GAO says State Department needs to revisit hardship pay

Despite efforts to boost staffing levels, the State Department still has a shortage of employees at its hardship posts around the world, and lacks officers trained in foreign language skills, according to two Government Accountability Office reports released on Tuesday.

State aimed to fill 90 percent of its hardship positions by 2007, but missed the mark, filling 75 percent of those jobs. According to GAO, by September 2008, the vacancy rate at hardship posts was 17 percent, nearly double the usual average. As of April 2009, there were 1,650 vacancies in hardship posts throughout the department. Since filling jobs in Afghanistan and Iraq are major priorities, State has been able to staff top positions in those countries, but that has left other geographic areas and mid-level jobs vacant.

Employees assigned to hardship posts receive extra pay, and GAO recommended that State look at pay incentives to determine whether they are adequate to recruit people to serve in dangerous areas of the world.

"The lack of an assessment of the effectiveness of the danger and hardship pay increases in filling positions at these posts, coupled with the continuing staffing challenges in these locations, makes it difficult to determine whether these resources are properly targeted," the report stated.

Another GAO report concluded that as of October 2008, 31 percent of employees in jobs requiring foreign language skills did not meet the speaking and reading proficiency skills for those languages, a slight increase from the 29 percent of 2005. Those rates were even higher in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the percentage of officers unable to meet the requirement was 57 percent and 73 percent, respectively.

"State's efforts to meet its foreign language requirements have yielded some results, but have not closed persistent gaps and reflect, in part, a lack of a comprehensive, strategic approach," the report said.

GAO said State should create a specific workforce plan for improving officers' foreign language skills with defined goals and clear requirements.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia will hold a hearing on both issues on Thursday.

State officials said they generally agreed with GAO's recommendations in the two reports. They noted that staffing shortages in the department overall made the hiring challenge more difficult. A spokesperson said State was "aggressively" recruiting new talent for Afghanistan and Iraq, and that additional efforts this year, such as Diplomacy 3.0, which was launched in March and aims to hire 2,400 new employees in fiscal 2009 and 2010, has put the department on the right track.

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