A hiring freeze instituted by President Donald Trump through executive order in January 2017 and continued at the Department of State for nearly a year and a half had significant negative impacts on the agency, according to an Aug. 9 report issued by the agency’s inspector general.
“Service staffing levels in occupational series with security, medical and life safety responsibilities declined by 7.6 percent from January 2017 to August 2018. These positions are particularly important because they play a role in ensuring the protection of department employees,” the report said.
“OIG determined that the hiring freeze had a broad and significant effect on overall department operations, particularly on its ability to address its most significant management challenges.”
The extended freeze was conducted to cut the agency’s workforce by eight percent, in order to fulfill a White House proposal to reduce the Department of State’s budget by 30 percent.
According to information collected on the Office of Personnel Management’s employment data site, the State Department workforce declined by 1,219 positions between December 2016 and March 2018.
On-board eligible family member positions, which are filled by family members of officials working overseas, were the hardest hit, with a 20.7 percent reduction, according to the report. But the agency’s reduction in critical staffing had the greatest negative impact on agency operations.
The cuts primarily targeted the civil service workforce, in order to preserve overseas operations conducted predominantly by the foreign service.
But according to the report, the freeze was put in place generally, rather than with the goals of improving the operations of the agency in mind.
“OIG found that implementation of the freeze was not guided by strategic goals linked to a discrete, but related, exercise to prepare a plan to improve the economy and efficiency of department operations, known as the organizational reform effort. This disconnect led to an inability to apply staffing reductions in a way that reflected the department’s strategic goals,” the report said.
“Bureaus, offices and overseas posts consistently described procedures for seeking exemptions to the freeze as cumbersome, time-consuming and inefficient and said the department did not fully communicate policies and procedures related to the hiring freeze.”
As a result, critical posts were not filled over an extended period of time.
The report said that one embassy responded to their survey by saying, “our EFM residential security coordinator position was vacant for an entire year. With a 300-residence housing pool, the loss had a very negative impact on the safety and security of American chief of mission employees and family members.”
Though agency guidance said that leadership would prioritize functions such as safety, security and support during the hiring freeze, the OIG report said that civil service positions for safety-related jobs decreased by 9.7 percent, and staffing shortages meant that some departments were unable to conduct the usual number of health and safety inspections.
In addition to safety of people, offices reported that they had to delay IT security measures, software modernization projects and initiatives to respond to malicious cyberthreats.
Once the freeze was lifted, reduced staffing in the very offices that were supposed to hire personnel meant that the agency struggled to meet hiring goals for its civil service positions.
The Department of State’s bureaus, offices, embassies and consulates also nearly all reported that the freeze had either a somewhat negative or very negative effect on employee morale and welfare.
Though the Trump administration has largely dropped efforts to freeze hiring of federal employees to reduce the federal workforce, other efforts such as agency relocations have been used to force employees to leave federal service.
If the IG’s observed negative impacts of workforce reductions at the Department of State prove universal to government agencies, it could spell trouble for ongoing and upcoming Trump administration reform efforts.
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.