Language Training as a “Net Minus”

Language Designated Positions
State Department

I posted a summary of the most recent GAO report on language shortfalls at the State Department here. The full report is now available for your reading pleasure here.

According to the report, State officials have said that IF (emphasis added) their fiscal year 2010 request for an additional 200 training positions is approved, they expect to see language gaps close starting in 2011; however, State has not indicated when its foreign language staffing requirements will be completely met, and previous staffing increases have been consumed by higher priorities.

But the GAO has a long memory and remembers …

“For example, in 2003, State officials stated that the increased hiring under the department’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative would create a training float to help eliminate the foreign language gaps at overseas posts within several years. Although the initiative enabled State to hire more than 1,000 employees above attrition, it did not reduce the language gaps, as most of this increase was absorbed by the demand for personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan, and thus the training reserve was not achieved.”

The report also addresses the challenge persistent to language training and promotion.

Another challenge to State’s efforts to address its language shortfalls is the persistent perception among Foreign Service officers that State’s promotion system undervalues language training; however, while HR officials told us that the system values language training, the department has not conducted a systematic assessment to refute the perceptions. Officers at several posts we visited stated a belief that long-term training, specifically advanced training in hard languages, hinders their promotion

For example, officers in Beijing said that some officers are reluctant to study a foreign language that requires a 1- or 2-year commitment because they believe it makes them less competitive for promotion, and one officer said that she would not have bid on her current position if she had had to take Chinese first. A former ambassador told us that many officers feel that language training is a “net minus” to their careers, as the department views this as a drain on the staffing system (italics added).

We reported similar sentiments in 2006, when several officers said they believed that State’s promotion system might hinder officers’ ability to enhance and maintain their language skills over time. Although senior HR officials told us that the promotion system weighs time in training as equal to time at post, they acknowledged that officers applying for promotion while in long-term training were at a disadvantage compared with officers assigned to an overseas post. Although promotion boards are required by law to weigh end-of-training reports for employees in full-time language training as heavily as the annual employee evaluation reports, officers in Beijing, Shenyang, Istanbul, and Washington expressed concern that evaluations for time in training were discounted.

State officials said they have reviewed the results of one promotion board and found a slightly lower rate of promotions for officers in long-term training at the time of the review. However, these officials were not sure if these results were statistically significant and said that the department has not conducted a more systematic assessment of the issue.

At least the CIA had recognized that it cannot train itself out of this problem and Director Panetta has publicly announced its plan for improving his agency’s foreign language capability. State has been trying to bridge this gap since 2002 as indicated in reports by the GAO and others. It is still trying seven years later, and it has offered no coherent plan to effectively address this issue.

Of course, it is true that the agency’s underfunding and the lack of an appropriate training float made it hard for officers in the State Department to pursue extended training. But it is also true that State’s culture does not give the pursuit of extended training or advanced education a high priority (Did you know that there are only two 4/4 language-designated positions in the department? And FSI says “there is almost no formal requirement for FSI to provide such training”). Go look at its promotion precepts – which by the way includes Openness to Dissent. tumbuk

On Foreign Language Skill (Generalists; Specialists as applicable), the precepts say:

Attains general professional proficiency* in at least one foreign language, strives to acquire advanced level proficiency and/or general professional proficiency in additional languages; uses that skill effectively to communicate USG themes and exercise influence; works to increase foreign language ability.*Generalists, to cross senior threshold, must attain S/3-R/3 (i.e., general professional proficiency) in one language.

At the Senior level it only requires that officers “maintain and/or further develops proficiency in foreign language(s); uses skill to promote U.S. interests with a wide range of audiences, including the media.”

So if you already had a 3/3 in one language when you make it to the Senior level, what is there to prod you to bring your game up to a 4/4? The precepts also presume that officers with a 3/3 can effectively communicate USG themes and exercise influence. Apparently that is not the case. The GAO reports that FSOs told them a 3/3 is not enough to do their jobs:

Officials at most of the posts the GAO visited said that a 3/3 in certain critical languages is not always enough for officers to do their jobs. An Economic Officer at one of the posts visited said that she could start meetings and read the newspaper with her 3/3 in Arabic, but that level of proficiency did not provide her with language skills needed to discuss technical issues. And officers in the public affairs section of the same post said that a 3/3 was not sufficient to effectively explain U.S. positions in the local media. Senior officials at another post said 3/3 is adequate to ask and answer questions but not to conduct business. An officer with a 4/4 in Chinese said officers in his section did the best job they could but a 3/3 was not enough. He said he sometimes had difficulty at his level, for example, when participating in radio interviews broadcast to local audiences.

The State Department needed the change yesterday.
I think we need no less than the Secretary of State to acknowledge that yes, this is a problem and to provide leadership on how to address this problem now. And not with cosmetic changes like providing 3.5 hours of language training but revamping the whole thing even if you have to turn FSI upside down, or update the promotion and the hiring systems —

Otherwise, we’ll be here next fall talking about one more GAO report on the foreign language gap at the State Department. Count on it.