State Dept’s Bureau of Counterterrorism Writes to “Correct the Record” on GAO Report That Needs No Correction

Posted: 9:45 am PDT
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On July 23, we blogged about the GAO report on the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism (GAO-15-684 | pdf – State Should Evaluate Its Countering Violent Extremism Program and Set Time Frames for Addressing Evaluation Recommendations). You may read the blogpost here: Bureau Tasks With Countering Violent Extremism: 96 Authorized Employees, Running on 17-23% Vacancies.

At mid-day on July 23, we received the following email from Rhonda Shore, the Spokesperson for the Bureau of Counterterrorism (published in full):

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The Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT) at the State Department would like to respond to the 7/23 Diplopundit article by Domani Spero about the GAO report on the CT Bureau.  The article was incorrect in its assessment of CT Bureau staffing and we would like to correct the record. (We would also like to suggest that you contact us in the future when writing about our bureau and/or programs so we can assist with the latest information. You can reach us by email at CT_PublicAffairs@state.gov)

Regarding full-time employees (FTEs), as of today (July 23, 2015), the CT Bureau is authorized 83 Civil Service FTEs and 18 Foreign Service FTEs (101 total FTEs). We have 13 civil service vacancies; of those 13, 10 have been selected from various vacancy announcements and all 10 are in the process of obtaining clearances to be officially appointed. Once on board, the CT vacancy rate will be less than four percent. In addition, CT is in the process of having the remaining three civil service positions classified and will advertise to fill those vacancies in the next 30-60 days.

As far as evaluating the Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, the CT Bureau has robust procedures in place to ensure the monitoring all of assistance programs, including CVE. While we have conducted evaluations of select CVE projects, State agrees with the recommendation to undertake a more comprehensive evaluation.  We are currently assessing what programs would most benefit from third-party evaluation during the upcoming fiscal year and expect CVE to be included in our final determination. As GAO rightly notes, previous consideration of conducting a comprehensive evaluation of CT Bureau CVE programming had resulted in a determination that the programs had not been underway for a sufficient amount of time. The CVE Program in CT was established in 2010, and CT Bureau received only limited funding for CVE activities the first several fiscal years. At this stage, we now have a number of programs that have been underway for a sufficient amount of time to benefit from an assessment of cross-cutting lessons learned.

It is also important to recognize that CT builds monitoring and evaluation (M&E) into each of our projects systematically; in fact, we require each implementing partner to elaborate an M&E plan for each project and dedicate a percentage of the project budget to implementing its respective M&E plan.  CT has also developed standardized CVE results indicators that it shares with embassies and implementing partners.

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The report we cited and linked to in this blog is a written product publicly released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) dated July 2015. The report also says in part, the following:

“The Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism testified before Congress on June 2, 2015 that the CT Bureau had reduced its FTE vacancies to 11 positions. However, we have been unable to verify that 4 of the reportedly filled positions have been filled because State has not provided sufficient documentation.”

We note that State/CT’s “correction” says it is authorized 101 FTEs (83 Civil Service FTEs and 18 Foreign Service FTEs) whereas the GAO says the  bureau is authorized 96 FTE positions. So we asked Ms. Shore about that. We wanted to know if the additional numbers, happened after the GAO finalized its report this month and the bureau responded, “yes.”

Further we note that even as the bureau is in the process of filling in those vacancies, the GAO illustrates the number of vacancies from FY2011-FY2015 between 17-23%.  The bureau is telling us that our blogpost is “incorrect in its assessment of CT Bureau staffing” so we asked if it is contesting that those GAO staffing numbers are incorrect since we are only passing on the GAO data?

After 4pm, we received a response from the bureau spox saying she’s not sure if her colleagues who can answer our questions are still there and and would get back to us if not on July 23, early the next day.

Early on July 24, the bureau spox sent us the following response:

Those figures are an incomplete representation of the issue.  The GAO did not properly put the staffing increases and the CT Bureau’s process to fill vacancies into the context of receiving an approximately 35 percent increase in FTE, as a result of being established as a Bureau (in 2012).  This unprecedented increase in staff has been rapid and intensive over this period, and among the functions established as a result, was the creation of an Executive Office that processed much of the new hires.  As an illustrative example of the ongoing rate of hiring in CT, during the time GAO was onsite, CT filled 10 vacancies (some of which are currently pending security clearances before being registered in an officially “hired” status).

The fact that the bureau is in the process of filing in the vacant positions cited by the GAO report does not eliminate the fact that some 10 weeks before the end of the fiscal year, those vacancies are just about to be filled.  Well, once the candidates’ security clearances are obtained, those vacancies will be filled.

The bureau is contesting the assessment and proffering an anticipated 4% vacancy rate into the future; quite possibly into the next fiscal year.  This is like counting ships currently under construction; they’re not floating around and moving people and stuff around, but counted still the same as ships.

The bureau has offered an explanation to help us understand its staffing challenges but while we publish its “correction for the record” here, we are not convinced a correction is required. We do think that the GAO is correct in assessing these positions as vacancies. Since these positions are currently not officially filled, they are factually vacant authorized positions.

Perhaps, the GAO might have called these vacancies “unfilled positions?” The bureaucracies battling it out on semantics?  In any case, this appears to be an attempt by the CT bureau to correct the language used by the GAO on its reporting. If the GAO has a response (we don’t think it will), we’ll print that, too.

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2 responses

  1. ‘Regarding full-time employees (FTEs), as of today (July 23, 2015), the CT Bureau is authorized 83 Civil Service FTEs and 18 Foreign Service FTEs (101 total FTEs)”

    This is a bureau in the Department of State, in the department responsible for our diplomacy, in our “Ministry of Foreign Affairs”, responsible for managing our foreign affairs? It would be like staffing the Army or the Navy of the Marines with civilians instead of militlary folk or the FBI with bureaucrats instead of Special Agents. What has happened to the Congressional concept (Rogers Act, FS Act of 1980) of a professional diplomatic service?

    Edward Marks

    • DOS management has done everything in its power (and beyond) to blur the lines between FS and CS. Despite FSOs being the only commissioned officers, the department started calling them Generalists while creating the inappropriate Foreign Affairs “Officer” title for civil servants. Diplomatic passports seem to be handed out like candy and everyone calls themselves diplomats. If that’s the path the department wants to take, it should get rid of the different selection procedures and higher standards for the FS in areas such as off-duty conduct.