◉ By Domani Spero
Congress tasked the Government Accountability Office to look into the State Department’s Foreign Service promotion process. The GAO conducted a performance audit from July 2012 to July 2013. According to the July 2013 report, the audit addresses actions taken by State since March 2010 to help ensure the Foreign Service promotion process operates with fairness and integrity. The report examines (1) State’s process for ranking and promoting Foreign Service personnel, (2) procedural changes State has made to its Foreign Service promotion process in response to identified concerns, and (3) the extent to which updated procedures were consistently followed in 2011 and 2012 and whether any notable concerns about the promotion process remain.
Here is the audit’s conclusion:
State’s Foreign Service promotion process is conducted within the context of an up-or-out system and the practice of identifying a set percentage of staff each year for possible separation from the Service. Within an organizational culture that emphasizes performance and career advancement, safeguards to ensure the fairness and integrity of the promotion process are of particular importance. While we found that State had responded to previously identified concerns about its Foreign Service promotion process and taken a number of actions to strengthen internal controls over the process, documentation supporting the full implementation of these controls was sometimes missing. For example, we found that many selection board member oaths were missing from 2012 selection board reports and some boards did not include documentation of recusal requests. In the absence of a fully documented system of controls, there is a risk that intentional or unintentional failures to implement safeguards, by board members or HR staff, will go undetected and uncorrected. A failure to implement safeguards, in turn, increases the risk that promotion results could be intentionally or inadvertently compromised.
The GAO recommends the following:
To improve and better document State’s compliance with key safeguards governing the Foreign Service promotion process, we recommend that the Secretary of State instruct the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of the Human Resources Office of Performance Evaluation to take steps to ensure that selection board, performance standards board, and reconstituted board reports are complete and fully document compliance with internal controls, including but not limited to signed oaths and recusal memos.
According to the GAO, the State Department prompted by concerns identified by the OIG and Foreign Service Grievance Board in 2010, took a number of actions to strengthen procedures governing selection boards and reconstituted boards as follows:
- New Board Member Oath
- Revised Recusal Procedures
- Updated Procedures for Reconstituted Boards
- Renewed Emphasis on Certifying Board Results
- Discontinued Annotation of Promotion Lists
- More Nonspecialists to Serve on Specialists Boards
- New Procedural Manual for HR Staff
We found that selection boards, performance standards boards, and reconstituted boards complied with many updated procedures in the 2011 and 2012 Foreign Service promotion cycles; however, some selection boards and reconstituted boards had documentation gaps for certain internal controls.[…] We found that some board reports, which constitute the master record of proceedings, had a number of documentation gaps. As shown in figure 2, there were several instances of missing oaths and incomplete documentation of recusals among the 41 selection boards we reviewed. For example, we found that 2012 selection board reports did not include 45 of 122 required signed oaths from members, or nearly 40 percent of the required total. Subsequent to our file review, State officials provided a portion of these missing oaths and other missing documents from ancillary records.
We also checked for discrepancies between boards’ rank-ordered promotion lists and official promotion announcements and found a total of 74 names recommended for promotion in 2011 and 2012 selection board reports that did not appear on corresponding promotion announcements. State officials explained that these individuals were not included on promotion lists due to requirements outlined in the FAM relating to the (1) permanent removal of names from promotion lists due to personnel actions such as retirement, and (2) temporary removal of names from promotion lists due to outcomes of the vetting process described earlier. State provided documentation to account for each removed name.
Three Specific Boards
- Our online data collection tool revealed a limited number of procedural concerns relating to the operations of three specific boards. Our online tool was designed to provide board members with an opportunity to identify whether they observed any actions, behaviors, or concerns that could have compromised their board’s integrity and fairness. Our online tool was sent to 293 of 298 members who served on the 2011 and 2012 selection boards, 2011 and 2012 performance standards boards, and reconstituted boards since October 2011.23 We received 206 completed forms.24 From this total, two responses identified a total of four concerns with the operation of a board in 2011 or 2012. One response claimed that a board member had refused to follow precept instructions to consider candidate service in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan in a favorable light.25
- The same response noted that the board did not follow proper recusal procedures in all cases. The second response claimed that an “HR official” had inappropriately instructed a board member. The same response noted that the board did not follow proper recusal procedures in all cases. We obtained permission from one respondent to provide the respondent’s two concerns to State’s HR staff and the OIG for further review and follow-up as appropriate.
Footnote on the report says that “According to State, since January 2011, no State employee has filed a procedural complaint relating to State’s Foreign Service promotion process through the Office of Special Counsel, and one State employee has filed such a complaint through the District Courts.” (That court case is presumably Joan Wadelton’s — See Joan Wadelton’s Appeal Makes it to FSGB 2011 Annual Report to Congress and Joan Wadelton’s Case: That’s One Messy Promotion Scorecard, Next Up – It’s GAO Time!)
State Department Has Strengthened Foreign Service Promotion Process Internal Controls, but Documentation Gaps Remain GAO-13-654