USAID’s Job Cancellations Raise Questions About Its Staffing Future and Operations

Posted: 2:58 am ET

 

In early November, we blogged about USAID’s cancellation of all pre-employment offers for all USAID Foreign Service officer positions (see USAID Marks 56th Birthday With Job Cancellations For 97 “Valued Applicants”).

That cancellation email was sent on Tuesday, October 24, to all candidates that had received pre-employment offers.  We understand that FSO positions are advertised by technical “backstops.” This process is lengthy (1-2 years from application to start date) and expensive for the agency. So USAID has now revoked the pre-employment offers for all FSO candidates of multiple backstops.

Why is this expensive?  For those in the pre-employment stage, USAID had already paid for their recruitment, interviews, medical clearances, and security clearances. USAID pre-employment offers are conditional on medical and security clearances. In the past, candidates that complete both clearances join the next incoming C3 class, USAID’s equivalent to the State Department’s A-100 class for officers. We understand that the last C3 class was prior to the new Administration assuming office in January 2017.

So here are a few questions we received in this blog:

  • Is this part of the redesign strategy to merge State and USAID?
  • Given the lengthy and expensive application process, is USAID not planning to hire ANY new FSOs for another year, or two, or more?
  • This USAID decision seem to go against the spirit of the Senate’s September 7 proposed Foreign Operations Appropriations (PDF). Is this raising alarm bells for those interested in maintaining the staffing and operations of USAID?

Perhaps not alarm bells at the moment, but it has attracted congressional interests.  On November 9, the Senate Foreign Relations Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD) sent this letter to USAID Administrator Mark Green requesting that he “immediately reverse this misguided decision”, and provide responses to several questions by Thursday, November 22. The letter notes:

Nearly ten years ago Congress challenged USAID to boost the capacity and expertise of its Foreign Service by authorizing the Development Leadership Initiative (DLI) from 2008 –2012. By authorizing the DLI, Congress made clear that having a capable and strong Foreign Service at USAID is essential for a successful foreign policy and national security approach. USAID’s decision to turn away seasoned development experts from the Foreign Service severely undermines U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. It is my understanding that USAlD’s internal guidance on the hiring freeze exempted any position “necessary to meet national security (including foreign relations) responsibilities.” It is difficult to believe that many of these Foreign Service positions do not meet the exemption threshold.

Senator Cardin also wanted the following questions answered:

  • Why is a hiring freeze still in place. and when does USAID expect to lift it?
  • Has USAID qualified any of these positions as national security related, and if so, why did USAID not grant exemptions to the freeze for these positions?
  • How many positions within USAID are exclusively for Foreign Service candidates? How many Foreign Service applicants has USAID accepted in 2017?
  • What does USAID mean that the positions were “cancelled”?
  • Do applicants for these USAID Foreign Service positions have the option to accept a non-Foreign Service post until the hiring freeze is lifted, and will it count towards any Foreign Service requirement or credit they may be pursuing as part of their Foreign Service career?
  • How many exemptions to the hiring freeze has the Agency made to date, both for Foreign Service and non-Foreign Service posts within the Agency?
  • How many open Foreign Service Limited positions are considered exempt from the hiring freeze. and can some ofthose positions be filled by some of the Foreign Service applicants who received the November 1, 2017 notice?
  • Will applicants who received the November 1. 2017 notice be permitted to apply for future foreign service assignments without restarting, from the beginning, the lengthy foreign service application process?
  • How many positions were ultimately created by the Development Leadership Initiative, and how many of those were subsequently “cancelled”?
Previously, on November 1, Ranking Member Nita Lowey of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs asked USAID Administrator Mark Green during a Subcommittee hearing to explain the job cancellationc.  It does not sound from Mr. Green’s response as if he understood the question or aware that jobs for candidates with pre-employment offers had been cancelled. “We’ve not eliminated positions, we’re still on a hiring freeze,” he said, but the federal hiring freeze has long been lifted; the one remaining is Tillerson’s hiring freeze. USAID is a separate agency, or maybe in practice, despite the absence of a “merge”, it’s not separate from State anymore. Administrator Green also said, “We’ve asked for an exception for this class and it was denied”, a response that appears to conflate the job cancellations in late October with an early 2017 USAID request to start a new class.
Click on image below to link to the video of the hearing starting at 1:24:10
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Waiting For Tillerson: Grievance Board’s Term Expired on 9/30, Members Down From 18 to 8

Posted: 2:52 am ET
Updated: 9:12 am PT

 

Update: After this blogpost was posted, we received the following from FSGB today:  “Secretary Tillerson appointed 11 members to the Board on November 3, 2017 – six former members were reappointed and five new members were appointed to their first terms on the Board. this yields a net increase of one Board member, bringing the total to 19 members. On the question of the website address: IRM is aware of the issue with the website and is researching a solution to resolve it. the current address is a temporary fix to allow us to stay online until IRM finds a permanent solution that will comply with the FAH.” The website has now been updated to reflect the members of the new Board.

The Foreign Service Grievance Board has 18 members.  The two-year appointment of 10 of 18 members expired on September 30, 2017. Secretary Tillerson needs to appoint new members of the Board. He is reportedly “considering appointments to the Board” but six weeks later, he has yet to announced his decision.

A quick background on the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) via fsgb.gov:

On March 26, 1976 Congress amended the Foreign Service Act of 1946 to establish a permanent grievance system.  Although it retained many of the procedures of the earlier, interim system, the statutory system carried additional functions and authority.  In particular, the new Board could order the suspension of agency actions pending the Board’s decision in cases involving the separation or disciplining of an employee if it considered such action warranted.  Further, the Board’s recommendations to an agency head could be rejected only if they “would be contrary to law, would adversely affect the foreign policy or security of the United States, or would substantially impair the efficiency of the service.”

Under Section 1105 of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, as amended (the Act), Congress established the Foreign Service Grievance Board, which consists of no fewer than five members who are independent, distinguished citizens of the United States. Well known for their integrity, they are not employees of the foreign affairs agencies or members of the Service. Each member, including the Chairperson, is appointed by the Secretary of State for a term of two years, subject to renewal. Appointments are made from nominees approved in writing by the agencies served by the Board and the exclusive representative for each such agency. The Chairperson may select one member as a deputy who, in the absence of the Chair, may assume the duties and responsibilities of that position. The Chair also selects an Executive Secretary, who is responsible to the Board through the Chairperson.

The grievance system underwent further change pursuant to the Foreign Service Act of 1980 and implementing regulations which went into effect on June 11, 1984.  The Foreign Commercial Service of the Department of Commerce and the Foreign Agricultural Service of the Department of Agriculture were added to the agencies already covered.

Through the years the makeup of the Board has changed from the initial nine members to a membership of 18.  Board members are appointed by the Secretary of State and the innovative mix of an almost equal number of professional arbitrators and of other members having Foreign Service experience has remained constant.

According to the FSGB, the terms of the Chairman and Deputy Chair expired on October 1, 2017, and the Board awaits the Secretary’s appointment of a new Chair.

In 2014, the average time for the disposition of an FSGB case from time of filing to Board decision, withdrawal or dismissal was 41 weeks. In 2015, it went down to 34 weeks, and in 2016 that time was up to 39 weeks.  The length of time for disposition of FSGB cases will likely go up again given that the members are down to its last eight members, they have no chairperson until one is appointed, and new members have yet to be appointed six weeks since the last Board’s appointment ended.

Below is the announcement from the FSGB:

Until October 1, the Foreign Service Grievance Board consisted of 18 members, appointed by the Secretary of State to two-year terms.  The terms of ten FSGB members, including the Chairperson, expired on September 30, 2017.  The Secretary of State is considering appointments to the Board, but has not yet announced his decision.  Until the appointments are announced, the remaining eight Board members, with the aid of their staff, will continue to work on resolving the cases before the Board to the extent allowed by time constraints and the limits of the Board’s authority under the Foreign Service Act.  Parties to grievance cases before the Board should adhere to all case processing deadlines, communicating with the adjudication panels through the Board Special Assistant assigned to their cases.  Grievants filing cases in this interim period will receive specific guidance after the grievance is filed. 

The Board requests patience, as case processing times will likely increase due to the reduced number of Board members able to rule on grievances.  Parties will be notified of changes to panel membership when such a change becomes necessary.

Also hey, what’s the deal with FSGB’s new URL –https://regionals.service-now.com/fsgb_public?

State Department websites are supposed to have a .gov in their URLs and are prohibited from using .com.  Per 5 FAH 8 H-342.3-2 Required Domain Names “Department public websites must use a state.gov domain name or .gov according to the naming convention for posts. The top-level name .com is strictly prohibited.”

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First @StateDept Postpones Annual Retirement Ceremony, Then Postpones Annual Awards Ceremony

Posted: 2:19 am ET

 

Each fall, usually in November, and tentatively scheduled for Friday, November 17, 2017 this year, the Secretary of State hosts the annual retirement ceremony. Invitations usually go out out in the first half of October to State Department Civil Service and Foreign Service employees who retires between September 1 the year before and August 31 of the current year. Employees who retire after August 31, 2017 for instance will be invited to next year’s ceremony (fall of 2018).

On October 23, State/HR sent out an email announcement informing recipients that the Secretary’s Annual Retirement Ceremony has been changed. “Regrettably, the tentative date for the Retirement Ceremony has been preempted by another event.” This year’s ceremony is now reportedly scheduled for Thursday, December 7. The invitations to the honorees were supposedly mailed out the first week of November.

The State Department’s public schedule for November 17 is listed as follows:

9:45 a.m. Secretary Tillerson delivers remarks at the Ministerial on Trade, Security, and Governance in Africa, at the Department of State.

11:30 a.m. Secretary Tillerson participates in a Family Photo, at the Department of State.

4:30 p.m. Secretary Tillerson meets with President Donald Trump, at the White House.

We don’t know which of the above pre-empted the event last week or if somebody else had some private ceremony at the State Department venue. We’re told this has to be done during the day to avoid overtime payment.  In any case, we’ll have to watch out what happens on December 7 and see if they can round up enough people for Tillerson’s first retirement ceremony.

On November 14, a notification also went out from State/HR that the 2017 Department Annual Awards Ceremony has been rescheduled:

The Secretary’s travel demands will make it impossible for him to preside over the Department Awards ceremony scheduled tentatively for November 21, 2017. We expect to reschedule the event for a date in the near future. The Secretary would like very much to present these awards himself and asks that we try to find a date and time that fits with his calendar. We will be in touch as soon as we have any information on the plans for the ceremony.

A howler arrived in our inbox:

The Secretary postponed State’s annual awards ceremony on short notice. Individuals understand the priority of world affairs and how a crisis takes precedence over a ceremony, however, that is precisely when another senior officer conducts the ceremony. That’s great the Secretary himself wants to be there, but the show must go on. Many (if not most) individuals receiving these prestigious awards had family traveling to DC to be present. The awards are a big deal and it is Thanksgiving weekend. Now all the travel plans are wasted, money is lost (who buys non-refundable tickets?) and Thanksgiving reunions are ruined.

It’s almost like the Secretary and his top team seek out every opportunity to destroy morale amongst his staff.

Perhaps Mr. Tillerson isn’t used to thinking about these things. But see, if he has counsel at the top besides the denizens of the “God Pod”, that individual would have anticipated this. The awardees are not just coming from next door, or within driving distance, and their families do not live in Washington, D.C. Anyone with a slight interest in the Foreign Service should know that. It is understandable that the Secretary has lots of responsibilities, but State could have used his deputy, or if he, too, is traveling, they could certainly use “P” to do this on Mr. Tillerson’s behalf. Of course, if advisors at the top are as blind as the secretary, this is what you get, which only alienates the building more.

Should be interesting to see where Secretary Tillerson’s travel take him this Thanksgiving week.

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America’s “Newspaper of Record” Calls Rex Tillerson Ill-Suited As Secretary of State, Ouchy!

Posted: 2:14 am ET

 

NYT’s editorial of November 18, not only called Mr. Tillerson ill-suited as secretary of state, it also cited the 69th secretary of state’s “limited ambitions.”

One GOP senator John Cornyn still thinks Mr. Tillerson is “doing a great job”.  Early this year, the senior senator from Texas introduced Rex Tillerson before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as “uniquely qualified to serve in this important office.”

AND NOW THIS —

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@StateDept Diplomat: Why would any woman in her right mind choose to report harassment? See me? #MeToo

Posted: 1:31 am ET

 

The following came to us from a Foreign Service Officer who said she is in the middle of an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint, has already waited 16 months to get her appeal heard, and now, could face firing from the State Department.  We are republishing below the entire text:

#MeToo In the wake of the Weinstein allegations and the blessed floodgates they have opened, many people have asked why more women don’t report sexual harassment and assault, and called upon women to do so in order to out the harassers and protect other women from them. I offer my story fighting harassment and bullying at the U.S. Department of State as an example of the huge cost women can pay when they have the courage to take a stand. It is a story of a system that is designed to silence and indeed, punish those who come forward, while protecting the institution and the abusers at all costs.

I have served as a dedicated and decorated Foreign Service officer in the Department of State since May 2011 when I left my practice as a litigation attorney to serve my country. My first tour was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti where I worked with the Haitian parliament and political parties to improve their electoral system, including supporting women seeking and serving in elected office, as well as strengthening the rule of law, improving democratic processes, and protecting human rights. I was awarded the Department of State’s Meritorious Honor Award for my work advancing women’s rights in Haiti in 2013, called a “rising star” by my supervisors, and recommended for immediate tenure and promotion. On the strength of those recommendations, I was tenured on my first try in the fall of 2014 after only serving one overseas assignment – a rarity in the Foreign Service.

In early 2015 I was sent to a small Consulate in Latin America to serve as a vice consul adjudicating visas for my second tour. I eagerly threw myself into my new work. After less than 120 days, in May 2015 the Department of State medically evacuated me back to the United States and curtailed my assignment. Why? Because I was suffering from severe physical and mental health issues stemming from a months-long concerted campaign to harass, bully, and intimidate me on the basis of my gender. I filed an Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint with the Department of State, returned to Washington, D.C. and tried to move on with my life professionally and personally.

Little did I know the harassment, bullying, intimidation, and retaliation had only just begun. Over the course of the summer and fall of 2015 the individuals I had filed my EEO complaint against engaged in numerous acts of retaliation against me, including writing and filing a false, defamatory, negative performance review which to this day remains in my official employment file and has led to the complete ruin of my career at the Department of State. They also spread vicious, false, and defamatory rumors about me, stating that I had been forced to leave Post because I was having an affair with a married American working at the Consulate – an absolute falsehood. Finally, they refused to ship home all of my personal belongings that I had had to leave behind when I was quickly evacuated from the Consulate. After months of delay, all of my things arrived in D.C. covered in toxic mold – tens of thousands of dollars of personal property and memories destroyed. I filed an amended EEO complaint alleging that these actions were all taken in retaliation for filing my first EEO complaint and retained an attorney.

The Department assigned my case to an outside investigator in early 2016. I submitted hundreds of pages of affidavits, briefs, and exhibits detailing the harassment and bullying as well as the concerted and ongoing campaign of retaliation against me. The six individuals I accused submitted virtually identical and brief statements categorically denying all of my allegations and offering absolutely zero corroborating evidence. The investigator failed to interview any of the additional witnesses we proffered and issued a brief report denying my claims and failing to include or address much of the evidence I had proffered.

In July of 2016 I filed an appeal with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was told by my attorney that it would be at least six to nine months before an administrative judge was assigned to my case due to the backlog of EEOC complaints and lack of sufficient resources to timely adjudicate them. After 16 months, an administrative judge was finally assigned to my appeal at the end of October 2017. But it is likely too late for her to help me.

In the intervening time, the State Department has refused to remove the false, negative, defamatory performance review filed in retaliation against me from my official performance file – stating that they could not do so unless and until ordered by a judge. I have been up for promotion two times since that review was placed in my file in November of 2015. Each time the promotion boards have denied me promotion and issued a letter stating that I was “low-ranked” in the bottom two percent of officers in my grade and cone. As explanation, each letter quoted extensively from the 2015 false, negative, defamatory review filed in retaliation for my EEO complaint, citing this review as the reason for my low ranking.

On November 8, I received notification that because of these consecutive low-rankings I had been referred for “selection out” of the Foreign Service, a polite way of saying I had been referred to a Board for firing. That Board will meet sometime before the end of 2017 and decide whether or not to fire me. The rules state that the Board will not accept any additional evidence or witness testimony and will make its decision instead based solely on my written performance file which includes the false, negative, defamatory, review filed in 2015 in retaliation for my EEO complaint.

By contrast, every individual I accused in my EEO complaint has been promoted and continues to serve at increasingly high ranks in the Foreign Service. They have faced absolutely zero consequences for their unlawful harassment, bullying, and retaliation against me – while I have suffered greatly for coming forward and reporting their unlawful actions and am about to pay the ultimate price: the loss of my job and livelihood.

I followed the rules. I worked within the system to come forward and report the harassment, bullying, and retaliation I have faced and continue to face. I continued to serve my country and work hard to represent the United States throughout this time. In fact, I have continued to receive awards for my work – most recently in September 2017. Yet I have paid and continue to pay dearly for my decision to come forward. So to those who ask why more women don’t come forward, I ask “why would any woman in her right mind choose to report harassment in the workplace when this is the result?”

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Burn Bag: Getting Swamped By Contractors, Not Yippee Ki Yay!

 

We are getting swamped by contractors. Hiring freeze only means no more direct hires but since the jobs need to get done, we have more and more ‘mercenaries’ among us. As a taxpayer, I do not like to see people paid 20-40% more for the same jobs, swarming and over-numbering employees. For example at FSI, it now could be a 50-50 balance between Civil Service-Foreign Service on one side and contractors on the other. 

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Senators Issue Bipartisan Concern Over Tillerson’s Management of @StateDept

Posted: 12:37 am ET

 

On November 14, we heard  SFRC Senators Corker and Cardin expressed clear dissatisfaction with the information they received from the State Department concerning the ongoing reorganization.

On November 15, Senators Shaheen and McCain wrote to Mr. Tillerson expressing concern over the continued hiring freeze and the depletion of the career corps.  The Shaheen-McCain letter include three requests:

1)  Consult with Congress prior to implementing any additional measures that could   potentially have long-term impacts on the recruitment, staffing and retention of State Department personnel.

2)  Remove the arbitrary hiring freeze on both lateral transfers and the intake of new Foreign Service and Civil Service officers to maintain a smooth, predictable flow of new talent.

3)  Resume promotions for the best and the brightest to avoid losing our top officers.

The State Department’s non-partisan Foreign Service and Civil Service career professionals represent a unique national asset that belongs to all Americans. They are America’s front line, promoting our safety, security and prosperity, often in difficult and dangerous places. Their expertise, carefully cultivated over decades, is an integral part of our government’s national security architecture. While we support reasonable steps to improve the efficiency of the State Department, such efforts must be fully transparent, with the objective of enhancing, not diminishing, American diplomacy.

Full letter after the fold.

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@StateDept Building Ops Employees Asked to Pick Top Ten Core Values From a 99 Values Menu

Posted: 3:21 am ET

 

This is OBO according to the state.gov:

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) directs the worldwide overseas building program for the Department of State and the U.S. Government community serving abroad under the authority of the chiefs of mission. In concert with other State Department bureaus, foreign affairs agencies, and Congress, OBO sets worldwide priorities for the design, construction, acquisition, maintenance, use, and sale of real properties and the use of sales proceeds.

OBO’s mission is to provide safe, secure and functional facilities that represent the U.S. government to the host nation and support our staff in the achievement of U.S. foreign policy objectives. These facilities should represent American values and the best in American architecture, design, engineering, technology, sustainability, art, culture and construction execution.

OBO folks recently received the following information:

Transformational change is underway within OBO and your involvement is integral to this process. In preparation for the Department’s larger Redesign effort, the OBO Transformation Team is hosting discussions around organizational culture and values to help chart the future OBO course. An organization’s core values are fixed and timeless, inform customers and third parties alike about “who we are, what we believe in and what drives us” and are touchpoints for decision-making. They are not best practices or necessarily related to the mission; they are the north star(s) that remain constant regardless of the operating environment. You will shortly be sent a survey and asked to select those top ten core values that you hold and that you think are representative of OBO’s values. During the discussion on November 14, we will talk about these values and work toward a common understanding about what OBO might need to do, to change or to prioritize in order to make our values present every day in our organization.

We understand that the recipients were instructed to respond to a two-point survey via surveymonkey but the response is reportedly needed by noon on Tuesday, November 14. The first point in the screen grab above says “Core values are those “essential ingredients” that support the OBO vision, shape our culture and reflect what we value. Which ten choices from the list below represent your idea of OBO’s core values?” and one option to click on the “ok” button. If you’re not okay with that description on “core values”, well, there are no other choices.

The second survey point asks recipients to “Choose ten values” by selecting the respective radio buttons from a list of ninety-nine “values” arranged alphabetically from “Accomplishment” to “Wellness.”

Well, this is kinda perplexing. OBO is not/not a stand alone entity but is part of the State Department; it shares its organizational norms and culture, why does it need its very own OBO “fixed and timeless” core values?  How many OBO employees are part of this OBO Transformation Team?

Some folks are just curious if this is going to be another word cloud exercise.

If you’re in the middle of this “transformational change” does this exercise and hosted discussion helpful in making you adjust/deal/understand the changes unfolding in your organization? Are they useful in addressing employee concerns and anxieties? We’re also interested to know — is this exercise being replicated in every geographic and functional bureau of the State Department? How many “transformation teams” are there? What are their team compositions and roles?

In related news, we understand that a Republican nominee who ran and lost in the 2012 U.S. House of Representatives elections will soon be joining OBO as a Schedule C appointee. He will reportedly be supporting directly the bureau director; a permanent OBO director has yet to be named but there is an ambassador leading the bureau in an acting capacity. More OBO news in a bit.

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Inbox: Feast-or-Famine Games Being Played With State Staffing Levels

Posted: 1:33 am ET
Follow @Diplopundit

 

From our inbox this week:

I agree with AFSA that the house is on fire, but the question is what to do about it?  To use the fire analogy, you have to remove the fuel, the oxygen, or the heat to put out a fire.  So, what should be done to extinguish the current situation?  I certainly appreciate Ambassador Stephenson’s pointing out that there is indeed a fire, and I hope she will promote some constructive ways it can be put out.

From my perspective as an 02 generalist who has been in the Department for 10 years, staffing has never been constant.  I came in after Secretary Powell’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, which was needed because of the hiring freeze under Secretary Albright.  Colleagues hired under the DRI saw accelerated promotions to fill the ranks out where too many vacancies existed.  After I joined State, Secretary Clinton started the Diplomacy 3.0 accelerated hiring, which resulted in the much-discussed Pig in the Python.  Now, we are seeing a strategy to reduce jobs at the top, limit hiring of new employees, and encourage early retirement through a $25k incentive.  This is no way to run any kind of organization, public or private!  The feast-or-famine games being played with State staffing levels over the years distort careers and upturn lives.  Because of the DRI, employees with too little experience were placed in positions they were ill prepared for.  Because of the current situation, I know of some good, experienced officers who opened their windows to join the Senior Foreign Service (before Trump’s election), who are now facing an early exit from State with the reduced promotion numbers.  How in the world can people plan their careers?   How can State train and develop the next set of leaders?  How can we recruit the best and brightest to public service that is not related to the military or homeland security?  Again, this is no way to run a professional organization.

Although I certainly agree that reforms at State are needed, I strongly disagree with the approach that the supposed employee-led redesign has been enacted.  Reducing staffing levels to meet some arbitrary goal only serves to weaken the organization and create unintentional distortions.  (Side note: And the EFM hiring freeze, I mean EFM managed hiring process, is literally tearing apart families.)  Perhaps the solution is to have more Congressional oversight, at least as far as staffing levels are concerned.  I know of no one who welcomes more Congressional oversight, but I am frustrated with the yo-yo like nature that staffing at State has been treated.

The State Department will get through this latest challenge, I have no doubt.  The question is just how long it will take to recover, and how many good people will be sacrificed along the way.

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Tillerson’s Staff Reduction Plan Threatens Gains in Bridging @StateDept Language Gaps

Posted: 4:03 am ET
Follow @Diplopundit

 

The ability to speak and read foreign languages is a key Foreign Service competency. All FS Officers (Generalists) and some FS Specialists are required to reach general professional (3/3) proficiency in at least one foreign language during their careers. In 2016, the State Department said that its  success in staffing positions with officers with the required language proficiency was due, in great part, to the increased resources received in the Diplomacy 3.0 initiative.

Last year, the agency developed a plan to continue to bridge its language gaps — to “continue to expand the training complement, as resources are made available to enhance foreign language skills.” The Department said that it’s language requirements “are much greater today than before 9/11″ but it also noted that the budget environment threatens to reduce the significant progress the Department has made. Even before Rex Tillerson happened to the State Department, the agency already warned last year that “without funds to hire staff above attrition, the Department is not likely to make significant progress in increasing the number of LDPs [language designated positions] filled with fully qualified officers.”

A good number of our readers already know about language training in the State Department, but we also have readers who are not familiar with it, so this part is an explainer. The State Department’s Foreign Service Institute (FSI) grouped languages into four broad categories based on their difficulty to learn:

Category I Languages include the most English-like or the easiest languages for native speakers of English to learn. Included in this category are the Romance languages, such as Spanish and Portuguese, as well as other Western European languages, such as Swedish and Dutch. On average, these languages require 24 to 30 weeks of full-time study to achieve the 3/3 proficiency level.

Category II Languages generally take 36 weeks of full-time study to achieve the 3/3 proficiency level. Included in this category are Indonesian, Swahili, and German, among others.

Category III Languages generally require 44 weeks of full-time study to achieve a 3/3. These languages are substantially harder to learn because they are less like English. Among the Category III languages are Hindi, Dari, Persian, Russian, and Urdu.

Category IV Languages are the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. This category includes Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, which require training for roughly 88 weeks, including a ten-month language immersion in country, to obtain the general professional (3/3) proficiency level.

The general professional (3/3) proficiency level means being able to use the language with sufficient ability participate in most formal and informal discussion on practical, social, and professional topics. It means being able to conceptualize and hypothesize. An 0/0 in speaking/reading indicates only a cursory level knowledge of the language while a 5/5 proficiency means highly articulate, well-educated, native-speaker proficiency. If you want to send a diplomat to a radio station to better explain U.S. foreign policy to host country nationals, you don’t send somebody with “basic” language skills. If you send a DSS agent to a high threat post without appropriate language training, it can limit not just his/her communication with the local guard force but also situational awareness and his/her ability to protect the mission.

The State Department defines priority languages as languages that are of critical importance to U.S. foreign policy, languages that are experiencing severe shortages or staffing gaps, or present specific challenges in recruiting and training.  So for example, Mandarin Chinese, Dari, Farsi, Pashto, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, and Arabic—all are languages spoken in China, Iran, India, Korea, and throughout the Near East—and are considered priority languages.

It took the State Department 12 years to get from 303 to 475 Chinese Mandarin speakers. Persian-Iranian speakers increased from 14 in FY2003 to 44 in FY2015, an increase of 214.3%. Persian-Afghan speakers went from 12 in 2003 to 85 in 2015, a 608% increase. Hindi speakers went from 12 to 75 or a 525% increase. The State Department’s Arabic speakers increased 47% between 2003-2015, from 232 to 341. Let’s not forget Korean speakers, where State had 76 3/3 speakers in 2003 and 102 in 2015.

In 2013, State/OIG estimated training students to the 3/3 level in easier world languages such as Spanish can cost $105,000 while training students in hard languages such as Russian can cost $180,000. Training in super hard languages such as Chinese and Arabic can cost up to $480,000 per student.  Students learning super hard languages to the 3/3 level generally spend one year domestically at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and then a second year at an overseas training facility.  The OIG’s estimates were reportedly developed based on the FSI weekly tuition rate, the standard number of weeks for 3/3 raining, the salary of a midlevel FSO, benefits based on Congressional Budget Office  figures, and per diem based on 14FAM 575.3 and Federal Travel Regulations. Cost estimates for super-hard languages were developed using the above methodology for the  domestic portion of training and data provided byEmbassy Beijing and NEA and data in State’s standard overseas support cost model for the overseas  portion of language training.

Is we use the OIG cost estimate of $480K to train a student in super hard language, it means U.S. taxpayers already spent $48M to train 102 diplomats to speak Korean.  We don’t know who are planning to take the buyouts, but let’s say for the sake of argument that all 102 Korean speakers take Tillerson’s buyouts. That’s $48M down the drain. How about the $163M taxpayers already spent on 341 Arabic speakers? Or the $228M spent to train 475 Chinese Mandarin speakers? Or $84M already expended the last twelve years to train 175 Japanese speakers?

What happens when they leave? Does the State Department then hire contractors on an “as needed” basis to track and report the goings on in the Korean peninsula and everywhere else where the U.S is planning to shrink its presence?

It is important to underscore that these gains in the Foreign Service’s language capacity did not happen overnight. And when people leave, as projected in Mr. Tillerson’s reported plan, replenishing their ranks, skills and experience will not happen overnight. Congress can appropriate new funds in the future, of course, but there is no currency that can buy the U.S. time.

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