Issue Briefs

Following are the summary and several key portions of an inspector general review of the impact of the State Department’s hiring freeze over 2017-early 2018.

 

OIG found that the hiring freeze particularly affected the Department’s eligible family member and Civil Service workforce. From the start of the hiring freeze in January 2017 until the Department lifted it in May 2018, on-board eligible family member employment levels declined by 20.7 percent. Over the same period, Civil Service on-board employment levels declined by 7.1 percent. By contrast, the Department’s Foreign Service employment levels experienced only a 1 percent reduction during this period. OIG also found that on-board Civil 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.

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. 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. Although the Secretary lifted the hiring freeze on May 15, 2018, bureaus and offices told OIG that reduction of their employment ceilings to December 31, 2017, on-board staffing levels and retention of other processes developed during the freeze continued to impede their ability to fill positions.

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. This conclusion is based on OIG’s review of responses from 38 domestic bureaus and offices and 151 overseas posts as well as analysis of Department-furnished staffing data. This report includes examples of hiring freeze effects reported to OIG. However, OIG was unable to validate each individual response due to the number and range of reported effects. One hundred percent of bureaus and offices (38 of 38) that responded to OIG surveys said the hiring freeze had a negative or very negative effect on morale, as did 97 percent of embassy and consulate respondents (145 of 149). OIG was unable to assess the financial costs of the hiring freeze because the Department did not systematically track these costs.

 

Bureaus, Overseas Posts Reported Broadly Negative Effects

OIG determined that the hiring freeze had a broad and significant effect on overall Department operations, particularly on its ability to address its most serious management and performance challenges. Ninety-six percent of embassies and consulates (139 of 145) and 95 percent of bureaus and offices (35 of 37) that responded to OIG’s surveys reported that the freeze had a somewhat negative or very negative effect on overall operations.

Overseas, embassies and consulates reported that the freeze on EFM hiring had detrimental effects on security, consular, and administrative operations. For example, one embassy said that “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.” Domestically, the effect on bureaus and offices varied. Some bureaus and offices reported they were able to manage their workloads by adjusting priorities and finding more efficient ways to perform their work. Others said the freeze adversely affected their ability to carry out key programs, particularly new initiatives or activities that arose during the hiring freeze. For example, one bureau said “a lack of mission essential resources, staff, and senior leadership seriously impacted the bureau’s capacity to achieve our goals at required levels of quality. New initiatives could only be moved forward at the expense of other initiatives.” Another bureau said it “was forced to shift from strategic, long-term planning to more tactical, immediate tasks. This loss of focus on the longer-term goals of the organization has essentially slowed everything down, and the bureau is working to recover and refocus as we staff up to critical levels we fell below.”

OIG determined that, in some situations, overseas and domestic staffing issues preceded the hiring freeze, and that these staffing issues may have contributed to the challenges that the Department reported to OIG.

 

Effects on Employee Morale and Welfare

In response to OIG’s survey, 100 percent of bureaus and offices (38 of 38) and 97 percent of embassies and consulates (145 of 149) reported that the hiring freeze had either a somewhat negative or very negative effect on employee morale and welfare.

Bureau and office employees told OIG that the hiring freeze contributed to excessive workloads, particularly as the freeze continued and they were unable to fill vacancies. Employees also said the lack of transparency about any objectives intended to be achieved by the hiring freeze and how the freeze would be implemented caused some to be concerned about losing their jobs. One bureau said that “it is impossible to overstate the negative impact of the hiring freeze on employees. Employees felt both overburdened and stuck in their careers, as there was no mechanism for lateral movement or promotion. The hiring freeze conveyed a message from Department top leadership that our work and mission, and the talents and well-being of our employees, were not valued.” Another bureau respondent said that “the hiring freeze had a negative effect on bureau morale. The hiring freeze lacked a defined purpose and duration, which made it difficult to rally and ‘get the job done’ for the immediate future or a specific event. Without a clear end point or resolution of the staff shortage, it became difficult to maintain that higher level of effort in the longer term. Such burnout results in diminishing capability to achieve the mission.”

Although bureau and office respondents reported that the hiring freeze had a negative effect on morale, some said that the hiring freeze required leaders to prioritize their organization’s workload. For example, one bureau respondent said that although the hiring freeze had the single largest negative impact on morale in that bureau’s internal survey, it “forced prioritization and selection—so people who focused on the mission and leaders who delegated tasks well started to succeed, and morale improved, despite the hiring freeze.”

Embassies and consulates consistently cited restrictions on EFM hiring as a cause of declining employee morale. One regional bureau stated that “the freeze on EFM employment was a disaster for [this bureau]. Posts were left with hundreds of unfilled positions in critical areas, placing enormous strains on post resources, leaving critical work undone, and severely damaging Foreign Service morale.” An embassy respondent said that the hiring freeze “was an unmitigated disaster. EFMs were disappointed, hurt, and angry at anyone and everyone at the same time. They were bored and turned their energy to negativity. They felt as if Department leadership didn’t see them as important but as an evil that had to be endured.” Overseas posts raised particular concerns about the effects of vacancies in Community Liaison Office coordinator positions, which typically are filled by EFMs. Coordinators carry out functions important to embassy morale, such as emergency preparedness, communication with family members, and newcomer orientation. For example, one embassy respondent stated that the “[Community Liaison Office] coordinator position was vacant for six months…and one of the [assistant] coordinator positions was vacant for 16 months. At a time when the entire community’s morale was negatively affected, having such significant gaps in positions dedicated to issues of morale was both further damaging and heavily ironic.”

Several indicators of employee morale at the Department, such as the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, registered a decline during the hiring freeze. Multiple bureaus reported an increase in the number of employee relations cases or referrals to Employee Consultation Services43 during and immediately following the hiring freeze. However, it was unclear the extent to which these declines could be attributed to the hiring freeze or reflected factors unrelated to the freeze.

 

Financial Costs of Hiring Freeze Remain Unclear

OIG was unable to determine the financial costs of the hiring freeze because the Department did not systematically track these costs. Although total Department personnel expenditures increased by approximately $53 million from 2016 to 2017, Department officials told OIG that the hiring freeze resulted in cost savings because costs associated with salaries and benefits did not climb as much as they otherwise would have. For example, the increase in Department expenditures on domestic personnel fell from 3.68 percent in 2016 to 1.81 percent in 2017. Department officials interviewed by OIG attributed this moderation in increases in personnel costs to the hiring freeze.

OIG could not, however, obtain similar information with respect to the potential costs of the freeze, although OIG received anecdotal accounts of these consequences. For example, multiple bureaus reported instances in which the hiring freeze resulted in increased overtime, additional travel costs to cover staffing vacancies at overseas posts and in domestic field offices, and an uptick in requests for separate maintenance allowance applications, which they said increased because family members, unsure of employment opportunities, chose to remain away from post. OIG also acknowledges that staffing shortfalls could have had an effect on oversight of a range of financial, contracting, and related matters. Accordingly, even though OIG cannot definitively determine these financial costs because the Department did not systematically track them, we do not discount the possibility that such costs occurred.