Foreign Service Staffing Gaps, and Oh, Diplomacy 3.0 Hiring Initiative to Conclude in FY2023

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.

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Details, Details

  • 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.

Hiring Initiatives

  • 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.

Hiring Projections

  • 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).

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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.

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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.

Domani Spero

5 responses

  1. The thing is that if State changes and start hiring employees at midlevel, can you just imagine what it would do to ALL those current State employees who WOULD have qualified as midlevel, but are currently entry level to “pay their dues”? I don’t think there’s a good solution, unless State gets the budget it needs to increase the hiring again.

    • Thanks Carla — That’s why midlevel hiring is such an unpopular proposition in the FS. But what happened in the 1950s when the FS was Wristonized was that the FS was not even given a choice, and the service was flooded with new midlevel employees. It probably was a mess with real consequences to career ladders. That said, I just don’t think that the State Dept can wait and hope for when the budget situation will get better; I frankly can’t imagine it getting better anytime soon, but I can imagine it getting much worse. There is actually a couple of workable interim solution to bridge the gap – suspend the tic out of midlevel officers while entry level catches up, and/or give more flexibility for retirement waivers for midlevel FSOs subjected to mandatory retirement. Those given extensions no longer compete for promotion, so I can’t understand why DGHR or for that matter AFSA would find this objectionable. Maybe both would require congressional action, maybe not. But filling in the gaps in the midlevel should be considered essential to the proper functioning of the service and should be in the public interest. If nothing of consequence is done, and money continues to be tight,with boomers sailing into the sunset, this gap will have dire results.

      Neither I nor relatives of mine would be in the tic out or the retirement categories; those option just seems reasonable to me given the pressures.

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  3. An important report. Why is it that an outside investigative agency from a different branch of government needs to tell State what it could have and should have fixed years ago? I’ve never been a fan of the 1980 Foreign Service Act and if anyone is ever going to fix the HR mess, it needs to begin with an overhaul of the Act – as well as the people who administer it in the Department.

    This study points to another serious problem that exposes yet another weakness of the way the Department handles human resources. How many times does one have to say that the up-or-out system too often works to the detriment of the employee (or ex-employee) and the system itself? Continuing staff vacancies and positions filled with under-qualified officers simply weakens State’s effectiveness and credibility in the foreign policy making process. This is the bottom line.

    Then how many times does one have to say USIA should have remained intact because State couldn’t and can’t handle PD effectively? Of course, experienced PD officers fled before they needed to – that’s a no-brainer. The handwriting was on the wall. State can barely manage an Embassy car pool let alone a cultural affairs office – or at least one big enough to be called a cultural affairs office. And why has the military put its public affairs officers into embassies to work along side State’s PAOs? Didn’t happen when USIA ran the US Embassy public affairs offices because it didn’t need to happen. Experience counts. State HR has other priorities.

    • Thanks Patricia, I can’t disagree with you. State appears to be short on institutional memory. If it does not get creative (for real and not just for show) in bridging the midlevel gaps, it will be forced by some outside force to do so. And that might be as unpalatable as it was during the Wristonization of the Foreign Service in the 1950s. All it takes is a bull headed Secretary of State who is not run by the Building or an extremely powerful member of Congress.