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STATE STILL SHORT ON FOREIGN SERVICE WORKERS, GAO FINDS

By Eric Katz, GovtExec.com, July 16, 2012

The State Department must update its hiring plans in light of persistent Foreign Service staffing gaps, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Monday. (see attached).

The report found that 28 percent of mid-level positions either were vacant or filled by officers working in positions above their grade. In an investigation conducted in 2008, GAO found the same percentage of vacant or “upstretched” positions.

State has made multiple efforts in the last decade to increase its Foreign Service personnel, but efforts in the early 2000s were thwarted by the need for workers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and more recent plans were halted by budget cuts.

“These gaps will continue to affect diplomatic readiness as positions remain unfilled, or are staffed by Foreign Service employees whose experience does not match the position requirements,” GAO wrote in its report.

State increased the size of the Foreign Service by 17 percent in fiscal 2009 and 2010, but these were largely entry-level hires who will not reach the understaffed mid-level positions for two to three years. The vacancies, GAO found, can lead to diminished reporting, lost institutional knowledge and more work for supervisors.

GAO recommended a revision to State’s five year workforce plan to address the problem.

“Since State has not developed a specific strategy for addressing mid-level gaps,” the auditors wrote, “it can neither fully assess the success of its efforts to close these gaps nor determine the optimal course of action for enhancing diplomatic readiness.”

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia, requested the GAO investigation.

“State must continue to develop effective workforce strategies and address staffing gaps to effectively respond to quickly evolving diplomatic challenges,” he said.

The State Department already has taken steps to address the issue -- including relying more heavily on civil service workers and hiring retirees -- but has accepted GAO’s recommendation to seek a more cohesive plan.

WHAT GAO FOUND

The Department of State (State) faces persistent experience gaps in overseas Foreign Service positions, particularly at the midlevels, and these gaps have not diminished since 2008. In fiscal years 2009 and 2010, State increased the size of the Foreign Service by 17 percent. However, these new hires will not have the experience to reach midlevels until fiscal years 2014 and 2015. GAO found that 28 percent of overseas Foreign Service positions were either vacant or filled by upstretch candidates—officers serving in positions above their grade—as of October 2011, a percentage that has not changed since 2008. Midlevel positions represent the largest share of these gaps. According to State officials, the gaps have not diminished because State increased the total number of overseas positions in response to increased needs and emerging priorities. State officials noted the department takes special measures to fill high-priority positions, including those in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

State has taken steps to increase its reliance on Civil Service employees and retirees, as well as expand mentoring, to help address midlevel experience gaps overseas; however, State lacks a strategy to guide these efforts. State is currently implementing a pilot program to expand overseas assignments for Civil Service employees. Efforts to expand the limited number of these assignments must overcome some key challenges, such as addressing new gaps when Civil Service employees leave their headquarters positions and identifying qualified Civil Service applicants to fill overseas vacancies. State also hires retirees on a limited basis for both full-time and short-term positions. For example, State used limited congressional authority to offer dual compensation waivers to hire 57 retirees in 2011. As a step toward mitigating experience gaps overseas, State began a pilot program offering workshops that include mentoring for first-time supervisors. State acknowledges the need to close midlevel Foreign Service gaps, but it has not developed a strategy to help ensure that the department is taking full advantage of available human capital flexibilities and evaluating the success of its efforts to address these gaps.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2009, GAO reported on challenges that State faced in filling its increasing overseas staffing needs with sufficiently experienced personnel and noted that persistent Foreign Service staffing and experience gaps put diplomatic readiness at risk. State is currently undertaking a new hiring plan, known as “Diplomacy 3.0,” to increase the size of the Foreign Service by 25 percent to close staffing gaps and respond to new diplomatic priorities. However, fiscal constraints are likely to delay the plan’s full implementation well beyond its intended target for completion in 2013. In addition, State’s first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review highlighted the need to find ways to close overseas gaps. GAO was asked to assess (1) the extent to which State’s overseas midlevel experience gaps in the Foreign Service have changed since 2008 and (2) State’s efforts to address these gaps. GAO analyzed State’s personnel data; reviewed key planning documents, including the Five Year Workforce Plan; and interviewed State officials in Washington, D.C., and at selected posts.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that State update its Five Year Workforce Plan to include a strategy to address midlevel Foreign Service gaps and a plan to evaluate the success of this strategy. State reviewed a draft of this report and agreed with GAO’s recommendation.

For more information, contact Michael Courts at (202) 512-8980 courtsm@gao.gov.

Recommendation for Executive Action

Recommendation: To help guide State’s efforts to address midlevel gaps in the Foreign Service, the Secretary of State should direct the Bureau of Human Resources to update its Five Year Workforce Plan to include a strategy to address these gaps and a plan to evaluate the success of this strategy.

Agency Affected: Department of State

 


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