The 10-year-old office has done good work, the inspector general found, but suffers from staff turnover and a lack of strategic vision.
The State Department’s lead office for advising the agency on domestic and international science and technology issues has had some success over the last decade. But constant turnover at every level and lack of a concrete strategy for the office have made it less effective.
The Office of the Science and Technology Adviser, or STAS, created in 2000, established the position of Science and Technology Adviser to the Secretary, or S&T Adviser, charged with offering guidance, context and leadership to the secretary of state “on foreign policy implications of science, technology, and research and development issues,” according to an audit by the agency’s inspector general.
While the adviser was designed to offer top-level advice to State Department leadership, the office reports to the undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment.
The office’s internal strategy document cites two goals for the program:
- Advance foreign policy objectives through increased use of science, technology and innovation tools.
- Increase scientific and technological capacity at the State Department by leveraging the scientific community and through internal capacity-building.
Overall, the S&T adviser has been an asset for State, the report found, though a failure to develop implementation plans and constant turnover has hampered those efforts.
“OIG found STAS played an important role in advancing the U.S. government’s science and technology agenda through its diplomatic engagement on a wide range of complex, rapidly changing issues, including AI, next generation telecommunications, biotechnology and international data standards,” the IG wrote. “In particular, department officials praised the acting S&T adviser’s work to improve coordination on AI policy, including hosting a weekly AI small group meeting and delineating responsibilities between different action offices.”
The report highlights some specific wins, such as working with other federal and international programs to “advance the candidacy of the United States as the new host of the World Data System’s International Program Office.”
But those efforts were not done within the purview of an implementation plan, without which the office can’t properly measure its performance.
“Without internal evaluations or performance management plans, STAS leadership was unable to gauge the effectiveness of its internal processes and make the data-informed decisions needed to properly manage the office,” the report states. “The absence of a structure for performance assessment and analysis, coupled with STAS staff’s infrequent use of its [Functional Bureau Strategy], decreased STAS’s ability to monitor and adjust its major projects to advance the department’s science and technology mission.”
The lack of a strong plan also made it difficult for the office to coordinate with other State Department programs, such as the previously established Regional Environmental, Scientific, Technology and Health Officers program.
Turnover has been a significant issue for the nine-person office.
“At the time of the inspection, only two STAS employees had been in STAS longer than 18 months, and three of STAS’s nine staff members left the office in February 2021,” the report states.
The problem goes all the way to the top.
“OIG assessed STAS leadership … However, OIG’s assessment was limited because the office’s leadership positions were either not filled or were in the process of turning over during the inspection,” the report states.
The former S&T adviser left the office in December 2020, just before the IG began its review. Then, two months later, while the deputy adviser was serving in the acting role, that official left, leaving a newly appointed deputy to take their place in an acting capacity.
“OIG found that this type of leadership turnover was not unusual for STAS—the office had been led by four S&T advisers or acting S&T advisers in the past four years—and it created leadership challenges,” the IG wrote. “These challenges included unclear supervisory roles within STAS and the lack of a fully implemented Equal Employment Opportunity program for the office.”
The lack of stable leadership trickled down to the rest of the organization, including a lack of clarity in supervisory roles.
The office also lacked key staff roles, such as a contracting officer representative to manage procurements.
The IG made five recommendations for improving the program:
- The office should develop and communicate to staff a plan to implement its Functional Bureau Strategy in accordance with department standards.
- The office should develop, implement and train staff on coordination and clearance procedures in accordance with department guidelines.
- The office, in coordination with the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, should develop procedures that delineate and deconflict the roles and responsibilities of both Regional Technology Officers and Regional Environmental, Science, Technology and Health Officers in accordance with department guidelines.
- The office, in coordination with the Offices of the Under Secretary for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment, the Deputy Secretary of State, and the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources, should submit a statement of its policy areas of responsibilities in accordance with department standards.
- The office should nominate a qualified Contracting Officer’s Representative for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and Jefferson Science Fellowship contracts.
STAS officials agreed with all five and offered action plans to complete all five by the end of 2021.