The Biden administration is slowly making progress in rebuilding the State Department after being “destroyed” by its predecessor, a senior official told lawmakers on Tuesday, but ongoing shortcomings still prevent the agency from meeting the president’s goals.
The state is adding new staff and providing new opportunities for existing staff to improve their skills, Brian McKean, deputy secretary of the Department of Management and Resources, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as he seeks to fill vacancies that were vacant. during the Trump administration. With a reduction of more than 10% in four years, the state saw the second-largest drop in President Trump’s workforce, lagging only behind the education department.
The department is focusing on its consulate, which has suffered particularly heavy losses, as it is largely financed by fees and revenues have fallen sharply during the COVID-19 pandemic. While Congress has provided some direct appropriations to make up for the shortfall, the state is only now digging out its accumulated work as travel resumes and the office rebuilds its coffers. Consular issues responsible for issuing passports and visas, as well as protecting Americans overseas, are still understaffed, McCain said, but is “trying to recover.”
The state increased its staff at Passport Services last summer, when the backlog reached 2 million and the waiting time for non-accelerated processing reached 18 weeks. Routine processing time has already been reduced to 11 weeks at the upper end.
The department is also working on internal recruitment in its Refugee Reception Program, as well as funding private sector partners who have shut down Trump because of a lack of resources. However, McKean said the service lacked the resources needed to meet Biden’s goal of resettling 125,000 refugees in fiscal 2022.
“We have a lot of recovery to do because the program was destroyed by the previous administration,” McKean said. “The president has set us an ambitious goal. We will not achieve it this year, but we must make progress so that we can achieve it in the next few years. “
In its budget for fiscal 2023, the Refugee Resettlement Service of the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking $ 6.3 billion. That would nearly triple the agency’s 2021 budget. US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the Home Office agency that interviews refugee applicants abroad, is in the midst of hiring thousands after its budget triples. McCain said these new resources will help achieve Biden’s goal in the future.
The administration has promised to accept hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and Afghans, but many will enter through special processes that are not part of the regular refugee program. As the administration struggles to withdraw its evacuation initiative from Afghanistan, McCain said her work has helped rebuild the network of resettlement organizations.
Secretary of State Anthony Blinken recently told lawmakers that his department has already included 179 FSOs this year and is keeping pace with the largest annual number of employees in a decade. Last week, the State announced it was reviewing the FSO recruitment process so as not to emphasize the importance of the written test that all applicants must take in hopes of expanding their talent. The state has also set up an “employee retention unit,” which McCain says will allow the department to better understand why people stay and leave as it prepares its first department-wide retention strategy. The state also increases its opportunities for professional development by stimulating or requiring training in areas such as cybersecurity, STEM, health and climate issues.
As the state seeks to increase its workforce, it also weighs when and how to deploy employees in dangerous situations. The department plans to return employees to Ukraine who were evacuated in February by the end of the month, McCain said. It has significantly “reduced” its presence in Shanghai as the region has come under severe pandemic blockades. McKean admitted that some government personnel in China were forced to enter “hospitals with fever” after a positive COVID-19 test, and in one case an employee was nearly separated from a child after the child tested positive.