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Hearing highlights need for Foreign Service training, lack of congressional interest

By Joe Davidson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 8, 2011; 10:30 PM

At a time when some North African and Middle East states are in chaos and America is posting large numbers of civilians in war zones, the United States is sending Foreign Service officers abroad poorly equipped to deal with the critical situations they face.

That's the takeaway of a report by the American Academy of Diplomacy and the Stimson Center, which was discussed at a congressional hearing Tuesday.

"There is little question that under-investment in diplomacy over the last decade or so has left our Foreign Service overstretched and under prepared," the report says.

Yet, despite the gravity of the situation, the hearing had a distinct lack of urgency. The poor attendance by senators was indicative of scant attention too often provided issues involving federal employees - except, of course, when they can be convenient whipping boys.

Former ambassador Ronald E. Neumann, president of the academy, supplied a shot of energy when he told the hearing that "our government lacks sufficient trained Arabic-language-speaking officers to fully understand and assess what is happening - to go beyond the glib, English-speaking reporters in Tahrir Square to take the full measure of what Islamists, younger people, the demonstrators and the jobless are saying off camera."

"We lack these capacities because for years the Department of State has lacked the resources to train enough officers in language skills," he said.

Although the hearing focused on Foreign Service officers, training is a universal issue in the federal workplace and often among the first items to be cut. For State Department workers - and the nation - it's also a matter of national security.

In a forward to the report, Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser to presidents Gerald R. Ford and George H.W. Bush, said the study "emphasizes that on-the-job training alone is no longer a sufficient method, if it ever was, to develop a US diplomatic service that is second to none."

The Senate federal workforce subcommittee hearing was chaired by Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii). He was alone on the dais, except for a brief appearance by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.). The top Republican on the panel, Sen. Ronald H. Johnson (Wis.), was a no-show because, he said, he attended a Budget Committee hearing.

Coburn arrived a half-hour late, told witnesses to expect even less money for staffing and training, and was gone in about eight minutes. He asked no questions.

It was a far cry from the days when Akaka and former senator George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) operated as a team. Voinovich, who was the ranking Republican on the panel when he retired in January, was deeply involved in the subcommittee. He and Akaka often worked closely on legislation affecting federal employees.

Akaka doesn't have that kind of a partner now.

Coburn's single focus was saving money. He dismissed State's plans for a 25 percent Foreign Service increase by 2014, saying, "It's not going to be ramped up because we don't have the money to do it."

About overseas locality pay for Foreign Service officers, Coburn said: "It's going to go away. People ought to be expecting that."

If budget-cutters slash already meager training budgets, the result will be less effective government, said Max Stier, president of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. (The group has a content-sharing relationship with The Washington Post.)

"It's amazing that in the same government, we have two vastly different models for investing in talent," Stier said in a telephone interview.

The military makes enormous investments in training, he said, but the civilian side of the government does very little. "Clearly the military has the right answer."

Even if plans to boost State Department staffing are fulfilled, the academy says, the surge "will not be enough" unless accompanied by better training. "If America intends to be known for the quality and effectiveness of its diplomacy, we must sustain traditional skills and develop more broadly new capabilities demanded in an increasingly complex international environment."

The report makes a series of recommendations, including a year of advanced study for Foreign Service officers before they are promoted to the senior ranks.

"Professional education and training are essential to raise the overall level of performance of our Foreign Service," the report says.

The Government Accountability Office also released a report on State Department training at the hearing. The GAO report says that State "has taken many steps" to increase training but that "the department's strategic approach to workforce training could be improved in several key areas."

For example, State offers guidance for employees on training opportunities and career paths, the GAO says, but "the guidance does not provide complete and accurate information."

The department also "could not sufficiently demonstrate consistent and appropriate support for training," according to the GAO.

The GAO report does not look at language training, the agency said, because its September 2009 study called for a comprehensive State plan to address "persistent foreign language shortfalls."

State has told the GAO that it has taken steps to improve language training.

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