US State Department inspector excoriates IT and staffing weaknesses

By on 28/01/2020
The State Department aims to increase civil service hiring by about 7%, and says it is taking steps to improve retention and recruitment. (Photo courtesy: NCinDC/flickr).

The US Department of State continues to face major management and performance challenges, many of which overlap and cause “unique vulnerabilities”, according to a report by the Office of Inspector General (OIG) released last week.

Challenges such as longstanding information security weaknesses, “which put every other function at risk”, are compounded by staffing gaps, high turnover, poor leadership, and inexperienced and undertrained employees, according to the OIG report.

It is the latest in a long line of reports that have drawn attention to the department’s deficiencies. While the OIG noted that the department has made progress in addressing such challenges, many persist. Information and security management, it said, is a particular concern.

“Numerous control weaknesses… affected programme effectiveness and increased the department’s vulnerability to cyberattacks and threats,” it said.

According to the OIG, the department hasn’t fully implemented its risk management strategy; the IT leadership structure has prevented the department’s CIO from being properly accountable for information security issues; and there are continuing issues related to developing, testing, and training employees on IT contingency planning at overseas posts.

Difficulty maintaining staffing levels

The report also pointed to difficulties in maintaining staffing levels and in ensuring that staff are suitably qualified and trained. The staffing issue was compounded by a department-wide hiring freeze, which continued for 13 months after a federal employee hiring freeze – introduced by president Trump and itself lasting 18 months – had ended.

The OIG found that this not only prevented the agency from bringing in new personnel, but also disrupted training and professional development programmes.

In addition, an OIG survey found that all bureaus and offices, and 97% of embassies and consulates, reported that the hiring freeze had negatively affected employee morale and welfare.

“Employees told OIG that the hiring freeze contributed to excessive workloads, and the lack of transparency about the objectives intended to be achieved by the hiring freeze caused some to be concerned about losing their jobs,” the OIG said.       

In its response to the OIG’s findings, the State Department said it aims to increase civil service hiring by about 7%, and that it is taking steps to improve retention and recruitment.

Pervasive management issues

Workforce management issues are another major concern. The OIG described these as “pervasive, affecting programmes and operations domestically and overseas and across functional areas and geographic regions”.

At the US embassy in the Bahamas, for example, three key leadership positions remained unfilled for long periods. Indeed, the embassy has been without a permanent, confirmed ambassador since November 2011. Meanwhile, at the Office of Foreign Missions (OFM), the acting director held three leadership positions – employees described him as “overburdened and overwhelmed” – and the OIG found that while some OFM staff had more work than they could complete, others did not have enough.

Elsewhere, staff have complained of bad treatment by their managers. For example, a report on leadership within the Bureau of International Organization Affairs revealed numerous complaints, including “allegations of disrespectful and hostile treatment of employees, unmerited accusations of disloyalty, and retaliation based on conflicts of interest”.  

Other key areas in which the department faces significant challenges include financial management; the protection of US diplomats abroad; crisis and contingency planning; oversight of contracts, grants, and foreign assistance; and promoting accountability through internal coordination and clear lines of authority.  

“OIG encourages the department to consider ways that specific recommendations might be applied broadly to make systemic improvements that will result in meaningful and permanent change,” the report concludes.

About Mia Hunt

Mia is a journalist and editor with a background in covering commercial property, having been market reports and supplements editor at trade title Property Week and deputy editor of Shopping Centre magazine, now known as Retail Destination. She has also undertaken freelance work for several publications including the preview magazine of international trade show, MAPIC, and TES Global (formerly the Times Educational Supplement) and has produced a white paper on energy efficiency in business for E.ON. Between 2014 and 2016, she was a member of the Revo Customer Experience Committee and an ACE Awards judge. Mia graduated from Kingston University with a first-class degree in journalism and was part of the team that produced The River newspaper, which won Publication of the Year at the Guardian Student Media Awards in 2010.

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