By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 8, 2008
Only 18 percent of the U.S. Foreign Service think Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is doing a good job protecting their profession, according to a recent survey conducted by the service's union. Forty-four percent rated her performance "poor" or "very poor," the same percentage of respondents who said that "developments of the last few years" had made it less likely they would complete their careers in the Foreign Service.
Respondents to the American Foreign Service Association survey rated pay and other personnel issues as top concerns, closely followed by staffing and security problems at the U.S. Embassy in Iraq.
John Naland, the union's president, said the survey raises "serious questions about the long-term health" of the service and "the future viability of U.S. diplomatic engagement."
Rice's leadership has come under sharp scrutiny in recent months, as Congress has criticized the State Department over supervision of private security contractors in Iraq and the enormous embassies in Baghdad and other combat zones. A number of independent studies have raised alarms about the department's readiness to confront growing challenges abroad, and diplomats have grown increasingly outspoken in questioning Rice's management.
More than 4,300 Foreign Service members responded to the survey, which was sent electronically to all 11,500 members in late 2007. Seventy percent of respondents were posted overseas. A copy of the results, to be released tomorrow, was obtained by The Washington Post.
In a statement responding to the survey, the State Department director general's office noted that "the overall attrition rate among all Foreign Service officers is very low, historically around 4 percent."
"To help meet shortages, allow us to train our people adequately and fulfill our worldwide mission," the statement said, "Secretary Rice continues to fight for new personnel resources through the budget process."
Congress has refused since 2004 to grant the State Department's annual requests for additional personnel funding. But the Foreign Service union and many diplomats have charged that Rice has not made the issue a priority.
The top concern among respondents was the ineligibility of those working overseas to earn "locality pay," the geography-based salary adjustment that federal employees receive as compensation for the public-private sector pay gap. In the Washington area, the 2008 amount is 20.89 percent of base pay. Although other services with overseas deployment, including the military and the intelligence community, receive equivalent "comparability pay," the Foreign Service does not.
The director general's statement said that "pay modernization is a high priority of the Secretary and her management team."
Second and third on the list of priority concerns were perceived unfairness in assignments and promotions and a lack of "family-friendliness" within the Foreign Service. Both refer to the growing number of unaccompanied assignments at hardship posts and the continuing drain on personnel and resources caused by massive staffing demands at embassies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Baghdad embassy is by far the largest, with about 250 diplomatic assignments. In the fall, Rice said that Foreign Service members would be forced to take assignments in Iraq if there were not enough volunteers to fill the one-year postings in 2008. Although enough volunteers emerged, she announced last month that available diplomatic assignments worldwide would be cut by 10 percent because of severe staffing shortages.
To ensure that Baghdad, Kabul and several other priority embassies were filled, nearly one-quarter of diplomatic posts elsewhere had been left vacant.
Results of the survey will appear in this month's Foreign Service Journal, which focuses on post-traumatic stress disorder among diplomats after service in Iraq. Officers complained during a town meeting, held last fall to discuss the forced Iraq assignments, that State does not provide medical care for returning officers suffering from the disorder.
According to a survey conducted last year by the department's Office of Medical Services and its Family Liaison Office, more than one-fifth of respondents said they suffered from at least 10 of the 17 generally accepted symptoms of the disorder. State's initial review of the electronic survey, to which 877 of the 2,600 employees who had served "unaccompanied tours" between 2002 and 2007 responded, found that 17 percent may have the disorder.
Staff researcher Julie Tate contributed to this report.