U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a visit to an anti-narcotics police base in Bogota, Colombia on Jan. 21.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a visit to an anti-narcotics police base in Bogota, Colombia on Jan. 21. Ivan Valencia/AP

Watchdog Finds Serious Staffing and Leadership Problems at State Department

Officials still feel the ramifications of the Trump administration’s 16-month hiring freeze.

The State Department’s mission is compromised by “staff shortages, frequent turnover, poor leadership, and inexperienced and undertrained staff,” the department’s inspector general warned in a new report. 

“Workforce management issues are pervasive, affecting programs and operations domestically and overseas and across functional areas and geographic regions,” the watchdog reported Wednesday. 

The 16-month hiring freeze imposed by the Trump administration in early 2017 continues to affect operations and morale, the IG found, noting that department officials anticipate it will take until 2021 to fully recover from its impact. 

All 38 bureaus and offices that responded to the IG’s survey and 97% of the embassies and consulates reported that the hiring freeze had either a somewhat negative or very negative effect on employee morale and welfare. “Employees told OIG that the hiring freeze contributed to excessive workloads, and the lack of transparency about the objectives intended to be achieved by the hiring freeze caused some to be concerned about losing their jobs,” the IG reported.

Not all workforce problems can be attributed to the hiring freeze, however. The report cited challenges at the U.S. embassy in Nassau, Bahamas, stemming from senior leadership vacancies that date back years—the embassy has been without a permanent confirmed ambassador since November 2011. At the same embassy, the acting director of the Office of Foreign Mission was “overburdened and overwhelmed” from holding three positions and there was a disproportionate workload from the realignment of other personnel.  

In addition to staffing shortages, “under-qualified staff is an issue that frequently intersects with the department’s difficulties managing and overseeing contracts,” the IG said. For example, in Iraq, there was a lack of qualified employees to serve as contracting officer representatives and, in India, officers in charge of human rights and counterterrorism did not have the necessary training. 

In its response to the IG’s findings, State agreed that it is “critically important” to maintain adequate staffing levels and said the department has made significant progress: “Under Secretary Pompeo’s leadership, currently the department is just 1% shy of its goal to have over 13,000 Foreign Service employees by January 2020, with nearly 12,800 FS staff on board as of October 2019.” The department also aims to increase civil service hiring by about 7%, and is taking steps to improve retention and recruitment. 

Beyond staffing and training, the IG also cited a number of examples of poor leadership. At the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which has 11 offices that carry out U.S. policy in the United Nations and other international organizations, the IG found allegations of political appointees disrespecting, retaliating against, and harassing career staff. Compounding the problems, leadership failed to address the issues.

At the Libreville Embassy in Gabon, Africa, the problems were rife: a senior leader’s verbal outbursts rattled staff; supervisors failed to address poor performance; and the deputy chief of mission urged staff to find a job for his spouse, which possibly violated the anti-nepotism policy.

“The department acknowledges that combatting a toxic workplace starts at the top; holding leadership accountable is key to maintaining a productive and mission-focused workplace,” State said in its response.