Watchdog: Language skills still are getting lost in translation

Federal agencies -- particularly the Defense and Homeland Security departments -- must do more to improve employees' foreign language proficiencies, the Government Accountability Office reported on Thursday.

During a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia hearing, David Maurer, director of GAO's homeland security and justice team, told lawmakers similar challenges and failures at Defense, DHS and the State Department are contributing to an ongoing lack of necessary language proficiencies.

Maurer said DHS, in particular, has failed to take a comprehensive approach to assessing the foreign language capabilities of its employees and addressing any shortfalls despite several critical GAO reports.

Jeff Neal, chief human capital officer at DHS, acknowledged the department does not have an overarching plan or program for foreign language skills. DHS' component agencies and offices, he said, are expected to analyze their own foreign language capabilities and needs continually.

Neal testified that, in general, component agencies are meeting their language demand through hiring and training programs, or by contracting with private entities. "A more consistent departmentwide approach, however, could prove beneficial," he said, adding DHS already is considering that.

In the past, Neal's office has conducted limited surveys of component agencies' foreign language practices and programs, but now it is weighing a broader, more consolidated approach. "An effective program must be dynamic and responsive to changing situations," Neal said. "In this regard, such a program would be reliant both on a continuous assessment by components of their particular language requirements and on their cooperative work with us."

Maurer said for agencies to address their foreign language shortfalls, they must be able to accurately assess their existing capabilities and evaluate programs to improve those capabilities.

"We recommended that agencies adopt a strategic, results-oriented approach to manage foreign language capabilities, including setting a strategic direction, assessing agency gaps in foreign language skills, and taking actions to help ensure that foreign language capabilities are available when needed, among other things," Maurer said.

Neal assured lawmakers that he will incorporate departmentwide language policies and processes into DHS' Human Capital Strategic Plan. He also pledged to work with component agencies and offices to establish a system for tracking, monitoring and reporting language skills.

Maurer said Defense has taken some steps in recent years to transform the language proficiency of its workforce, but additional action is needed. In particular, GAO has found that not all the goals and objectives Defense has established in this area are measurable, and some do not relate well to one another. Additionally, the department has been unclear about its funding priorities.

Nancy Weaver, director of the Defense Language Office, said the department has been "aggressively" executing its Defense Language Transformation Roadmap, published in early 2005 to improve language skills, regional expertise and cultural capabilities.

"We have made great progress in providing basic language and cultural training to our deploying personnel, but still are working to build a better foundational capability that provides more individuals with true expertise, professional-level language skills and advanced levels of regional expertise," Weaver said.

The department has employed a number of strategies, including training, recruitment and special incentive pay.

The importance of having robust foreign language capabilities in the federal government was uncontested during the hearing.

"Foreign language skills are an increasingly key element to the success of diplomatic efforts; military, counterterrorism, law enforcement and intelligence missions; and to ensure access to federal programs and services to Limited English Proficiency populations within the United States," Maurer said.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, said language shortfalls undermine national security, economic growth and a host of other federal priorities, and all responsible parties -- federal agencies, state and local governments, the private sector and academia -- must be more proactive in addressing the issue.

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