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

By Joe Davidson
Thursday, April 8, 2010; B03

The site at 21st and E streets NW once was a favorite watering hole for State Department employees seeking something harder than the soft drinks offered in the agency's cafeteria.

Workers from State still meet at that location, presumably for more lofty deliberations than those found in most saloons. The American Foreign Service Association owned the Foreign Service Club, but decided to get out of the restaurant and bar business years ago. In that recently renovated space it sponsored a sober discussion Wednesday on challenges facing Foreign Service officers. AFSA did offer chocolates wrapped in the association's shield, but without booze to loosen up the dialogue, it might have been a far cry from the joint's livelier days.

The forum's main attraction was John Negroponte, who has served, sometimes in a storm of controversy, in a wide variety of foreign policy positions, including as the nation's first director of national intelligence. But neither foreign policy nor his controversies were on the minds of those who gathered to hear his take on some of the challenges they face as Foreign Service officers.

Although the quantity of State Department and Agency for International Development officers has increased steadily in recent years, serious gaps in their number and foreign language proficiency remain.

The "greatest challenge," according to Negroponte, is the need for officers who can speak the languages of the world.

"There is no substitute," said the multilingual Negroponte, "for recruiting, training, deploying, retaining and retraining," officers in languages and geography so they "develop the contacts, the knowledge, the insight, the local and area expertise" needed to help develop America's foreign policy.

But State isn't meeting that challenge well enough, according to the Government Accountability Office. In September, it said the department needs a comprehensive plan to address "persistent foreign language shortfalls."

According to the GAO, whose study was current as of October 2008, there are "notable gaps" in State's foreign language capabilities that "could hinder U.S. overseas operations."

Worse yet, some of those gaps are in super-critical countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Nearly one-third "of officers in all worldwide language-designated positions did not meet both the foreign language speaking and reading proficiency requirements for their positions, up slightly from 29 percent in 2005," the GAO reported. About 40 percent of officers in the Near East, South and Central Asia, China and places where Arabic is spoken are language-deficient.

As bad as the numbers are in those countries, the language skill set there is better than in America's war zones. In Iraq, 57 percent of Foreign Service officers lack sufficient language skills. Afghanistan trails far behind, with 73 percent unable to directly communicate with the country's people.

State Department officials told the GAO that the language gap could begin to close next year if it gets requested funding, but they did not say when they expect the language staffing requirements to be fully met.

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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