Foreign Assistance:

USAID Needs to Improve Its Strategic Planning to Address Current and Future Workforce Needs

GAO-10-496: Published: Jun 30, 2010. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2010.

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The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) oversees U.S. foreign assistance programs in more than 100 countries. In 2003, GAO recommended that USAID develop a comprehensive workforce planning system to better identify its staffing needs and requirements. Key principles for effective strategic workforce planning are important to an agency's ability to carry out its mission. GAO examined (1) changes in USAID's workforce and program funding since 2004, (2) the extent to which it has developed a strategic workforce plan, (3) the efforts it has taken to implement two key human capital initiatives, and (4) the challenges and constraints that affect its workforce planning and management. To conduct the work, GAO analyzed staffing and program funding data; reviewed documentation related to the agency's workforce planning; and interviewed officials in Washington, D.C., and at six overseas missions selected to obtain an appropriate mix of geographic coverage, programs, and workforce size and composition.

USAID's workforce declined 2.7 percent from 2004 to 2009. While the decline is primarily due to decreases in the number of U.S. and foreign national personal services contractors, these staff continue to comprise the majority of USAID's workforce. Over the same period USAID's program funding increased 92 percent to $17.9 billion. USAID also faces some workforce gaps and vacancies at the six missions visited by GAO. Mission officials cited recruiting difficulties and the need for staff in priority countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as factors contributing to these vacancies. According to mission officials, it is not uncommon for positions to remain vacant for a lengthy period. During this time staff may assume multiple responsibilities and accept additional workload, which present some challenges in the agency's ability to manage and oversee its activities. For example, workforce gaps and heavy workload may limit mission staff's ability to travel to the field to monitor and evaluate the implementation of projects. USAID's 5-year workforce plan for fiscal years 2009 through 2013 discusses the agency's challenges and the steps it has taken and plans to take to strengthen its workforce. However, the plan lacks several key elements that GAO has identified as critical to strategic workforce planning. For example, the plan generally does not include a major portion of USAID's workforce--U.S. and foreign national personal services contractors. In particular, it is not comprehensive in its analysis of workforce and competency gaps and the staffing levels that the agency requires to meet its program needs and goals. USAID has taken actions to implement two key initiatives specified in its workforce plan--a workforce planning model and expansion of its Foreign Service--but it generally lacks documented plans to help ensure they are implemented successfully. For example, USAID implemented the workforce planning model to project its workforce and budgetary needs, but it has not developed plans for providing all missions comprehensive information about the model and its projections to inform missions of how it will affect their workforce planning. In addition, USAID has not fully met its Foreign Service hiring targets nor developed plans for how it will meet its hiring goals, and it has not planned the required overseas training assignments for all new hires to help ensure that missions have the necessary resources and mentors. USAID faces several challenges in its workforce planning and management. First, USAID lacks a sufficiently reliable and comprehensive system to record the number, location, and occupation of its staff. Second, according to mission officials, operating in an uncertain environment with shifting program priorities and funding can make it difficult to ensure that missions have the staff available with the necessary skills when needed. Third, the processes USAID must use to plan for the placement of its overseas staff require coordination with State; however, USAID has not consistently developed and shared its plans for the numbers and specific locations for these assignments. GAO recommends that USAID take several actions to develop more comprehensive workforce plans and improve its workforce data. USAID concurred with GAO's findings and recommendations.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve USAID's capacity to effectively and strategically plan and manage its entire workforce, the Administrator of USAID should develop a comprehensive workforce plan that takes into account USAID's total workforce, including nondirect-hire staff. The workforce plan should include analysis of overall workforce and competency gaps and the steps the agency plans to take to address these gaps.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: USAID concurred with our findings and recommendation. As of August 2014, USAID provided us the "USAID Five-Year Workforce Plan, fiscal years 2011-2015," dated December 2010, but the plan lacks a comprehensive analysis of the competencies of the agency's total direct-hire and nondirect-hire staff and does not include information about specific actions the agency plans to take to address workforce or competency gaps. In its June 2010 agency comments to GAO-10-496, USAID indicated that it was developing a comprehensive, automated competency management system and expected that it would be completely operational by fiscal year 2013. While USAID's workforce plan for fiscal years 2011 to 2015 discusses the agency?s efforts to develop its comprehensive workforce planning model and an automated competency management system and notes that the agency has finalized competencies for Foreign Service and Civil Service staff, the workforce plan does not provide an analysis of workforce and competency gaps for these direct-hire staff. In addition, the workforce plan notes that the agency is still in the process of developing competencies for nondirect-hire foreign service national personal services contractor staff to identify competency gaps across occupational groups.

    Recommendation: To improve USAID's capacity to effectively and strategically plan and manage its entire workforce, the Administrator of USAID should develop a documented implementation plan with time frames to execute the agency's workforce planning model initiative. The plan should include steps to be taken to provide comprehensive information about the model and its projections to all missions to help ensure that the staffing projections are reasonable and that missions are informed of how the model will affect their workforce planning.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USAID concurred with the recommendation. In response, in June 2011 USAID developed a documented plan outlining the actions USAID has taken and planned to take to develop and implement the agency's workforce planning model. The plan includes includes phased time frames to develop and implement a web-based tool to disseminate information about the model and its projections. According to USAID officials, as of June 2012, the workforce planning model has been presented to all regions, missions, and many bureaus and the web-based tool is available to all USAID staff members. Using the tool, regions, missions, and bureaus are able to review the model's projections by location and operating unit, as well as by types of personnel. In addition, some Department of State personnel involved in U.S. mission right sizing have access to the model's staffing projections through the web-based tool. USAID has also developed several aids to help staff understand the model, including a user guide.

    Recommendation: To improve USAID's capacity to effectively and strategically plan and manage its entire workforce, the Administrator of USAID should develop a documented, comprehensive implementation plan to execute USAID's initiative for the hiring of new Foreign Service officers. The implementation plan should include elements such as time frames, implementation actions, and resource requirements, and specify (1) the steps to be taken to meet the agency's overall hiring goals and its targets for specific occupational categories, and (2) a process for determining the number, location, and time frames for additional newly hired trainee staff assigned to each overseas mission.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USAID concurred with the recommendation. In response, in fiscal year 2012 USAID developed a tactical plan to estimate the number of new positions needed each year by occupational category under the DLI program for 2012 and 2013. The plan includes estimates of the overseas locations for 708 Foreign Service officers hired under the DLI program. USAID's tactical plan takes into account multiple variables, including the number and locations of new positions each year by occupational category, USAID's tactical plan takes into account multiple variables, including the number of current staff in each country for each occupational category, and the number of new Foreign Service officers available for each occupational category by year to estimate the number and locations of new positions needed by occupational category each year. According to USAID, the agency has used this tactical plan in its budgeting process, including its funding for fiscal year 2013, to help ensure resource requirements for the deployments are met.

    Recommendation: To improve USAID's capacity to effectively and strategically plan and manage its entire workforce, the Administrator of USAID should develop a workforce data system to consistently collect, maintain, and analyze sufficiently reliable and up-to-date data on the staff levels of direct hire and nondirect-hire staff, including institutional support contractors.

    Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USAID agreed with the recommendation and stated in comments on the report that developing a human resources system with reliable data was a pressing need for the agency. In response to the recommendation, USAID officials stated that the agency migrated to a new human resources data system. According to these officials, in June 2012, USAID conducted an assessment to collect information about the agency's human resources information technology system requirements. USAID conducted a comparison of available service providers in order to select a new data system. USAID chose an information technology system operated by the Department of Treasury to record USAID's human resource functions and data for agency personnel, according to officials. The Department of the Treasury's system incorporates data and information on the agency's recruitment of staff, staff levels, and staff competencies. The system records these data for the agency's direct-hire and nondirect-hire employees, including institutional contractors, and officials stated that USAID uses it to conduct succession planning, performance management, and workforce analyses. The system allows users, including USAID bureaus and missions, to update staffing data as needed. USAID officials stated that the agency has found through a series of tests that the new data system is more reliable and will resolve many data reliability problems that existed under the former system. USAID's goal is to complete its migration to the new data system in 2013.

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