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Foreign Service vacancies threaten diplomatic readiness, GAO says

Jul. 16, 2012 - 06:13PM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
More than a quarter of overseas postings are either vacant or filled by Foreign Service officers serving above their grades, according to the GAO.
More than a quarter of overseas postings are either vacant or filled by Foreign Service officers serving above their grades, according to the GAO. (Paul J. Richards / AFP via Getty Images)

The Foreign Service is grappling with a lack of experienced midlevel diplomats despite a hiring surge several years ago, the Government Accountability Office said in a report released Monday.

As of October, 28 percent of overseas postings were either vacant or filled by Foreign Service officers serving above their grades — a percentage that had not changed in three years and was even larger in hardship posts, GAO found.

Although the State Department is attempting to compensate by hiring retirees and placing current civil service employees in Foreign Service jobs, it “lacks a strategy to fill those gaps,” the report said. As a result, diplomatic readiness may be sapped by a loss of institutional knowledge and a shortage of diplomats to report on conditions in the host country.

Under a 2009 initiative dubbed Diplomacy 3.0, the State Department hired about 1,900 more Foreign Service officers than it lost through the end of fiscal 2010. Last year, however, tighter funding slowed growth to just 38 new hires and growth is likely to be only slightly higher in the future, according to State Department projections cited in the report.

“As a result, State likely will continue to face staffing and experience gaps for the foreseeable future,” GAO found. As of June 2011, the Foreign Service had about 13,400 employees. State Department officials expect more midlevel positions to be filled as recently hired Foreign Service Officers are promoted. In a written response to the report, James Millette, the department’s acting chief financial officer, agreed with GAO’s recommendation to update a five-year workforce plan to include a strategy for closing the gap in midlevel vacancies. Because the latest revision to the plan is almost finished, State officials will follow up in the next update covering 2013 through 2017, Millette said.

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