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

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UKFCO: Straight Talk on Consular Work, and Consuls Don’t Do Chicken Coops, All right?

On April 4, 2012, William Hague, UK’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs gave a speech where he talked about the role of the British consular services:

Excerpts:

[…] I want to describe what we are doing in a vital area of the work of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but one which rarely receives so much attention: strengthening Britain’s consular diplomacy.
[…]
[L]ast year in Bangladesh, Foreign Office staff rescued four girls from forced marriage in a single day and returned them safely to Britain, including one girl who had been kept chained to her bed.

As these stories show, consular work is a very personal business.

It touches the lives of British citizens in difficult and sometimes extreme circumstances.

It is the only way most people come into contact with the Foreign Office, and it is one of our main responsibilities as a Department.
[…]
Britons make more than 55 million individual trips overseas every year, and at least 6 million of our nationals live abroad for some of or all of the time. In the space of a year, approximately 6,000 Britons get arrested, and at any one time more than 3,250 British nationals are in prison around the world. At least 10% of all the murders of Britons in the last two years took place overseas, and on average more than one hundred British nationals die abroad each week.

As you can imagine, this produces an immense demand for our services. In fact, just under two million people contact the Foreign Office for some form of consular assistance each year: that is more than 37,000 people a week.

When you are aware of these vast numbers, you can understand why it is that Embassies cannot pay your bills, give you money or make travel arrangements for you, and why we cannot arrange funerals or repatriate bodies. We try to look after everybody in the same way, and to be consistent in how we help people whether they are rich or poor, famous or unknown.

We also have to observe the law. That means we cannot help you enter a country if you do not have a valid passport or necessary visa. We cannot get you better treatment in hospital or prison than is given to local people, and we cannot get you out of prison. We cannot resolve your property or other legal disputes for you. We cannot override the local authorities, such as police investigating crimes. And we cannot give you legal advice: consular staff are not lawyers.

There are also cases where members of the public waste time and scarce resources with ludicrous requests.

It is not our job, for example, to book you restaurants while you are on holiday. This is obvious, you may think. But nonetheless it came as a surprise to the caller in Spain who was having difficulty finding somewhere to have Christmas lunch.

If like a man in Florida last year, you find ants in your holiday rental, we are not the people to ask for pest control advice.

If you are having difficulty erecting a new chicken coop in your garden in Greece as someone else was, I am afraid that we cannot help you.

Equally, I have to say that we are not the people to turn to

  • if you can’t find your false teeth,
  • if your sat nav is broken and you need directions,
  • if you are unhappy with your plastic surgery,
  • if your jam won’t set, if you are looking for a dog-minder while you are on holiday,
  • if your livestock need checking on,
  • if you would like advice about the weather,
  • or if you want someone to throw a coin into the Trevi fountain for you because you forgot while you were on holiday and you want your marriage to succeed.
  • And our commitment to good relations with our neighbours does not, I am afraid, extend to translating ‘I love you’ into Hungarian, as we were asked to do by one love-struck British tourist. There are easier ways to find a translation.

These are a just a few examples of bizarre demands that get put to our staff overseas.

Criticism that is sometimes levelled against us should be viewed in that light. An effective consular service does not mean a nanny state.

So we ask British nationals to be responsible, to be self-reliant and to take sensible precautions.

Bullets and italics added above for emphasis.  Read the full text here.

Sounds like a reasonable request, unless you’re the one who has to erect the chicken coop. Tee-hee!

We think Secretary Hague did a good job explaining the consular work of his FCO staff.  That’s important as it helps the public manage their expectations of the Service. We can’t ever remember a U.S. Secretary of State trying to school the American public on what the embassy can/cannot do for them overseas. No wonder, they mostly think our folks are in perpetual happy hour when in fact, a lot of our consular folks around the world do not get home at 5 o’clock. We have over 260 posts overseas, and we can assure you that somewhere in the world, at any given night, a consular officer is awake assisting an American in distress. Sometimes, like clock work, our compatriots overseas need assistance at 4:45 pm on Friday afternoons. Or a few might decide to leave abusive foreign spouses or partners at midnight on a weekend, several weekends a year. Many times, they have to hold the hands of duty officers who have never assisted an American in distress before, or get their ears burn when a duty officer give their home phone numbers to an irate American on the phone. They have to deal not just with visa applicants, but also victims of crimes, death, and notification of next of kin, morgue visit, and things like that.

We think that the consular career track is probably the most under appreciated cone in the Foreign Service.  The members of the American public who have the misfortune to need their assistance are often unhappy about what services are afforded them. “You will hear from my congressman!” is a common enough threat within embassy walls ranging in reasons from bad prison food, crowded jail cell, some gentleman’s inability to take his/her spouse back to the United States asap, etc. Those whose problems overseas are happily resolved, are too happy to leave and be back in the United States that they often times do not bother to tell their congressional representatives how our embassy helped them overseas.

Of course, we often hear high level officials talk about the protection of Americans overseas as one of the most important function of the State Department when they go before Congress for budget hearings. But when we look at the annual promotion statistics of the Foreign Service, we’re still seeing officers who do one of the most important function of the agency being beaten promotion wise and in ambassadorial appointments by the jaw-jaw guys. Which is curious and all given that it is an important function ….