The GAO just released its June 2012 report on the Foreign Service staffing gaps (GAO: Foreign Service Midlevel Staffing Gaps Persist Despite Significant Increases in Hiring (June 2012). Here are the main take aways:
- The Department of State faces persistent experience gaps in overseas Foreign Service positions, particularly at the midlevels, and these gaps have not diminished since 2008.
- According to State officials, midlevel gaps have grown in recent years because most of the new positions created under Diplomacy 3.0 were midlevel positions and State only hires entry-level Foreign Service employees. In prior reports, we found that midlevel experience gaps compromise diplomatic readiness, and State officials confirmed that these gaps continue to impact overseas operations.
- The State Department’s Five Year Workforce Plan does not include a specific strategy to guide efforts to address midlevel gaps.
- 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.
- Among generalists, the consular section has the largest gaps, in terms of the total number of positions that are vacant or filled with upstretch assignments, because it is the largest generalist section. According to our analysis, about 170 consular positions were vacant as of October 31, 2011, and about 250 consular positions were filled with upstretch assignments.
- [T]he Public Diplomacy section has a relatively high upstretch rate, with nearly one-quarter of all Public Diplomacy positions filled with upstretch assignments. State officials noted that gaps within the Public Diplomacy section, particularly at the midlevels, have persisted since the late 1990s, when the U.S. Information Agency—which had responsibility for public diplomacy—was integrated into State.
- State implemented the “Diplomatic Readiness Initiative,” which resulted in hiring over 1,000 new employees above attrition from 2002 to 2004. However, as we previously reported, most of this increase was absorbed by the demand for personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq.
- In 2009, State began another hiring effort called Diplomacy 3.0 to increase its Foreign Service workforce by 25 percent by 2013. However, due to emerging budgetary constraints, State now anticipates this goal will not be met until 2023.
- State increased the size of the Foreign Service by about 17 percent in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, but overseas experience gaps—the percentage of positions that are vacant or filled with upstretch assignments—have not declined since 2008 because State increased the total number of overseas positions in response to increased needs and emerging diplomatic priorities. These gaps are largest at the midlevels and in hardship posts.
- [D]ue to budget constraints, hiring has slowed significantly, and State only added 38 new Foreign Service positions above attrition in fiscal year 2011. In that year, it also modified its hiring projections to reflect a downward revision of future budget estimates for fiscal year 2012 and beyond. State now projects it will add 150 new Foreign Service positions above attrition in fiscal year 2012 and 82 new Foreign Service positions above attrition in each of the following 6 years.
Mind the Gaps – Location, Location
- [P]ositions in posts of greatest hardship are 44 percent more likely to be vacant than positions at posts with low or no hardship differentials.
- Additionally, when positions are filled, posts of greatest hardship are 81 percent more likely to use an upstretch candidate than posts with low or no hardship differentials (“upstretch” assignments—assignments in which the position’s grade is at least one grade higher than that of the officer assigned to it).
- State has created a wide range of measures and financial and nonfinancial incentives to encourage officers to bid on assignments at hardship posts. (Foreign Service employees may receive favorable consideration for promotion for service in hardship posts. Additionally, State uses Fair Share bidding rules, which require employees who have not served in a hardship location within the last 8 years to bid on at least three positions in hardship posts).
Mind the Gaps – Where the New Jobs Are
- State officials noted that AIP posts—State’s highest-priority posts—account for much of the increase in new positions. As figure 3 shows, regionally, the largest share of new positions is in the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, primarily because of increases in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the majority of new positions are in a small number of countries where State has high levels of engagement.
- [A]bout 40 percent of all new positions are in AIP countries and an additional 20 percent are in 5 other countries: Mexico, Brazil, China, India, and Russia. State officials noted that this distribution of new positions reflects the department’s changing foreign policy priorities.
Foreign Service Conversion Program
- [E]fforts to increase the number of Civil Service assignments to Foreign Service positions must be consistent with State’s human capital rules, which state that the department’s goal is to fill Foreign Service positions with Foreign Service employees except under special circumstances.
- The QDDR stated that, while all State personnel can apply to enter the Foreign Service through the traditional selection process, it is in the department’s interest to offer more and quicker pathways for qualified and interested Civil Service employees to join the Foreign Service. However, State’s Foreign Service Conversion Program has strict eligibility requirements, which limit the number of conversions. The program’s application and review process resulted in only three Civil Service applicants recommended for conversion in 2010 and four in 2011.
Accelerated Promotion, Anyone?
State’s Five Year Workforce Plan, officers hired in fiscal years 2009 and 2010 under the first wave of Diplomacy 3.0 hiring will begin to be eligible for promotion to the midlevels in fiscal years 2014 or 2015. In recent years, State has accelerated the average time it takes for officers to be promoted into the midlevels, in part to fill gaps. However, officials from State’s regional bureaus and AFSA expressed concerns that this creates a different form of experience gap, as some officers may be promoted before they are fully prepared to assume new responsibilities.
A few striking things here besides the obvious —
State created new positions under Diplomacy 3.0, all midlevel positions. Instead of hiring midlevel personnel to fill those positions, it continued to hire entry level personnel. Why? Because “State only hires entry-level Foreign Service employees.” Gocha! Because that makes perfect sense. Read this on why the State Department’s hiring philosophy needs an extreme makeover.
State has 10,490 Civil Service employees and was only able to convert four employees to the Foreign Service. That’s like what – 0.03813 percent conversion rate to help bridge the gap? That’s not going to make any dent whatsoever.
Given the number of FS retirees, some forced out in the up or out system, others through mandatory retirement, State has not put those experience to effective use. In FY2011, some 350 retirees were given WAE (When Actually Employed) appointments. These retirees who return to work have a cap of 1,040 hours of employment per calendar year. But as GAO notes, individual bureaus maintain their own lists of retirees and hire them as WAEs from their own budgets. State has no initiatives currently under way to expand its use of WAEs.
So there. We’ll be extremely relieved come FY 2023.
- Homework for the Next Secretary of State: Revamping the Foreign Service (diplopundit.net)
- Anonymous FSO: AIP Posts Not the Only Places Where FSOs Are At Risk (diplopundit.net)
- Snapshot: Enduring Foreign Service Staffing and Experience Gaps (diplopundit.net)