, 2009.

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Proficiency in foreign languages is a key skill for U.S. diplomats to advance U.S. interests overseas. GAO has issued several reports highlighting the Department of State's (State) persistent foreign language shortages. In 2006, GAO recommended that State evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts to improve the language proficiency of its staff. State responded by providing examples of activities it believed addressed our recommendation. In this report, which updates the 2006 report, GAO (1) examined the extent to which State is meeting its foreign language requirements and the potential impact of any shortfall, (2) assessed State's efforts to meet its foreign language requirements and described the challenges it faces in doing so, and (3) assessed the extent to which State has a comprehensive strategy to determine and meet these requirements. GAO analyzed data on State's overseas language-designated positions; reviewed strategic planning and budgetary documents; interviewed State officials; and conducted fieldwork in China, Egypt, India, Tunisia, and Turkey.

As of October 31, 2008, 31 percent of Foreign Service officers in overseas language-designated positions (LDP) did not meet both the foreign languages speaking and reading proficiency requirements for their positions. State continues to face foreign language shortfalls in regions of strategic interest--such as the Near East and South and Central Asia, where about 40 percent of officers in LDPs did not meet requirements. Despite efforts to recruit individuals with proficiency in critical languages, shortfalls in supercritical languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, remain at 39 percent. Past reports by GAO, State's Office of the Inspector General, and others have concluded that foreign language shortfalls could be negatively affecting U.S. activities overseas. Overseas fieldwork for this report reaffirmed this conclusion. State's approach to meeting its foreign language requirements includes an annual review of all LDPs, language training, recruitment of language-proficient staff, and pay incentives for language skills. For example, State trains staff in about 70 languages in Washington and overseas, and has reported a training success rate of 86 percent. Moreover, State offers bonus points for language-proficient applicants who have passed the Foreign Service exam and has hired 445 officers under this program since 2004. However, various challenges limit the effectiveness of these efforts. According to State, a primary challenge is overall staffing shortages, which limit the number of staff available for language training, as well as the recent increase in LDPs. State's efforts to meet its foreign language requirements have yielded some results but have not closed persistent gaps and reflect, in part, a lack of a comprehensive, strategic approach. State officials have said that the department's plan for meeting its foreign language requirements is spread throughout a number of documents that address these needs; however these documents are not linked to each other and do not contain measurable goals, objectives, or milestones for reducing the foreign language gaps. Because these gaps have persisted over several years despite staffing increases, we believe that a more comprehensive, strategic approach would help State to more effectively guide its efforts and assess its progress in meeting its foreign language requirements.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response, in March 2011, State published a strategic plan for foreign language capabilities that links its efforts to expand its training complement, improve the language-designation process, develop a model to project language requirements, enhance its recruitment activities, and develop a more comprehensive approach to its language incentives program. State established a goal of filling 90 percent of its language-designated positions by 2016/2017.

    Recommendation: To address State's persistent foreign language proficiency shortfalls in the U.S. Foreign Service, the Secretary of State should develop a comprehensive strategic plan consistent with GAO and Office of Personnel Management (OPM) workforce planning guidance that links all of State's efforts to meet its foreign language requirements. Such a plan should include, but not be limited to, the following elements: (1) clearly defined and measurable performance goals and objectives of the department's language proficiency program that reflect the priorities and strategic interests of U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy (2) a transparent, comprehensive process for identifying foreign language requirements, based on objective criteria, that goes beyond the current annual process, to determine which positions should be language designated and the proficiency level needed to enable officers to effectively perform their duties; and (3) a more effective mechanism that allows State to gather feedback from FSOs on the relevance of the foreign language skills that they acquired at FSI to their jobs, and mechanisms for assessing the effectiveness of State's recruitment of critical needs foreign language speakers, and language incentive payments, as well as future efforts toward closing the department's language proficiency gaps.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its Congressional Budget Justification for fiscal year 2011, State highlighted a new indicator for measuring language proficiency. Specifically, using fiscal year 2009 as a baseline and setting targets for fiscal years 2010 and 2011, State now measures foreign language proficiency (and thereby, foreign language gaps), based on the average of monthly evaluations (during the Fiscal Year) of language designated positions that are filled by employees who meet or exceed the language requirements for that position.

    Recommendation: To address State's persistent foreign language proficiency shortfalls in the U.S. Foreign Service, and to more accurately measure the extent to which language-designated positions are filled with officers who meet the language requirements of the position, the Secretary of State should revise the department's methodology in its Congressional Budget Justifications and annual reports to Congress on foreign language proficiency. Specifically, the department should measure and report on the percentage of officers in language-designated positions who have tested at or above the level of proficiency required for the position, rather than officers who have been assigned to language training but who have not yet completed this training.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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