The State Department's Transparency Problem

The State Department's Transparency Problem

The State Department is reluctant to share information. Over the last few years, we’ve seen incomplete and painfully slow compliance with congressional subpoenas and stubborn refusals to answer questions from journalists. The department has even blocked the release of documents sought under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

But State’s unreliable commitment to transparency extends beyond protecting its reputation or playing partisan games. I reached this conclusion during a recent effort to research historical employment trends at the department.

On the surface, State appears very transparent. In the appendix to its annual Congressional Budget Justification, it publishes lots of verbiage, numbers, and details on its resources, including Civil Service and Foreign Service employees. However, these details are spread throughout the document, with information on different bureaus and offices contained in different sections, making it difficult to tell whether the data are complete. This is key, because in recent years, the State Department has not publicly provided details on the exact total number of its employees.

The closest tally is provided in Appendix 1:

The Department operates more than 275 embassies, consulates, and other posts worldwide staffed by nearly 46,000 Foreign Service Nationals and almost 13,700 Foreign Service employees. ... A Civil Service corps of roughly 11,000 employees provides continuity and expertise in performing all aspects of the Department’s mission.

While informative, the data are rounded and presented in general terms. This also occurs in the State Department’s FY 2015 Agency Financial Report, which provides only a bar graph of State Department employees in the thousands with no specific totals.

Seeking an alternative source, I went to the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, which maintains the “FedScope” database on all civilian employment for the federal government. But the FedScope data for the Department of State only raised more questions. For instance, although employment data for other cabinet level agencies were available, FedScope reported no State Department employment data in September 2015. In September 2014, FedScope reported that State only had 23 employees in foreign countries, which is obviously incorrect. Strangely, this inaccuracy occurred in every year back to 2006.

When asked about these discrepancies, OPM responded: “The reason for the drop in the numbers is because the State Department stopped providing data on Foreign Service Personnel in March 2006. The State Department has all together stopped providing us with any data since June 2015.”

It was not always this way. The State Department’s FY 2005 Performance and Accountability Report provides detailed data on the total employment of Foreign Service Nationals, Foreign Service, and Civil Service. Then, State reported that it had 28,294 full-time permanent employees, including 8,964 Foreign Service Nationals, 11,238 Foreign Service, and 8,092 Civil Service employees.

An inquiry to the State Department asking for similar specific data for more recent years was puzzling and frustrating. The department provided more information for 2015 when I asked, though not at the level of detail provided in the 2005 report. The exact same data for other years were available only through a FOIA request.

Capitol Hill staffers report that the State Department has been similarly reluctant to provide them with this type of employment and personnel data. To my knowledge, State has provided no reason for the decision to stop providing overall employment data in its public documents or, shockingly, to other parts of the federal government whose mission and responsibilities involve federal employment matters.

Privacy and security concerns are not plausible. After all, the data are simply aggregates. Individual information is not provided. Moreover, other parts of the federal government involved in national security, including the Department of Defense, provide employment data to OPM.

It is possible, although hard to believe, that the State Department actually does not possess this information. Any institution with a payroll should be able to provide aggregate employment numbers for various broad employment categories. If the State Department does not possess or cannot provide this basic information, it would indicate disturbing managerial incompetence.

Most likely the State Department simply does not want to share this information. This secretiveness seems to be a cultural problem at the State Department.

If this is true, it raises troubling concerns. First, this opacity impedes the efforts of Congress to fulfill its oversight responsibilities, particularly efforts to reform, restructure, or modernize the State Department.

More fundamentally, however, it undermines trust. Why should Congress or the American public trust that the State Department is being forthright on controversial or politically charged matters like the Iran deal, Benghazi, or climate negotiations when it won’t even share something as common, basic, and non-political as employment data?

Brett Schaefer is the Heritage Foundation’s Jay Kingham Senior Research Fellow in International Regulatory Affairs.

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