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Language proficiency is Foreign Service's 'greatest challenge,' Negroponte says

Former U.S. Ambassadors Edward W. Gnehm Jr. and John D. Negroponte at the forum on issues facing the Foreign Service.
Former U.S. Ambassadors Edward W. Gnehm Jr. and John D. Negroponte at the forum on issues facing the Foreign Service. (Francesca Kelly/american Foreign Service Association)

But the GAO also reported that Foreign Service officers have a different take on the problem.

"Another challenge is the widely held perception among Foreign Service officers that State's promotion system does not consider time spent in language training when evaluating officers for promotion, which may discourage officers from investing the time required to achieve proficiency in certain languages," the report said. "Although HR officials dispute this perception, the department has not conducted a statistically significant assessment of the impact of language training on promotions."

The second challenge cited by Negroponte is the need for State to provide a mix of policies and incentives "in order to optimize the deployment of officers and their families for a substantial majority of their careers."

Last year, President Obama took an important step in making international postings more attractive when he signed legislation that begins to close a pay gap for Foreign Service officers, who do not get locality pay as do other federal employees.

Without that law, Negroponte said, there was a "perverse incentive" for Foreign Service officers to serve in the United States. He advocated greater employment opportunities for spouses of officers abroad -- "that effort has faltered at various times" -- and a reduction in postings to which officers can't take their families. At least, he said, State should "find ways of compensating for that problem."

In another report, the GAO said, "State uses a range of incentives to staff hardship posts, but their effectiveness remains unclear." Despite some progress, the GAO said persistent staffing gaps continue to be a problem.

The GAO made clear to Congress the stark result of these deficiencies: "State's diplomatic readiness remains at risk."


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