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State Department’s training program taken to task

GAO cites need for a more systematic and data-driven approach at hearing in which possibility of budget cuts loomed large.

The State Department needs to better assess the efficacy of its diplomatic training programs, a Government Accountability Office official said on Tuesday at a Senate subcommittee hearing flavored by the ongoing federal budget stalemate that threatens to cut funding for State and other agencies.

"State lacks a systematic, comprehensive training needs assessment process incorporating all bureaus and overseas posts," Jess T. Ford, director of International affairs and trade at GAO, told the hearing of Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce and the District of Columbia. "State has developed several training-related goals and measures, but the measures do not fully address the goals, and are generally output- rather than outcome-oriented. As a result, they do not provide a clear means of determining whether State's training efforts achieve desired results."

Despite the criticism, a GAO report found that its programs fulfilled 26 of 32 attributes that the government watchdog uses to assess training initiatives, a fact emphasized at the hearing by Ruth Whiteside, director of the Foreign Service Institute, the organization that delivers much of State's training.

GAO recommended several actions for the secretary of State to "provide transparent, complete and accurate information to help employees plan training and development throughout their careers." The recommendations centered around directing the Foreign Service Institute and the department's Bureau of Human Resources to collaborate with overseas bureaus and offices to develop and implement a systematic, comprehensive training plan, including developing data on employee performance measures.

The GAO recommendations were praised by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii, the subcommittee chairman, who said, "In this tough budget climate, it is more important than ever for the department to conduct the planning and evaluation necessary to fully support its funding requesting and target limited resources strategically."

Akaka also warned that funding uncertainty has adversely affected State's operations. "We cannot expect federal agencies to efficiently or effectively implement long-term strategies with short-term funding extension," he said.

But committee member Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., who attended the hearing briefly, criticized the department's personnel plan as being on "an unsustainable course in terms of being able to pay the bills."

Dubbed Diplomacy 3.0, the personnel plan seeks to expand civil service personnel by 13 percent and Foreign Service personnel by 25 percent from fiscal 2009 levels by fiscal 2014. Since its launch in March 2009, according to Whiteside, State has filled about 1,900 new positions and has plans for 2,000 more, while enrollment in diplomatic training has risen by 50 percent.

"I wanted to come today," said Coburn, "to clear the record of what is not going to happen in the future . . . because we don't have the dollars to do it."

Limited personnel has forced State into some difficult training decisions, said Nancy Powell, director general of the Foreign Service and director of State Human Resources Ambassador. "Staffing at State has not adapted to the department's expanded mission during the last decade. We sometimes had to choose whether to leave a position empty for the many months it takes to train a fully language-qualified officer, or to cut part or all of the language training." In 2009, GAO released a report that found 31 percent of employees -- and the majority of State employees in Iraq and Afghanistan -- did not meet foreign language proficiency requirements.

Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, told the hearing that establishing a personnel reserve at the department was essential for effective training, saying that a "commitment to investing and professional education and training" starts with ensuring that personnel can take the time needed to train without compromising readiness.

Neumann acknowledged that "maintaining such resources in the current budget climate will be extraordinarily difficult," but said all proposals to improve training at State "are meaningless . . . without sufficient personnel and funding."