Exclusive: GAO report finds State Department language skills dangerously lacking

Exclusive: GAO report finds State Department language skills dangerously lacking

About a third of Foreign Service officers in jobs that require language skills don’t have the proficiency required to do their jobs, hurting America’s ability to advocate its interests around the world, according to a new report by the Government Accountability Office.

The report, which has not yet been released, but was obtained by The Cable, spells out the consequences of having a Foreign Service that in many cases can’t communicate with local officials or populations, relies too heavily on local staff for critical functions, and can’t respond to bad press when it appears in foreign languages.

Substandard skills were found in people holding 31 percent of the approximately 3,600 jobs that require a certain level of language proficiency, known as language-designated positions, up from 29 percent in 2005. In critically important regions such as the Near East and South and Central Asia, that number rises to 40 percent.

In one particularly damning instance, the report states, “An officer at a post of strategic interest said because she did not speak the language, she had transferred a sensitive telephone call from a local informant to a local employee, which could have compromised the informant’s identity.”

In the warzones, the problem is much more pronounced. Thirty-three of 45 officers in language-designated positions in Afghanistan, or 73 percent, didn’t meet the requirement. In Iraq, 8 of 14 officers or 57 percent lacked sufficient language skills. Deficiencies in what GAO calls “supercritical” languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, were 39 percent.

Forty-three percent of officers in Arabic language-designated positions do not meet the requirements of their positions, nor do 66 percent of officers in Dari positions, 50 percent in Urdu (two languages widely spoken in South Asia), or 38 percent in Farsi (which is mostly spoken in Iran).

Meanwhile, a large portion of State Department posts in dangerous countries are vacant, the GAO says in another report. Both reports are expected to be released later today or tomorrow, and paint a picture of a diplomatic service badly in need of increased attention and oversight.

“We cannot effectively sway our allies or adversaries if we do not speak their language,” said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, the chairman of the Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Oversight of Government Management subcommittee, which commissioned the report. “Staffing hardship posts will always be a challenge, but President Obama has called on the United States to re-engage the world and State must fix these chronic foreign language and staffing shortfalls.”

Some of the anecdotal examples of the consequences of the deficiencies are shocking:

  • In China, officials told us that the officers in China with insufficient language skills get only half the story on issues of interest, as they receive only the official party line and are unable to communicate with researchers and academics, many of whom do not speak English.
  • The deputy chief of mission in Ankara said that officers who do not have sufficient Turkish skills are reading English-language newspapers rather than what Turks are reading, further limiting their insight into what is happening in the country.
  • In Shenyang, a Chinese city close to the border with North Korea, the consul general told us that reporting about issues along the border had suffered because of language shortfalls.
  • A security officer in Cairo said that without language skills, officers do not have any “juice”-that is, the ability to influence people they are trying to elicit information from.

The State Department blames the poor figures on staffing shortages and the recent increase of language-intensive positions, according to the report. Three hundred new language trainers were funded in State’s fiscal 2009 budget and 200 more are on the way in 2010 funds. But even with those additions, State says it won’t be able to start moving in the right direction until 2011.

“Given the recent increase of resources, the State Department has the unique opportunity to address concerns that have been overlooked for far too long,” said Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, the panel’s ranking Republican, “The department must take advantage of this situation and plan strategically to meet short- and long-term diplomatic needs.”

Each year since 2005, State has reported that 80 percent of employees assigned to vacant positions met language requirements, but that figure is “misleading and overstates the actual language proficiency of FSOs in language-designated positions,” according to the GAO, because State counts people who are just in training, not only those that have completed training successfully.

One thing that might help would be a strategic plan for addressing this problem, the GAO noted, but none exists.

In addition to its problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department isn’t even properly staffing positions in these areas where the U.S. could be engaged military, what are known as “hardship posts,” the GAO found.

Seventeen percent of slots vacant in the thorniest places and 34 percent of “mid-level generalist” positions in severely dangerous locations are filled by people who aren’t really qualified for that role.

The most potentially hazardous assignments are in places like Beirut, Nairobi, Baghdad, and Kabul. The State Department offers a range of incentives for personnel to brave these dangers, but there’s no evaluation to determine whether these incentives are working.

“Staffing and experience gaps at hardship posts can diminish diplomatic readiness in a variety of ways,” the GAO report stated, “including by reducing reporting coverage, weakening institutional knowledge, and increasing the supervisory burden on senior staff.”