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

Posted: 1:33 am ET
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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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Nonimmigrant Visas: 2014 Data Kills 2020 NIV Application Projections Made in 2005

Posted: 3:05 am EDT
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Via GAO:

According to State’s projections, NIV [nonimmigrant visa] applications from the East Asia and Pacific region and the South and Central Asia region, will increase by about 98 and 91 percent, respectively, from fiscal year 2014 to fiscal year 2019. The Western Hemisphere region is expected to receive approximately 6.9 million applicants by fiscal year 2019, an increase of approximately 30 percent from fiscal year 2014.

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State has underestimated growth in NIV demand in past projections. In 2005, State contracted with an independent consulting firm to project growth in NIV applicant volume through 2020. As of 2014, 13 of the 18 countries included in this study had exceeded their 2014 NIV demand projections. The study also underestimated the sharp escalation of NIV demand in Brazil and China. By 2014, Brazil’s demand had already exceeded the study’s projection for NIV applicants in 2020 by over 104 percent, and in the same year, China’s demand was over 57 percent higher than the study’s 2020 projection for it. These increases in demand resulted in longer NIV interview wait times between 2006 and 2011 in Brazil and China. As we have previously reported, increases in NIV demand have historically impacted State’s ability to efficiently process visas.

Expected increases in NIV demand are further complicated by State’s current NIV process, including proposed staffing levels that are not anticipated to rise significantly through fiscal year 2016. Consular officers in 8 of the 11 focus groups and consular management officials at posts in Beijing, Mexico City, and New Delhi told us that current efforts to reduce NIV interview wait times are not sustainable if demand for NIVs continues to increase at expected rates. A consular management official at one post noted that efforts such as staff increases have been a “temporary fix” but are not a long-term solution to their high volume of NIV applicants. Staffing levels cannot be increased indefinitely due to factors such as hiring restrictions, staffing limitations established by host governments, and physical workspace constraints. For example, according to State officials, State is currently hiring to meet vacancies caused by attrition and is expected to increase the number of consular officers by only 57 in fiscal year 2015, a 3 percent increase, and not increase consular officers in fiscal year 2016. State officials told us that they do not expect significant increases in staffing levels beyond 2016. According to State officials, staffing limitations established by host governments are also a barrier to State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs’ staffing efforts. For example, the Indian government has currently restricted the number of staff the United States can employ at consulates and embassies. Physical capacity limitations, such as insufficient interview windows for visa adjudication, are also a concern for efforts to increase staffing.