Increase in dangerous posts strains Foreign Service

A proliferation in overseas hardship posts is requiring the State Department to address work-related stress, and is creating staffing and training challenges, witnesses told a Senate panel Wednesday. Ambassador Heather Hodges, the State Department's acting director general, told members of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee on the federal workforce that a recent survey revealed between 2 percent and 17 percent of Foreign Service officers returning from hardship posts or locations that are considered dangerous could be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"The medical division is going to be putting together a unit to look at this problem and to work with the military, who has far more expertise than we do on this issue," Hodges said. "We want to be more aware of this situation because we are going to be living with this situation for many more years to come."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made service in a hardship post a requirement for advancement in the Foreign Service, and shifted overseas positions to meet increased needs in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan. The number of posts characterized by hardship or danger shot up from fewer than 200 in 2001 to more than 750 in 2007.

Those posts are designated as one-year assignments as opposed to the traditional two to three years, but the shorter rotations have not prevented Foreign Service officers from developing post-traumatic stress disorder, and vacancies remain difficult to fill.

The State Department's efforts to fill hardship posts with volunteers, as it has done in Iraq, are complicated by a locality pay system that Hodges described as outdated. Locality pay does not apply when employees leave for overseas postings, which means that they may take pay cuts of close to 19 percent when they depart.

Hodges used the pay disparity to call for the transition to a pay-for-performance system in the agency.

John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, agreed change is needed. "The Foreign Service union doesn't care which solution the wise members agree to; we just want you to fix it," he said. "I'm all for it. We've been rank-ordering people for decades."

Relying on volunteers to fill overseas positions rather than simply assigning diplomats also means that junior officers end up filling mid-level positions for which there are no volunteers. Under those circumstances, junior officers may not receive the supervision they need to improve their diplomatic skills, and may end up out of their depth.

"If you have a junior person in a stress position . . . they just haven't been in that position long enough to know how to deal with certain situations," said Jess Ford, the director for foreign affairs management, international affairs and trade at the Government Accountability Office. He cited junior officers who had been elevated to deal with adjudicating visa disputes in China, where the market is awash in fake documents.

"The Foreign Service is playing musical chairs, with more chairs than people," Naland said.

Frequent rotations through hardship posts, the increased diplomatic requirements in Iraq -- which soaked up an earlier increase in the size of the Foreign Service -- and the presence of junior employees in mid-level posts also mean the State Department cannot pull employees out of rotations to give them adequate training.

"We would like to have more positions in order to give our people more training before they go," Hodges said. "Sometimes we've had to waive language training; sometimes we've had to shorten language training."

Language training isn't the only competency at stake. According to Naland's association, only 50 Foreign Service members take negotiating courses every year, and the State Department offers only five courses, totaling a month of instruction, in public diplomacy.

Ford noted that with shorter terms overseas, employees end up with less practice using language and diplomacy skills in the field.

Hodges testified that the State Department is trying to increase the number of language learning options for officers stationed overseas, but unlike the military, State does not build training and education into the career schedules of its diplomats.

"You'll see the flag-level officers [in the military] have MBAs, have Ph.D.s," Naland said. "The Foreign Service folks, they're hired, they report for duty and they go ahead. We get language training, but I wish we weren't the Cinderella service."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec