Deaf, dumb and blind spooks

Buried in this story is a paragraph that made me blink:

The CIA recently reported that a small fraction of its overall workforce — about 13 percent — is fluent in a second language. Among officers of the agency’s National Clandestine Service, to which most foreign-deployed officers are assigned, the figure is about 30 percent.

Wait…this is a college-educated workforce, right – thirteen percent? Thirteen?

And – thirty percent? …not “the language of the country they’re working on”, any second language, including French and Spanish, which must be a large fraction. I guess if the Aussies or Canadians or Texans are up to something we’ll be on top of it in a flash, unless they’re counting Strine as foreign. And anyway, if people are plotting against us in Urdu or some damn hard language, it’ll just serve them right if we ignore them, let ’em wait their turn for the translator if they’re going to be difficult and stuffy like that.

UPDATE: A reader talks me down some: this problem may be part language skill deficiency and part administrivia/data resolution issues. If there are lots of people with effective command of useful languages out among the cubicles and the consulate basements who aren’t fluent enough for a pay bonus, can the system find them to do actual work? …or are their practical skills invisible to managers except by accident? Why is the pay system so lumpy and stingy with incentives?

Regarding this language issue 13% may not be real accurate. The standards for language proficiency and the testing process can produce some really skewed results. At DHS/ICE prior to my retirement in 2004 we used the DOS testing group. Applying the standards and following testing my colleague, born and educated through High School in Odessa, was not considered fluent in Russian and was not eligible for the incentive pay for language. Similarly some other colleagues who are native speakers of Spanish but illiterate in Spanish also failed to be certified. Based on this I never took the test as a speaker of French,German and Romanian even though we only speak primarily Romanian with a smattering of German at home. Its my opinion that some folks I worked with, myself included, couldn’t pass in English based on what I have heard.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.