Officials call for dramatic boost in State Department staff

The State Department needs funding for more staff to fill job vacancies overseas and to provide current employees with language and diplomacy training, said lawmakers and witnesses at a Senate hearing on Wednesday.

"Although I've often said we need to do more with less, there comes a time when our priorities must be reset," said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, ranking member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Federal Workforce Subcommittee. "We should consider ourselves lucky that the men and women of the State Department have answered the call to serve….These dedicated public servants must no longer be taken for granted."

Voinovich said he and the other members of the American Academy of Diplomacy Advisory Council planned to recommend a 16 percent increase in State's workforce during a formal presentation to Congress in September.

Ambassador Harry K. Thomas, director general of the Foreign Service and human resources director for State, said that hiring boosts during the 2002-2004 Diplomatic Readiness Initiative helped address the lack of mid-level Foreign Service officers. But those efforts, he said, and a request for 1,500 new positions in the fiscal 2009 budget were not enough because growing commitments abroad have dramatically increased the need for officers at all levels.

"Clearly, it's not only Iraq and Afghanistan," Thomas testified. "We've had to open missions in Asia, in central Europe, in newly independent states. The fact that India, China, Mexico are becoming economic success stories and their people want to travel, [is] putting increased burdens on our consular staff. We have terrible challenges with narcotics, terrible challenges with security. We think this 1,500 is just an initial step in what we will need to have a more robust State Department and USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development]."

John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said the statistics painted a disturbing picture. He said 12 percent of overseas Foreign Service positions are currently vacant, and 19 percent of positions that are filled are held by employees who do not have the qualifications required for their jobs. That experience gap is pronounced particularly in language-designated positions: Naland cited a 2006 Government Accountability Office study that found that 29 percent of diplomats in those positions did not meet the language requirements of their jobs. He said AFSA's research suggested that less than 20 percent of Foreign Service officers had negotiation training.

"Imagine if only 20 percent of Army officers had been trained to fire a weapon," he said.

Thomas agreed that more training was necessary, whether in language courses or at the command colleges like the Army War College, but added that the department first must hire more officers so sending current employees to training wouldn't create more vacancies.

Voinovich expressed concern that current department employees would be so discouraged by the state of affairs they would leave the department, exacerbating staffing and skills shortages. Naland said the situation already was dire. "The world is changing rapidly, and I fear that today's Foreign Service does not have to a sufficient degree the knowledge, skills, abilities and outlooks that -- taken together as a package -- should make career diplomats uniquely able to conduct 21st century diplomacy," he said.

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