A Fall Re-Run: Language Shortfalls at the State Dept

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The GAO has just released its latest report on the foreign language shortfalls at the State Department. Since 2002, six reports have been issued altogether on this topic alone. This is beginning to look like a TV series with a return engagement every fall-winter season.

The full report has not been posted yet but here is a summary:

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.

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. blur 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.

The GAO report makes two recommendations:

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.

: 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.

* * *

An FS candidate (declined to be publicly identified for fear of adverse reaction) who has a 5/5 in a superhard language wrote to Diplopundit not too long ago. The candidate made it to the orals but scored a teensy weensy point short of the score needed to pass (we’re talking less than a full point). But here’s the contortion in this entrance process that is out of step with current realities – the candidate’s language skills only came into consideration after the applicant passed the orals (by getting a 0.4 – 0.5 boost on the Register). State HR apparently treats a 2/2 in hard and superhard languages the same way as a 5/5 in the application process (QEP and post-orals). But… but … the difference between an elementary 2/2 and a native speaker 5/5 is almost like an ocean, yes, the Pacific one. Can you really order a beer and also explain our foreign policy in Afghanistan with a 2/2 in Dari? I think not.

A 5/5 in superhard languages like Chinese, Korean, Arabic and Japanese is rarely achieved through a couple of years of training at FSI and even getting to a 4/4 takes years of constant practice. So — because the FS entry process is wedded to the 1950’s, we instead hire somebody who has no Chinese, no Korean, no Arabic and no Japanese, spend time (a luxury we don’t have) and money (we don’t have, and thus borrowed) training him/her for a language that he/she may never use beyond 3/3 for the near future. In US Embassy Yemen’s example, a senior official complained that a level 3/3 speaking/reading proficiency in Arabic is not enough for mission officers to participate in debates about U.S. foreign policy in Arabic.

And there my friends is a bullheaded strategy for you.

See my previous posts on this topic:

Related Items:

Department of State: Comprehensive Plan Needed to Address Persistent Foreign Language Shortfalls | GAO-09-955, September 17, 2009

State Department: Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps | GAO-07-1154T, August 1, 2007

Department of State: Staffing and Foreign Language Shortfalls Persist Despite Initiatives to Address Gaps | GAO-06-894, August 4, 2006

State Department: Targets for Hiring, Filling Vacancies Overseas Being Met, but Gaps Remain in Hard-to-Learn Languages | GAO-04-139, November 19, 2003

Foreign Languages: Workforce Planning Could Help Address Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls: GAO-02-514T, March 12, 2002

Foreign Languages: Human Capital Approach Needed to Correct Staffing and Proficiency Shortfalls | GAO-02-375, January 31, 2002

Civilian Uplift for Afghanistan on Track?

An uplifting experienceImage by boliston via Flickr

On September 20 Jackie Northam of NPR reports about a snag in the civilian surge to Afghanistan (NPR | ‘Civilian Surge’ Plan For Afghanistan Hits A Snag). Excerpts below:

“The administration is expected to increase the deployment of American government civilian workers — experts who can help rebuild the country. But there are problems persuading civilians with the requisite skills to go to Afghanistan. […] it would send about 450 civilians from several branches of the government by March 2010. The timetable was then accelerated to December of this year. But so far, only about a quarter of that number have been deployed to Afghanistan.”

Jack Lew
, the Under Secretary for Management and Resources at the State Department is quoted in the NPR report:

“We have to remember that decisions were made in the spring, funds were appropriated in July, programming is being implemented, you know, August/September,” says Jacob Lew. “We’re just now seeing the program go into place.”

“Lew says the administration expects to reach its target numbers by the beginning of next year. Other State Department officials, and analysts, say that’s optimistic — because it’s difficult to find enough people who have the right skills and who are willing to stay in Afghanistan for a yearlong deployment.”

The NPR report recalls that the State Department in 2004 created a “Civilian Response Corps,” in which civilians would go on short deployments into conflict zones. Apparently, the corps only received funding last year. So okay, five years after it was launched by Secretary Rice, it expects to build a corps of more than 4,000 active, standby and reserve members. Ambassador John Herbst, the coordinator of S/CRS says in the report that there are about 50 active members who are ready to be sent to Afghanistan. “Obviously, the numbers I’m describing right now are not going to make a major contribution to Afghanistan,” he says. “But in six months, you know, we might be in a position where we could, if there was a need, put a hundred or more people on the ground.”

John Dempsey of United States Institute of Peace who has been in Kabul for several years is also quoted in the report:

“Security is such that it’s so difficult for people to actually be able to move off of forward operating bases and get out into the field to actually meet with Afghans and do their work,” he says. “They don’t have the adequate logistical or security support to do that.”

* * *

Is this really surprising news? The S/CRS did not get half a fuel tank to go anywhere the last four years (but the official launch was a nice ceremony). Makes one wonder how much workforce planning even really occurred within this Bureau or the government to sustain a civilian surge anywhere. Of course, you start down this path and you get to wonder about a whole lot of things, too. U/S Lew is not in the most enviable position and he may be wrestling with this issue until winter … or next summer…. and every summer thereafter until at least 2012.

How many people already sent to Iraq for multiple tours are also going to Afghanistan for this no-end in sight mission?

How many in the Federal service, outside of State and AID already have the skill sets needed for this mission? How many inside State and USAID?

At which point are we going to hear “directed assignment” for FS personnel?

With funds/programming implemented just this past couple of months, how many 3161 personnel are we picking up for this? How many contractors are we picking up eventually? How fast can we recruit and train skilled personnel going to Afghanistan (or Pakistan)?

With security contractors gracing the news every single day in September, what do you do with private protective service for all reconstruction and support personnel in country?

With 450 personnel planned, how many life-support personnel are expected to be hired with them? If I remember correctly, the OIG talked about three life support personnel for every direct-hire employee in an REO in Iraq. This is, of course, Afghanistan with more intractable challenges. But even using the Iraq figure, this would still translate to an additional number of 1,350 life-support personnel or a total staffing of 1800 for this uplift alone. And when the first 450 personnel completes their one-year tour, where do you find the next 450 to take over their place? And on and on and on it goes ….

FSO Group Seeks Changes in DSS Practices

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The September 21 issue of the Federal Employees News Digest (FEND) contains an interview with Michael Metelits who recently became spokesperson of the Concerned Foreign Service Officers (CSFO). Read the interview here (pdf).

FEND says that CSFO
represents hundreds of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) who are pressing for changes in what the group views as intrusive and arbitrary practices of the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security (DS) unit, as well as improvements to other problems in background check and internal security procedures. Co-founded by Daniel Hirsch (currently AFSA‘s State VP) and William Savich, CSFO was created in July 2005 to “investigate, document and expose apparent misuse of the security clearance process to circumvent federal labor laws and established personnel practices.”

Check out the group’s website here. Their “What to Expect” page is actually quite shocking.

The Long Foreign Service Hangover

Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr.Image via Wikipedia

In 1961 Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. was a Special Assistant to President Kennedy. In that capacity, he wrote to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs, McGeorge Bundy concerning the Bowles Memorandum to the President. Chester Bowles was the State Department’s Under Secretary of State at that time, and was writing about the Agency’s organizational needs. The Schlesinger memo below is probably one of the few coherent insights into the Foreign Service culture. I think it is relevant today as when it was written 48 years ago. The risk aversion did not happen overnight … it did not come out of thin air … it came about because of what happened to people like John Service and others. The organization as a living system remember even as we generally suffer from short memory…

Washington, August 11, 1961.

Subject: Mr. Bowles’s Memorandum of July 28

1. I agree with the essential argument of the Bowles memorandum—that the State Department would be more effective as an instrument of government if more top officials believed vigorously in the purposes and objectives of the Administration. Old Frontier people cannot carry out New Frontier policies. Or rather I agree with this argument so far as it goes, while at the same time wishing to emphasize that, in my judgment, it only covers a part of the problem. If Mr. Bowles’s concentration on personnel suggests that he thinks bringing in more New Frontiersmen will solve all the troubles of the State Department, I do not agree with this. The appointment of more able Kennedy outsiders will help create the conditions for solution; but the problems are deeper and more obstinate than the Bowles memorandum suggests.

2. My few months at the White House have convinced me that the traditional tripartite division of the national government into executive, legislative and judicial branches is inadequate. With a strong President, there are really four branches of government: the executive, the legislative, the judiciary and the Presidency. A President who advances new ideas and policies may well encounter as much resistance in the executive branch as in the Congress or the Supreme Court. I was academically aware of this from my excursions into the Roosevelt era; but I know much more vividly today how acute and deep-rooted the problem is of mobilizing the executive branch behind new programs and purposes.

3. This problem may be especially acute in the State Department because of the ‘non-political’ and ‘elite’ character of the Foreign Service.

The typical Foreign Service officer is well above the average in decency, intelligence and devotion. However, the typical Foreign Service officer also tends to be somewhat emasculated so far as policy commitment is concerned. One reason for this is that Foreign Service training has the effect of divesting the professional officer of strong views on substantive policy. It almost seems as if the Foreign Service receives a group of spirited young Americans at the age of 25 and transforms them in the next twenty years into a collection of eunuchs (or possibly my protracted exposure to ARA has distorted my judgment).

Why this process of emasculation?

(a) Foreign Service traditions derive from the time when America’s role in the world was passive and spectatorial; consequently Foreign Service officers still tend to be reporters rather than operators.

(b) Foreign Service officers are regularly shifted from one country to another and from one job to another. This lack of continuity—Iceland one year, Tanganyika the next—discourages them from developing a very intense interest in policy issues. (In any case, they are taught that their job is to carry out the policy, however idiotic they may personally consider the policy to be.)

(c) It is no coincidence that the areas where the problem of learning a difficult language compels continuity—the Russia Service and the China Service—are precisely the areas where the Foreign Service professionals have been least emasculated and most independent and outspoken. But it was precisely these areas which suffered most heavily in the Dulles period. Dulles’s punitive action against the men in the Foreign Service who were most conspicuously free and strong individuals (Bohlen, Kennan, Davies, Service, Thayer, etc.) proved to the rest of the Foreign Service what a mistake it was ever to go out on a limb. The Department is still suffering from the hangover of the Dulles period.

(d) The system of promotions within the Foreign Service further discourages policy initiative, because it is hard to propose new policies without seeming to criticize present ones. Junior officers may well hesitate to challenge Assistant Secretaries with power over their next assignments or, indeed, over their future careers.

Obviously the Foreign Service cannot consist of a collection of freewheelers each pursuing his own foreign policy. But the factors listed above have exaggerated an inherent tendency toward caution to a dangerous point. And Foreign Service resistance to innovation is further reinforced-and often in a most unwholesome way—by the prevailing sense that the Foreign Service is an exclusive club which must jealously guard foreign policy from the meddling of naive and presumptuous amateurs.

4. How to overcome this built-in resistance to change? How to annex the State Department to the Kennedy Administration?

The answer begins, of course, with strong leadership at the top-of the sort which has enabled McNamara and Gilpatric to proceed so successfully in their reconquest of the Pentagon. Strong top leadership has been lacking in State.

It is also important, as Mr. Bowles suggests, to get able, Kennedy-oriented men in jobs of middle-level administrative responsibility. I believe that he is, in the main, right when he claims that the New Frontiersmen have done much more to revitalize our conduct of foreign affairs than the Foreign Service professionals. It is natural enough that this should be so. Men who were in tune with John Foster Dulles are not likely to come up with bold initiatives for the New Frontier. Probably too many such men are still in key jobs. In ARA, and no doubt elsewhere, some of the Foreign Service officers are out of sympathy with the Kennedy foreign policy. It would certainly help to get more men of the Ball-Cleveland-Coombs-Chayes-Williams order at the Assistant Secretarial level.

At the same time, there should be no crusade against Foreign Service officers. They have to do most of the work. Many of them will begin to adjust to the new dispensation. The best among them (Bohlen, Kennan, Thompson, Woodward, Gullion and others) enjoy the New Frontier and flourish in the new expansive atmosphere.

5. More important: new men are only part of the problem. The Bowles memorandum ignores a number of structural questions which increase the Department’s inherent tendencies toward inaction and postponement. Making policy in the State Department is like negotiating a hopelessly intricate obstacle course. One may recognize the need for interminable clearance and concurrence while at the same time wonder whether these things are not sometimes erected into excuses for doing as little as possible. The Bowles memorandum also ignores fundamental, long-run questions, like that of the training and philosophy of the Foreign Service.

In short, we require more Kennedy-oriented men in State, especially, as Bowles suggests, in ARA, FE and European Affairs. Why not develop a general pattern for the geographic areas of insider/outsider teams, one as Assistant Secretary, the other as Deputy? But we also require a hard and skeptical reexamination of the policy-making process within the Department. (This reexamination might also be carried out by insider/outsider teams; it cannot be entrusted to the Foreign Service alone—or to the Council on Foreign Relations alone!)

6. In the end, let us face the fact, only one man can exert the leadership to do the job. That is the Secretary of State.

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Memorandum From the President’s Special Assistant (Schlesinger) to the President’s Special Assistant for National Security Affairs (Bundy)
Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963

Source: Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Departments and Agencies Series, State Department, 8/5/61–8/14/61. Secret.

Document 35
. A draft memorandum to President Kennedy from David E. Bell, Director of the Bureau of the Budget, dated August 9, also commented on Bowles’ July 28 memorandum. (Kennedy Library, National Security Files, Departments and Agencies Series, State Department, 8/5/61–8/14/61)