A new report from the government accountability office found that the State Department faces chronic overseas staffing vacancies that could negatively impact embassy security and its “ability to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals and help ensure secure and efficient operations.”
The report found that these vacancies have lasted for at least a decade. Thirteen percent of the State Department’s Foreign Services positions were vacant as of March 2018, according to data compiled by the government accountability office. There were similar vacancy rates in 2008 and 2012. These shortages could imperil security at the embassies, the GAO report noted.
For example, “according to staff at overseas posts, vacancies in security officer positions at overseas posts reduce the amount of time that security staff can spend identifying, investigating, and responding to potential security threats to the post.”
The report also noted that shortages of information management personnel “have increased the vulnerability of posts’ computer networks to potential cybersecurity attacks and other malicious threats.”
A State Department spokesperson said that “the Department agrees on the importance of addressing the root causes of persistent Foreign Service vacancies” and noted that “data show the vacancy rate has been a long term problem.”
The State Department has struggled to fill overseas posts due to factors such as reduced appropriations and the hiring freeze implemented under former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
The persistent vacancies are most prevalent at embassies with the highest foreign policy priorities, according to the report. As of March 31, 2018, the South and Central Asian Affairs Bureau – which includes nations like Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India and the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau – which includes countries like Iraq, Iran and Egypt – had the highest percentage of vacancies.
Although the GAO recognized that the State Department has engaged in a number of efforts to try to address these vacancies and have also tried to alleviate workload issues that resulted from the shortages in staff. However, the GAO report recommended that State “develop an integrated action plan that defines the root causes of persistent Foreign Service vacancies at overseas posts and provides suggested corrective measures to reduce such vacancies.”
“The Department will continue to employ strategies and programs, such as the Consular Fellows, Civil Service Excursions, and the Expanded Professional Associates Program, to reduce these vacancies,” the spokesperson said.