The State Department has suffered from “persistent” under-staffing in overseas foreign service positions for a decade and the problems are the most severe in high-priority positions and high-priority parts of the world, GAO has said.
Budgetary restrictions in the 2013 period and the partial government hiring freeze of early 2017 contributed to the difficulties but even as the foreign service has grown the vacancy rate has remained around 13 percent overall, GAO said. Recruiting is especially difficult for positions requiring expertise in fields such as medicine or IT because those skills “tend to be highly sought after in the private sector.”
“In addition, State’s data show persistent vacancies at overseas posts in generalist positions that help formulate and implement U.S. foreign policy and in specialist positions that support and maintain the functioning of overseas posts. State’s data also show persistent foreign service vacancies at overseas posts with State’s highest foreign policy priorities and in regions with security risks that could threaten U.S. foreign policy interests” including the Near East and Central Asia–where the vacancy rates are 18 and 21 percent.
“Staff at overseas posts told us that vacancies increase workloads, contributing to low morale and higher stress for foreign service staff and that vacancies in political and economic positions–20 percent and 16 percent, respectively–limit the reporting on political and economic issues that posts are able to provide to State headquarters,” it added.
“Notably, officials also stated that vacancies in specialist positions may heighten security risks at overseas posts and disrupt post operations. For instance, some overseas post staff said that vacancies in information management positions had increased the vulnerability of posts’ computer networks to potential cybersecurity attacks and other malicious threats.”
It said that efforts to counter the persistent vacancy rates–such as a program that allows civil service staff to fill an overseas foreign service slot for one tour of duty–have limited effectiveness because they “are not guided by an integrated action plan.”