Homework for the Next Secretary of State: Revamping the Foreign Service

In November 2011, I posted an excerpt from an article in the Foreign Service Journal by Jon P. Dorschner * on Why the Foreign Service Should Be More Like the Army (see Why the FS Should Be More Like the Army — Esprit de Corps, Taking Care of Troops … Hey, That Includes EFMs, Right?). Below is his guest post on revamping the United States Foreign Service.  This is a good time to think about these things as the Foreign Service is facing unprecedented challenges.  Not just due to the graying workforce.  The Partnership for Public Service projected the 4,682 of State Department and USAID employees are retirement eligible in FY2012.  But also the exponential increase of hardship and unaccompanied assignments.  And by this time next year, there will be a new Secretary of State in Foggy Bottom.  Will he/she do the hard work of fixing all that’s not well in our diplomatic service? – DS

Revamping the Foreign Service

by Jon P. Dorschner, PhD

Identifying the Problems

In my November 2011 Speaking Out piece “Why the Foreign Service Should Be More Like the Army,” I laid out a number of institutional and cultural shortcomings that need to be addressed.  I noted that the Service lacks an Esprit de Corps and that within the Foreign Service culture there is little or no encouragement for supervisors to “take care of the troops,” and their families.

I also pointed out that Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) often have little or no sense of mission or purpose regarding the job they are performing, and that an egoistic obsession with status, hierarchy, assignments and promotions subordinates the mission to personal concerns.  As a result, there is a pervasive attitude that every officer should “look out for number one.”  Because of the internalized and all-pervasive emphasis on competition, FSOs often view their fellow officers as competitors rather than colleagues.  The Service becomes divided into “in groups” and “out groups,” “fast trackers” and “slow trackers.”  This makes it difficult to cooperate to achieve defined objectives.

These deeply engrained aspects of Foreign Service culture have developed over centuries.  I would argue that they are now completely out of date and have resulted in an organization more qualified to deal with the challenges of the 19th Century rather than the 21st.  To revamp the Foreign Service and make it into an effective organization that can best serve the national interests, these detrimental cultural practices will have to be eliminated or changed.  This will not take place, however, without a long-term and thorough rebuilding of a basic mindset that requires a lot of time, and most likely a change of generations.

Making Institutional Changes

While deeply rooted problems are difficult to overcome, the State Department can take steps to set the process in motion.  State Department management can begin by acknowledging that these shortcomings exist.  All too often, persons at the senior level are those who have made the effort to adjust to the system and have personally benefited from it.  Their natural inclination is to embrace the status quo and resist change.  This often involves denying that problems exist and instead decrying the naïve younger generation and blaming the problem on “complainers and misfits.”

As a result, the State Department’s periodic efforts at “reform” have often been met with a justified sense of cynicism.  To overcome this, State Department senior managers would have to express a determination to deal with deeply rooted problems by initiating necessary institutional changes.  Once the Department initiates institutional changes, it must follow through to ensure their actual implementation.  Far too often, the State Department announces ambitious reform programs, but fails to follow through once elites with vested interests begin to protest and pull their weight.  With determination, institutional changes will over the course of time become the new norms, and a new institutional culture will emerge.

Regional Specialization

The Foreign Service has long propagated the myth that we are all “generalists,” available for worldwide service.  At present, there are few Foreign Service Officers that do not have quite specific regional and functional specializations.  The current system does not sufficiently reward this specialization.  Regional specialization should no longer be discouraged but made a central tenet of a revamped Foreign Service.  To function well in extremely complex cultures FSOs must spend years mastering cultural subtleties and acquiring fluency in often-difficult languages.  Those who make the considerable effort to acquire these essential skills should be assured of reward.  The age of the Foreign Service generalist has long passed.  To be truly effective in today’s world, FSOs must have a regional specialization that requires them to acquire in-depth background, experience and linguistic skill.

Every officer should be certified in a region and formally assigned to the “home bureau” that oversees his/her region.  While he/she will naturally take occasional assignments outside of the region of specialization, especially while in Washington, this tie to the home bureau will be career long.  The majority of an officer’s assignments will be within his/her home bureau.

Every officer’s “home bureau” should be formally noted in his/her personnel file.  Regional specialization will be a common designation and will be an adjunct to the current conal designations.  Officers entering the service will be given a requisite amount of time to acquire regional specialization, including designated time for language and academic training at the Foreign Service Institute or within the region.  Regional specialization would have to be completed prior to tenure.

To gain regional specialization, an officer should earn a minimum 3/3 score on a regional language test, take specified classes on the region at FSI, and serve a requisite number of tours in the region.  Upon entry, officers would select their region of specialization.  Bureaus would be encouraged to recruit officers.  After the selection process is complete, the new officer would join his/her bureau and select initial assignments only in that region.

Rewards for Seniority

There is far too much individual focus by FSOs on winning the next promotion.  Too much time is spent trying to get promoted to the next highest rank to the detriment of diplomacy.  To put a stop to this obsession, the State Department should implement a three-track career path.  A small minority would state at the outset of their career that they aspire to join the Senior Foreign Service.  The vast majority would retire at FS1, and a small group would be selected out for poor performance.

To make this three-track system work, the State Department must guarantee tenured officers that they will retire at the grade of FS1 as long as they do not have a negative EER over the course of their career.  The State Department would do this by implementing a seniority system.  It would set specified limits for officers to remain in grade.  Once they reach the limit, they would be automatically promoted to the next highest grade if they did not have a negative EER in their file.

This will make explicit what is already informally acknowledged within the Foreign Service, that there are two classes of officers, those who aspire to the Senior Foreign Service and those who do not.  It would also acknowledge that not every officer intends to make the Foreign Service his/her sole career.  Officers would then self-select early, with those aspiring to the Senior Foreign Service quickly differentiating between their competitors, and those who do not “pose a threat.”  This would eliminate much of the tension generated by competition for promotion and make it easier for a collegial culture to develop that would allow officers to work together to solve problems.

The Senior Foreign Service would be limited formally to only five percent of total personnel.  Since FSOs would be informed upon entry that they have only a five percent chance of entering the senior ranks, and that they can expect to retire at FS1’s, they could make reasonably informed career decisions early in their careers.  This obvious transparency would also eliminate considerable uncertainty and anxiety.

The days when individuals spent their entire adult lives in one job are long gone.  The vast majority of individuals expect to pursue multiple careers over the course of their lives.  Those who aspire to join the Senior Foreign Service are making an unusual career choice that requires an inordinate amount of dedication and hard work.  The Foreign Service should acknowledge these realities and work to remove any stigma currently attached to those “on the slow track.”

We should retain the up or out system, but it should be applied only when officers show a consistent pattern of negative performance as documented in EER’s.  Officers who demonstrate such a pattern should be selected out regardless of their seniority.  Officers who have been promoted to FS1 on the basis of seniority and have too much time in grade will be required to retire and not allowed to compete for entry into the Foreign Service.  If all tenured officers have a reasonable expectation of retiring at the grade of FS1, they will no longer spend so much time lobbying for assignments and promotion and can concentrate on doing their job.

Rewards for Hardship

I would define a hardship post as those with a hardship differential of 20 percent or more.  A large number of the world’s countries fall into this category, including war zones and those posts that do not allow families.  No FSO can claim to have a viable view of today’s world without on the ground experience in a hardship post.

Any FSO who serves in a hardship post would be awarded points that give him/her a leg-up over those with no hardship service when bidding on their next post.  No officer would be promoted into the Senior Foreign Service who has not served in a hardship post.  Officers would not be allowed to serve more than six consecutive years in non-differential posts.  Likewise, any officer who has served six or more consecutive years in hardship posts should be guaranteed an assignment in a non-hardship post if he/she so desires.  These should be hard and fast rules that are spelled out to every officer the day he/she joins the Foreign Service.

At present those who serve most of their careers in regions with many hardship posts (Africa, Asia, Latin America) are not guaranteed an assignment in a non-differential post regardless of how many hardship tours they have under their belt.  At the same time, there are individuals who spend little or no time in hardship posts over the course of their career.  This is inherently unfair and cannot be allowed to continue.  Those interested in joining the Foreign Service should be told before applying that it will require hardship post service, with no exceptions.  Those who do not want to undertake such service would then be free to opt for another career.

Put An End to Lobbying

The lack of transparency in the assignments process is one of the biggest injustices currently plaguing the Foreign Service.  This is because most officers are now convinced that assignments are made on the basis of lobbying rather than qualification.  As a result, there is far too much emphasis on lobbying for the next assignment.  This encourages the cultivation of exclusive “clubs” that ensure choice assignments for their members, and keep well-qualified candidates from serving in highly desirable locations and jobs.  It would be easy to provide transparency.  Simply end the current practice of obtaining jobs through lobbying.

When bureaus are filling their assignments, they would make an initial short-list of applicants based solely on their written personnel files, the regional specialization of the candidate, and the points awarded the candidate for his/her hardship service.  Only after the short list has been determined, would the bureau interview the qualified candidates and select the best person for the assignment based on their ability to do the job.

At no point in the process would bidders be allowed to lobby the bureaus either in writing, by e-mail, or through phone calls.  No bidder would be allowed to have senior ranking officers make entreaties on his/her behalf to “rig the assignment.”  Bureaus would not be allowed to select candidates before the bidding season or to contact candidates before the short list has been determined.  Bureaus would not be allowed to talk about assignments with officers outside of the bidding season.  Officers who attempted to buck the system by ignoring these regulations would face disciplinary action, including notes in the personnel file.

In any case, the implementation of regional specialization and the formalization of all officers’ relationship with their home bureaus would take much of the anxiety out of the bidding season and make the assignment process much simpler and smoother.  Officers serving in their home bureau throughout their career would be known quantities.  Officers without regional certification would only be considered if there are no regionally certified bidders on the position.  No one would be allowed to serve in a language -designated position without the required language.  There would be no exceptions.

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About Jon P. Dorschner: A native of Tucson, Arizona, Jon P. Dorschner earned a PhD. in South Asian studies from the University of Arizona.  He currently teaches South Asian Studies and International Relations at his alma mater, and publishes articles and books on South Asian subjects. He was a career Foreign Service Officer for 27 years (1983 -2011).    A Political Officer, Dr. Dorschner’s career specialties were internal politics and political/military affairs.  He served in Germany, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, the United States Military Academy at West Point and Washington. From 2003-2007 he headed the Internal Politics Unit at the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi, India.  In 2007-2008 Dr. Dorschner completed a one-year assignment on an Italian Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Tallil, Iraq.  From 2009-2011 he served as an Economic Officer, in Berlin, Germany.

14 responses

  1. Well, I can’t claim to fully understand the lobbying/assignments process since I received every overseas job I’ve gotten until my current one because no one else wanted it (which is not to say necessarily that anyone else wanted this job). But at least that means my skepticism isn’t based on having benefited from the system!


    I’m not sure that the suggestion of regional specialization is fully compatible with the idea of rewards for hardship. As you (Jon L.) point out, people already de facto specialize, and the non-hardship posts aren’t evenly distributed.

    I’d agree that it’s good to be realistic about the chances of making the senior foreign service and to accept that a career that plateaus at FS 01 is a pretty good career (most civil servants at State never make it to GS15). Yes it’s good to recognize that some aspire to SFS and others do not – but is it good to lock into that decision early? I’m not in an A 100 class so I don’t know: are those who started their career ambitious the ones that end up making SFS? Is it really a self selection?

    It’s possible that the new career development checklist will encourage some self selection. For example, it would strike me as quite rationale for someone to say to themself “I don’t aspire to the SFS, so I will ignore these pleas to go to AIP.” I’m not sure at this point how challenging it will be to check enough boxes. (I suspect that your tour in Tallil checked several boxes.) If I recall correctly, the career development checklist does require service at a hardship post.

    Realistically, few generalists TIC out before FS01. So people may stress out about promotions, but most of us make it to that level. I haven’t noticed the hyper-competitiveness, but perhaps that’s because my time in Washington was as a civil servant and overseas my “competitors” are counterparts at other posts with whom I have limited interaction.

  2. I guess the Foreign Service is what you make of it. This article sounds like the grumblings of an unhappy officer looking back at a less-than-stellar career. While reading this, I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “Sometimes the promotion panels get it right…”

    • Dr. F – Thanks for your comment. You may be right — sometimes the promotion panels get it right … basing their decisions on the inflationary EERs of all “A” students. One of the world’s perplexing mystery, of course, is how the cream of the crop rises up to the top, when it’s all cream.

    • Dr. F. Rafael,

      in my piece i objectively and dispassionately laid out a series of substantive points. i did not include one word about myself. instead of addressing the substance, you attacked the author, the weakest form of argument.


  3. I apparently missed it the first time around, but can I say it was very difficult to get through the article as I couldn’t get past the apostrophe abuse? I do believe that the author meant “FSOs” vs. the “FSO’s” that permeated the article. Probably wrong, but the lack of respect for basic rules of this language really irks me. Now I’m kicking myself for not noticing sooner….

    Unless, of course, he is only concerned with one FSO…then it’s my mistake!

    • Grammatically and historically the traditional rule for apostrophes has been to use them for forming plurals with numbers, single letters, abbreviations or acronyms, and when pluralizing words where the word itself is used abstractly as a noun (e.g. do’s). How many A’s did you get in high school (or should it be As)? Taxiing and skiing have two consecutive i’s (or should it be is). Using an apostrophe makes it a little easier on the eyes when reading, no?

      Style guides typically suggest leaving the apostrophe out of dates (90’s vs. 90s) but almost always have a caveat saying that the apostrophe usage is no longer required (indicating that it once was and is still acceptable).


      • Mmm, no, I disagree. There is no other way to spell p or q, so you are simply setting apart. There is a more complete way to spell FSO, and it is being shortened for the ease of the writer. To me, the apostrophe acts as a speedbump and slows up my reading.

        One might also on occasion only be discussing one FSO. So should an appostrophe be used either way? It may look funny to some (but I doubt most), but FSOs clearly indicate a plural number of officers and is not confusing, where FSO’s indicates possession. Maybe it’s just me, but I doubt it….

  4. In the FS-1/FS-15 Leadership class (PT210), Colin Powell’s impact on the State Department is constantly brought up by employees. Number one; He took care of his people – even when it was hard. He implemented business class travel for more than 14 hours recognizing the negative effect traveling coach to far away posts was having on his employees. It comes up all the time. A rest stop is no alternative for a family of 4 traveling with 8 duffel bags and pet to a post 20+ hours away. That one change (and there were many) proved that he was going to take care of his employees.

    • I think folks still remember Powell’s changes. But the real challenge is making the change sticky. There was one where he asked that employees go home at regular quitting time, which was a nice change such that people actually get to have dinner together with their loved ones. Instead of staying at work late because other people will think badly of you if you leave at quitting time. He’s been gone awhile now, it would surprise me if folks especially at FB even go home at 5pm these days. He was shaped by the military culture, and blessed his heart, he tried to emulate that at State during his tenure.

      • When my husband was in the U.S. working at headquarters, he was required to have an 11 hour workday (6:45 a.m. – 5:45 p.m.). We don’t live that far away from Rosslyn, yet he still might not have been home until 6:30- 7:00 p.m. Mind you, that was a GOOD schedule with no travel!

        Quite honestly, the UT is so much easier, because we have far more time to talk, he is not exhausted from the commute and he gets the rest he needs without having to stay up for family time. Sad, sick and twisted, isn’t It?

        • J- We once lived at the end of the metro line, a 45-60 min commute. Hubby often get his “taskers” after 4pm, and never got out of the building before 6:30. I worked 9-6, and never home until after 7pm. The Chinese take out guy was very happy with us. Or we’d cook in bulk during the weekend and ate left overs the rest of the week. I don’t miss that at all.

          I’m glad you get to talk to Peter often enough.

          • Ooh, “taskers.” There’s a word I have not missed hearing 🙂 Yes, I am glad and we are basically doing well, but I worry about him. Working non-stop (he doesn’t get days off…good as he is busy and it’s OT, but still….). Just wish the family life was more valued in the FS…more and more (especially with the new tandem rules), it seems like the term “family friendly” has gone the way of the dodo.