Department of Homeland Security:

DHS Needs to Comprehensively Assess Its Foreign Language Needs and Capabilities and Identify Shortfalls

GAO-10-714: Published: Jun 22, 2010. Publicly Released: Jul 29, 2010.

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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has a variety of responsibilities that utilize foreign language capabilities, including investigating transnational criminal activity and staffing ports of entry into the United States. GAO was asked to study foreign language capabilities at DHS. GAO's analysis focused on actions taken by DHS in three of its largest components--the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Specifically, this report addresses the extent to which DHS has (1) assessed its foreign language needs and existing capabilities and identified any potential shortfalls and (2) developed foreign language programs and activities to address potential foreign language shortfalls. GAO analyzed DHS documentation on foreign language capabilities, interviewed DHS officials, and assessed workforce planning in three components that were selected to ensure broad representation of law enforcement and intelligence operations. While the results are not projectable, they provide valuable insights.

DHS has taken limited actions to assess its foreign language needs and existing capabilities and to identify potential shortfalls. GAO and the Office of Personnel Management have developed strategic workforce guidance that recommends, among other things, that agencies (1) assess workforce needs, such as foreign language needs; (2) assess current competency skills; and (3) compare workforce needs against available skills. However, DHS has done little at the department level, and individual components' approaches to addressing foreign language needs and capabilities and assessing potential shortfalls have not been comprehensive. Specifically: (1) DHS has no systematic method for assessing its foreign language needs and does not address foreign language needs in its Human Capital Strategic Plan. DHS components' efforts to assess foreign language needs vary. For example, the Coast Guard has conducted multiple assessments, CBP's assessments have primarily focused on Spanish language needs, and ICE has not conducted any assessments. By conducting a comprehensive assessment, DHS would be better positioned to capture information on all of its needsand could use this information to inform future strategic planning. (2) DHS has no systematic method for assessing its existing foreign language capabilities and has not conducted a comprehensive capabilities assessment. DHS components have developed various lists of foreign language capable staff that are available in some offices, primarily those that include a foreign language award program for qualified employees. Conducting an assessment of all of its capabilities would better position DHS to manage its resources. (3) DHS and its components have not taken actions to identify potential foreign language shortfalls. DHS officials stated that shortfalls can affect mission goals and officer safety. By using the results of needs and capabilities assessments to identify foreign language shortfalls, DHS would be better positioned to develop actions to mitigate shortfalls, execute its various missions that involve foreign language speakers, and enhance the safety of its officers and agents. DHS and its components have established a variety of foreign language programs and activities but have not assessed the extent to which they address potential shortfalls. Coast Guard, CBP, and ICE have established foreign language programs and activities, which include foreign language training and award payments. These programs and activities vary, as does DHS's ability to use them to address shortfalls. For example, foreign language training programs generally do not include languages other than Spanish, and DHS officials were generally unaware of the foreign language programs in DHS's components. Given this variation and decentralization, conducting a comprehensive assessment of the extent to which its programs and activities address shortfalls could strengthen DHS's ability to manage its foreign language programs and activities and to adjust them, if necessary. GAO recommends that DHS comprehensively assess its foreign language needs and capabilities and identify potential shortfalls, assess the extent to which existing foreign language programs are addressing foreign language shortfalls, and ensure that these assessments are incorporated into future strategic planning. DHS generally concurs with the recommendations.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In June 2010, we reported that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) had taken limited actions to assess its foreign language needs and existing capabilities and to identify potential shortfalls. At the time of our report, DHS had done little at the department level, and individual components' approaches to addressing foreign language needs and capabilities and assessing potential shortfalls had not been comprehensive. We recommended that DHS (1) comprehensively assess DHS's foreign language needs and capabilities and identify potential shortfalls, (2) assess the extent to which existing foreign language programs and activities address foreign language shortfalls, and (3) ensure that the results of these foreign language assessments are incorporated into the department's future strategic and workforce planning documents. In response, DHS convened a Joint Language Task Force (JLTF), which first met on September 2, 2010, and issued a report, signed by the DHS Chief Learning Officer, in November 2011 with recommendations addressing the department's foreign language needs. According to DHS officials, the recommendations were developed on the basis of data calls of component foreign language needs conducted in 2010 and 2011. Based on these data calls, DHS identified that, as of November 2011, Spanish was the only high-density foreign language requirement that has significant impact upon DHS employee training requirements and its resources. DHS also incorporated assessed needs for foreign languages into the department's Workforce Strategy for FYs 2011-2016. At the time, DHS officials reported that the data calls would be conducted every other year, with the next update planned in fiscal year 2013. In April 2014, GAO learned that DHS had introduced a modified approach to its proposed actions in response to our report. Most significantly, DHS officials stated that no additional data calls would be conducted to assess its foreign language needs. Instead, DHS language needs would be met through a newly developed DHS Language Access Plan (LAP) and the language services acquisition initiative, which focus on providing DHS services to clients with limited English language proficiency. DHS's efforts to assess its foreign language shows progress toward addressing our recommendation. However, additional work remains to comprehensively identify shortfalls in addressing foreign language needs and fully address our recommendation. In particular, our June 2010 report notes that components' efforts to assess their foreign language needs are varied and not comprehensive. DHS's approach to addressing this recommendation did not require components to take further action to consistently and comprehensively assess their language needs prior to responding to data calls. As such, DHS cannot reasonably assure that data collected subsequent to our report are complete and accurate, and reasonably capture previously missing information. While DHS has studied the issue in greater depth and identified planned actions on how to proceed, DHS will need to take additional steps to reliably and comprehensively assess their language needs and develop plans accordingly to satisfy our recommendation. We will continue to monitor DHS's ongoing actions to implement our recommendation.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that DHS can identify its foreign language capabilities needed and pursue strategies that will help its workforce effectively communicate to achieve agency goals, the Secretary of Homeland Security should (1) comprehensively assess DHS's foreign language needs and capabilities and identify potential shortfalls, (2) assess the extent to which existing foreign language programs and activities address foreign language shortfalls, and (3) ensure that the results of these foreign language assessments are incorporated into the department's future strategic and workforce planning documents.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

 

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