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Highlights

The Department of State (State) has designated about two-thirds of its 268 overseas posts as hardship posts. Staff working at such posts often encounter harsh conditions, including inadequate medical facilities and high crime. Many of these posts are vital to U.S. foreign policy objectives and need a full complement of staff with the right skills to carry out the department's priorities. As such, State offers staff at these posts a hardship differential--an additional adjustment to basic pay--to compensate officers for the conditions they encounter and as a recruitment and retention incentive. GAO was asked to assess (1) State's progress in addressing staffing gaps at hardship posts since 2006 and the effect of any remaining gaps, and (2) the extent to which State has used incentives to address staffing gaps at hardship posts. GAO analyzed State data; reviewed relevant documents; met with officials in Washington, D.C.; and conducted fieldwork in five hardship posts.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of State 1. To ensure that hardship posts are staffed commensurate with their stated level of strategic importance and resources are properly targeted, the Secretary of State should take steps to minimize the experience gap at hardship posts by making the assignment of at-grade, mid-level officers to such posts an explicit priority consideration.
Closed - Not Implemented
State did not take action to address this recommendation.
Department of State 2. To ensure that hardship posts are staffed commensurate with their stated level of strategic importance and resources are properly targeted, the Secretary of State should develop and implement a plan to evaluate incentives for hardship post assignments. Such a plan could include an analysis of how the hardship assignment incentive programs work individually and collectively to address the department's difficulty in recruiting staff to accept--and remain in--positions at hardship posts.
Closed - Implemented
State concurred with this recommendation, stating that it agreed with GAO and the Congress that the question of effectiveness of incentives to staff hardship posts was important. In March 2011, State briefed GAO on an evaluation it was undertaking to understand the impact of each hardship incentive. Subsequently, in August 2011, State produced a final report detailing the scope, action plan, approach, and findings of the evaluation. The report cited GAO's observation that, without a complete evaluation of hardship incentives, the department may be missing certain insight necessary to staff such posts more effectively and efficiently. The evaluation found danger and post differential pay to be the most important incentives in staffing hardship posts. Further, State credited the evaluation as providing a foundation for continually evaluating the effectiveness of incentives, consistently tracking and monitoring overall progress and trends, and managing incentives on an ongoing basis.

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