Senators Kerry, Lugar and the future of USAID

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In late June, the GAO released its report, Foreign Assistance: USAID Needs to Improve Its Strategic Planning to Address Current and Future Workforce Needs (GAO-10-496 June 30, 2010). Here is a quick summary:

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) oversees U.S. foreign assistance programs in more than 100 countries. In 2003, GAO recommended that USAID develop a comprehensive workforce planning system to better identify its staffing needs and requirements. Key principles for effective strategic workforce planning are important to an agency’s ability to carry out its mission. GAO examined (1) changes in USAID’s workforce and program funding since 2004, (2) the extent to which it has developed a strategic workforce plan, (3) the efforts it has taken to implement two key human capital initiatives, and (4) the challenges and constraints that affect its workforce planning and management. To conduct the work, GAO analyzed staffing and program funding data; reviewed documentation related to the agency’s workforce planning; and interviewed officials in Washington, D.C., and at six overseas missions selected to obtain an appropriate mix of geographic coverage, programs, and workforce size and composition.

USAID’s workforce declined 2.7 percent from 2004 to 2009. While the decline is primarily due to decreases in the number of U.S. and foreign national personal services contractors, these staff continue to comprise the majority of USAID’s workforce. Over the same period USAID’s program funding increased 92 percent to $17.9 billion. USAID also faces some workforce gaps and vacancies at the six missions visited by GAO. Mission officials cited recruiting difficulties and the need for staff in priority countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as factors contributing to these vacancies. According to mission officials, it is not uncommon for positions to remain vacant for a lengthy period. During this time staff may assume multiple responsibilities and accept additional workload, which present some challenges in the agency’s ability to manage and oversee its activities. For example, workforce gaps and heavy workload may limit mission staff’s ability to travel to the field to monitor and evaluate the implementation of projects. USAID’s 5-year workforce plan for fiscal years 2009 through 2013 discusses the agency’s challenges and the steps it has taken and plans to take to strengthen its workforce. However, the plan lacks several key elements that GAO has identified as critical to strategic workforce planning. For example, the plan generally does not include a major portion of USAID’s workforce–U.S. and foreign national personal services contractors. In particular, it is not comprehensive in its analysis of workforce and competency gaps and the staffing levels that the agency requires to meet its program needs and goals. USAID has taken actions to implement two key initiatives specified in its workforce plan–a workforce planning model and expansion of its Foreign Service–but it generally lacks documented plans to help ensure they are implemented successfully. For example, USAID implemented the workforce planning model to project its workforce and budgetary needs, but it has not developed plans for providing all missions comprehensive information about the model and its projections to inform missions of how it will affect their workforce planning. In addition, USAID has not fully met its Foreign Service hiring targets nor developed plans for how it will meet its hiring goals, and it has not planned the required overseas training assignments for all new hires to help ensure that missions have the necessary resources and mentors. USAID faces several challenges in its workforce planning and management. First, USAID lacks a sufficiently reliable and comprehensive system to record the number, location, and occupation of its staff. Second, according to mission officials, operating in an uncertain environment with shifting program priorities and funding can make it difficult to ensure that missions have the staff available with the necessary skills when needed. Third, the processes USAID must use to plan for the placement of its overseas staff require coordination with State; however, USAID has not consistently developed and shared its plans for the numbers and specific locations for these assignments.

As expected, the report got a response from Congress – specifically the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In response to the GAO report emphasizing the need for comprehensive strategic planning to meet workforce needs at USAID, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Ranking Member Dick Lugar (R-IN), who authored the Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act of 2009 to help address USAID’s gaps in capacity issued the following statement:

“The strength of USAID lies with its people, officers who are on the frontlines building schools, delivering health programs, and distributing food. But over the past decade, we have undermined our foreign service corps by not providing the agency with the resources to expand personnel so they can meet the demands of USAID programming. This GAO report underscores these workforce gaps and reaffirms the urgent need for critical changes, which Senator Lugar and I addressed in last year’s Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act. The Foreign Relations Committee will continue our push for reform,” said Chairman Kerry.

“I am hopeful this report will give momentum not only to our legislation, but also to Dr. Shah’s attempts to reform the agency by recreating a policy planning shop and revitalizing a unit dedicated to evaluating and analyzing programs and projects,” Ranking Member Lugar said.

Following is a summary of the Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act, which was introduced in July 2009 and passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in November 2009.

Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act of 2009

Build Policy and Strategy Capacity:

  • Reestablish a Bureau of Policy and Strategic Planning in USAID.  Currently, USAID has very limited policy and strategic planning capacity.  The last Administration closed down the policy bureau and relegated USAID as a program implementer instead of a policy actor.  This bill begins to restore thinking, strategic decision-making, and policy innovation to the Agency.  It will also add a second deputy Administrator for management and operations, and an Assistant Administrator to oversee the policy bureau.
  • Strengthen and coordinate U.S. foreign aid in the field.  The bill makes the USAID mission director responsible for coordinating all U.S. development and humanitarian assistance efforts in a given country, under guidance of the Chief of Mission.  It also urges the Agency to fundamentally reconsider the role, responsibility, structure, and function of USAID missions in the 21st century.

Increase Accountability:

  • Establish a Council on Research and Evaluation of Foreign Assistance.  As we look to double U.S. foreign assistance programs by 2015, we need a better way to evaluate which development programs work, which have minimal impact, and what factors determine success or failure.  Our current system is unable to provide this analysis.  This evaluation group would be based in the executive branch, but it would operate independently under the auspices of an interagency board.  Its mandate is to objectively evaluate the impact and results of all development and foreign aid programs undertaken by the U.S. Government.  The group would have a second division focused on innovation research that would be an incubator for cutting-edge development projects and would be modeled after the Defense Department’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).
  • Reestablish “lessons learned” center in USAID.  The bill reestablishes a “lessons learned” center so that we can better understand what projects work, which projects fail, and how to design future programs for maximum impact.
  • Transparency.  The bill establishes important transparency standards so that taxpayers have a clearer understanding of where their money is going, what projects are being funded, and what outcomes are resulting.

Personnel and Human Resources: 

  • Establish a human resources and personnel strategy for USAID.  This bill jump-starts the rebuilding process by mandating a comprehensive review of all aspects of human resources, establishing a high-level task force to advise on critical personnel issues, and directing GAO to assess the new personnel strategy.
  • Rebuild expertise: rotations and training.  The bill requires personnel to undertake interagency and international rotations to bring a cross-disciplinary focus to USAID.  It encourages external training and education opportunities, and it provides new flexibilities in the operating expenses account so that Foreign Service officers and civil servants can better monitor programs and advise missions on development issues.

Can you feel impatience in the air?  The previous four USAID directors have written about the future of USAID here.  Josh Rogin of The Cable has also written about the growing angst about the agency’s future…

Related item:

Foreign Assistance: USAID Needs to Improve Its Strategic Planning to Address Current and Future Workforce Needs | GAO-10-496 June 30, 2010