This piece was in yesterday's Federal Times.
State grapples with vacancies in midlevel Foreign Service posts
By STEPHEN LOSEY
About one-fifth of the State Department’s midlevel Foreign Service positions are vacant, and the department says it needs Congress to approve long-overdue funding to fill them.
A State Department official said the agency is coping with the vacancies by leaving open positions at lower-priority embassies and consulates, and temporarily assigning some employees jobs that are above their paygrades. About 19 percent of Foreign Service employees today are “stretching” to do jobs above their paygrade, said Linda Taglialatela, State’s deputy assistant secretary for human resources.
“We’re meeting the highest of our priorities,” Taglialatela said. “But it’s not sustainable over the long run.”
The roots of the problem lie in the Clinton-era downsizing of the federal work force, which kept State from hiring many young people who would today be midcareer Foreign Service officers, said Taglialatela and American Foreign Service Association President John Naland. But the problem has been compounded by Congress’ refusal to fund Foreign Service hiring since 2004.
“Clinton’s peace dividend got taken out of State, and the hiring stopped,” Naland said.
State now has about 3,000 midcareer Foreign Service generalist officers — grades FS-03 to FS-01 — and needs about 3,800. Midcareer officers usually have between five and 20 years of experience, and earn $62,600 to $124,000 annually. FS-06 entry-level officers get $36,700.
State is asking Congress for enough money to hire about 700 Foreign Service officers in fiscal 2009. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is pushing hard for additional hiring as she briefs lawmakers on the proposed budget, Taglialatela said.
The problem is most severe in the ranks of State’s Foreign Service generalists — the officers who handle consular duties, meet with foreign citizens and organizations, manage embassies and consulates, or do other nonspecialized jobs.
The most important embassies — such as those in Baghdad, Iraq, and Kabul, Afghanistan — are either fully or nearly fully staffed, Taglialatela said. And embassies and consulates in more peaceful or less strategic countries are suffering as a result of the staffing needs in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It takes away from other locations, but we’re managing it,” Taglialatela said.
While State is trying to keep most of the unfilled Foreign Service posts at its Washington headquarters, it is leaving some positions abroad unfilled and dividing up duties among officers with similar skills there. Sometimes the spouses of Foreign Service employees pitch in to help, with a little training from State. Some unnecessary positions have been eliminated.
But those tactics can’t work for more than two tours, Taglialatela said.
“Foreign Service people are very dedicated, and many people work very long hours. But at some point, we’re going to have to find the resources to staff those jobs,” she said.
When State relies on employees working above their paygrades, embassies and consulates aren’t running at peak efficiency, she said.
“Most of them are very bright and capable, and they can do 70 percent of the job,” Taglialatela said. “But they need more supervision, they need more time, more direction; and they can’t hit the ground running like a more senior person would be able to.”
One midlevel Foreign Service officer, who asked not to be identified, said he has had to do up to four jobs at once in his stints abroad.
“You’re just trying to stick fingers in cracks to make sure things don’t fall apart,” the officer said. “You’re not necessarily trying to produce the best product. You’re making sure there are no catastrophes.”
State has to rely increasingly on foreign employees, who cannot always be completely trusted, the officer said.
“There’s always a local agenda,” he said.
And with Foreign Service officers stretched to the limit, the officer said, embassies and consulates can’t always give American citizens the help and attention they need. He and other officers he knows have become discouraged and thought about leaving for the private sector, he said.
“We do this because we want to serve and enjoy the lifestyle of being overseas,” the officer said. “But at some point, you don’t feel like you’re having the most positive impact you could, or are unable to reverse negative trends in foreign policy. Then you start to question your own personal reasons.”
And although State was able to find enough Foreign Service officers to fill its Baghdad embassy this year without ordering officers to serve, Naland worries that today’s shortages will affect next year’s staffing.
“The State Department doesn’t have the bench strength to staff the ever-growing embassy in Iraq,” Naland said. “This fall, we’re going to face the same need again.”