Staffing Shortages/Lack of Mid-Level Officers Hinder U.S. Outreach Efforts

The GAO has just released its report on U.S. Public Diplomacy: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight on May 27 (GAO-09-679SP). It discusses the background, strategic and operational planning, performance measurement, and coordination of communication efforts on public diplomacy. It also talks about outreach efforts in high threat posts as well as the State Department’s Public Diplomacy workforce. Excerpt below:

State has experienced a shortage of public diplomacy staff since 1999 when the United States Information Agency was merged into the department. In 2003, GAO reported that State experienced a 13 percent vacancy rate in its public diplomacy positions. Similar findings were reported by GAO in May 2006, and data from November 2007 show a vacancy rate of over 13 percent. In our 2003 report, we noted that more than 50 percent of those responding to our survey of public diplomacy officers felt the number of Foreign Service officers available to perform public diplomacy duties was inadequate.

Our May 2006 report noted that while several recent reports on public diplomacy had recommended increased spending on U.S. public diplomacy programs, several embassy officials told us that, given current staffing levels, they lacked the capacity to effectively utilize increased funds.

In August 2006, we reported that State’s consular and public diplomacy positions were the hardest to fill, with 91 percent of the vacancies in these two tracks at the mid-level. We noted this staffing gap placed pressure on State to appoint junior officers to so-called “stretch positions”—whereby they serve in a position above their pay grade—to fill as many of these vacancies as possible. For example, at the time of our visit in 2006 the U.S. Ambassador to Nigeria—which had the third largest mission in Africa with nearly 800 employees—told us the embassy had only three senior officers, and public affairs were handled entirely by first-tour junior officers. Ambassadors at posts GAO visited stated that junior officers, while generally highly qualified when entering the Foreign Service, lack sufficient training to handle some of the high-stress situations they encounter and therefore often end up making mistakes.

A January 2008 analysis by State’s Human Resources Bureau indicates that mid-level shortages continue. The report notes the public diplomacy cone has the highest mid-level deficit among the five generalist cones, and public diplomacy officers are being promoted through the mid-levels at higher rates than other cones. State officials expect it will take several years before the mid-level deficit is erased. One senior State official noted accelerated rates of promotion have led to concern that some public diplomacy officers may not have the requisite experience and expertise to perform effectively at their current levels.

The GAO has posted the following oversight questions:

1. What is State’s strategy to obtain a sufficient number of staff to create the desired training float needed to fill vacant public diplomacy positions and meet all required language training needs?

2. What is State’s strategy to address the deficit in mid-level management expertise?

3. Are public affairs officers at posts overburdened with administrative duties? If so, what can be done to alleviate this situation?

Related Item:

(GAO-09-679SP): U.S. Public Diplomacy: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight dated May 27, 2009