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  I would argue that they are now completely out of date and have resulted in an organization more qualified to deal with the challenges of the 19th Century rather than the 21st.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.

* * *
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.

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Why the FS Should Be More Like the Army — Esprit de Corps, Taking Care of Troops … Hey, That Includes EFMs, Right?

The November 2011 issue of the Foreign Service Journal includes a Speaking Out column by Jon P. Dorschner on Why the Foreign Service Should Be More Like the Army. Don’t worry, it’s not about pumping more testosterone on the Service that’s already “deployed” as “boots on the ground” without uniforms in various “expeditionary” war zones.

Excerpts below on some basic ideas and concepts that he wrote could benefit the Foreign Service plus, our comments, of course! Mr. Dorschner recently retired from the Foreign Service after a 27-year career that included two years on the faculty at West Point, a year with a Provincial Reconstruction Team in Iraq, and a stint as political-military adviser in the Bureau of South Asian Affairs, among many other assignments. His last posting was as an economic officer in
Berlin.

Excerpts from Mr. Dorschner:

Esprit de Corps
[T]he social base of the Army is broad. Elites are largely absent, and personnel come from a wide variety of social backgrounds. In that sense, the Army is representative of the general American population. I have never heard esprit de corps mentioned in the Foreign Service context. Instead, the Foreign Service emphasizes individuality over collegiality, exclusivity over inclusiveness.

This is a hangover from its earlier history, when its membership was largely restricted to East Coast elites who were “male, pale and Yale.”
[…]
Yet class prejudices still linger and the Foreign Service often continues to connote elitism. What individual officers bring in the form of social class, elite education and family connections can still play a big role in placement and career advancement.

There are several fissures in the Foreign Service whether you want to acknowledge them or not. Just a sampling:

Foreign Service vs. the Civil Service. If you doubt that, read the rants here.

FS officers with their conal designations vs. the FS specialists and their specializations

Political cone officers vs. all other cone-officers

Consular Officers vs. “Just EFM” Consular Associates

Eligible Family Members vs. Foreign Service Nationals

Not surprisingly, esprit de corps is not found anywhere in the Promotion Precepts that will be in effect for the 2010-2011, 2011-2012 and 2012-2013 rating cycles. These precepts are the core precepts which provide the guidelines by which Selection Boards determine the tenure and promotability of U.S. Foreign Service employees.

More from Mr. Dorschner:

The Mission Comes First
The goal comes first and units are told to work cohesively to ensure successful completion of the mission. Individuals who showboat and subordinate the mission to their individual ambition do not do well and are singled out for correction. By contrast, the Foreign Service spends little or no time explaining to its members why they are doing what they are doing. Instead, duties are often performed mechanically. The mission becomes subordinate to the procedures. This is a common curse of bureaucratic organizations, and State Department bureaucracy is legendary.
[…]
Just as takes place in the Army, Foreign Service personnel should be told how their efforts fit into broader U.S. foreign policy and how their hard work and sacrifice benefit the nation. Otherwise, there is often no sense that a mission has been accomplished.

Officers are expected to follow instructions and not ask too many questions, huh? Some time back, a first tour officer designated as a visa line chief told a second tour officer which window she should sit when she conducts her interviews.  The second tour officer, having recently arrived from a visa mill post asked why? No particular reason. The visa line chief wanted to exercise the boss muscle. And having just spent two years at a visa mill post, where the Consul General occasionally conducts visa interviews with the junior officers, Ms.Second Tour Officer inquired how come their own Consul General never conducts visa interviews with them. Apparently, this did not please the boss.  She was eventually counseled for the things she was not doing right. Perhaps it was for asking too many questions, for refusing to change interview windows, for talking loud and scaring the cucarachas, for telling Halloween jokes when it wasn’t Halloween and scaring the FSNs, who knows? She was lucky she did not get involuntarily curtailed for [fill in the blank], the guy next door was curtailed, for reportedly asking too many questions and telling a shooty-shooty joke. [Thanks A. for the story].

I’m sure others out there have more interesting stories about mission first, or not.  You can also read about bureaucracy (and wet paint) from Eduardo Galeano’s Book of Embraces. A most delightful rendition of the function of a mission within a bureaucracy. [Thanks M. for sharing the book]

Also from Mr. Dorschner:

Transparency
Foreign Service members who serve repeatedly in hardship posts are not provided a career advantage. Those who demonstrate dedication, hard work and technical expertise are not necessarily rewarded with regular promotions or choice assignments. This vagueness leads to accusations that “it is not what you know but who you know,” and erodes morale.

Likewise, the Foreign Service seems to assume that everyone in the ranks wants to become an ambassador. Officers who do not aspire to enter the Senior Foreign Service are often regarded as slackers, rather than individuals with their own specific career goals and objectives who make a positive contribution.

“it is not what you know but who you know”

Well, if performance appraisals are meant to honestly show what folks know and how folks work, and are not just an exercise in artful, inflationary rhetoric, then why do folks need to tap what leaks from that infamous hush-hush “corridor reputation” pipe?  Pardon me? The EERs are needed for promotions but not for your next job? So for getting the next job, you need to tap the “who you know” network.  And if you’ve written somebody’s 360 review or put in a good word on behalf of somebody bidding at your post, you certainly can request that somebody to be your 360 reviewer or also ask him/her to put in a good word if you are bidding at his/her post. Tell me again that this is not an elite version of you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.

And seriously, when folks write their EERs about how great they are, cribbing occasionally from FSN or EFMs successes at work, doesn’t that make folks blush just a tad in the privacy of their own conscience?  The folks are thinking ….  um, what?  Not really? Sometimes? But no opportunity should get wasted on the road to promotion.

More from Mr. Dorschner:

A Rule Is a Rule
In contrast, the State Department issues rules and then almost immediately makes exceptions to them. There are limits on how long personnel can serve in Washington, D.C. Those who do not serve in hardship posts are supposed to face negative consequences. Those who do not fulfill their language requirements are supposed to pay the price.

Like the military, we must staff positions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan that are dangerous and require separation from family. Everyone is supposed to pull their fair share, but for some reason it just doesn’t happen. There always seem to be people who are able to manipulate the system. They stay in Washington longer than they are supposed to and avoid hardship tours, yet continue to be promoted.
[…]
A rule is a rule and must be enforced. Otherwise, the perception grows that the institution is not interested in fairness.

Aha! And some even get to be ambassadors, like I said, without ever getting Baghdad dust on their shoes. Somebody please start a list of ambassadors who got their ambassadorships without the fast-tracked lanes through Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  While you’re at it, somebody please start a list of all senior officers who got mandatory retirement waivers, too.  If I were your HR person, I would put those lists up online.  For clarity sake, for goodness sake! Since I’m not your HR person, go write to DGdirect@state.gov and ask your top HR person about these; what national security excuse is there not to make this information available to the public?

Also from Mr. Dorschner:

Restrain That Ego!
West Point cadets with large egos, who constantly tell their peers that they will become generals and who seek as much “face time” as possible with officers, are known as “tools.” Being a tool is not a good thing. This does not mean that the military does not reward strong personalities, of course. Ambition is the first requirement for anyone aspiring to make the higher grades, after all. But the system teaches such individuals to rein in some of that egoistic behavior.
[…]
West Point cadets learn that the most egotistical general is not always the most successful, and that an effective institution must make room for different leadership styles.  Or, to put it another way: A little humility is not a bad thing. Perhaps the Foreign Service could benefit from a similar teaching model.

It is perhaps telling that Mr. Dorschner’s piece came soon after retirement. This reminds me of the Brits’ valedictory address, a final cable only this one is in the Speaking Out column in our diplomats’ trade publication.  Read it in full here.

But my most favorite part from Mr. Dorschner piece is saved for last. It’s the One Army idea of taking care of your troops.

Take Care of Your Troops
Officers and NCOs so egotistical and wrapped up in their own advancement that they do not show concern for the well being of their subordinates receive poor evaluations and do not progress in their careers. From the outset, Army personnel are taught this essential component of leadership. By contrast, concern for subordinates is not part of the State Department evaluation process. Nor is there much emphasis on families. Instead, officers are taught to look after themselves and their careers first and foremost. This can lead, rightly or wrongly, to a perception by subordinates that “successful” Foreign Service officers are those willing to do anything to get ahead, including letting down colleagues and disappointing subordinates.

These allegations arise out of the fact that such self-centered behavior is seldom punished in the Foreign Service. Selfishness and excessive egotism are not viewed as indicators of poor leadership and a lack of esprit de corps, but are often seen as the norm.

I’ll let you chew on that. But this brings us to one of this blog’s pet peeves — on the subject of EFMs –who by the way, I am told, should really be extra grateful for finding work at our embassies/consulates overseas.

Hey, did you hear about that EFM whose child had sudden dental issues — broke the tooth, or something? Anyway, she asked her boss, a first tour officer assigned as visa chief for leave so she can bring the child to the dentist one morning. Leave request denied. Because the EFM/Consular Associate should have known better than schedule a dental appointment during visa hours when she was needed at the window; to take saliva samples or something.  Can blame the first tour officer for lack of compassion but the larger blame belongs to the consular manager for absence of leadership by example.  This is not how you take care of the troops, even if you’re paying the EFM gazillion dollars to get a security clearance and for the opportunity to contribute to her Social Security. [Thanks L. for the story].

Most jobs for spouses and partners in the Foreign Service are located in consular sections. It must be said that some consular managers do know what it means to take care of their troops, not just their FSOs, but also their EFMS and FSNs. But others have no effing clue. Unfortunately, those who have no idea how to take care of the troops as well, are also given leadership and managerial gigs they try hard to fail. One section chief was huge, huge on outreach to help junior officers develop some important skills until the boss got an award of some sort for that. With that box checked and the next assignment in the bag, the next group of junior officers who arrived at post, poor sods, were all left on their own to  figure out how to do outreach. A great example of taking care of your troops as long as you get something out of it. And then the end. That kind of example, unfortunately rubs off on the more impressionable troops, sometimes. [Thanks E. for the chieftain story].

In some consular sections, EFMs get their performance reviews late or never, get awards or never. Because hey, they’re “just EFMs” — no matter how great they are, how hard they work, they can’t get promoted, anyway. So why waste time writing up their EERs or bother with awards?

Not making this up, you guys.  The OIG has actually a catalog of how the State Department take care of its troops particularly its EFMs or eligible family members and partners:

At the US Embassy in the Dominican Republic:

In most instances, American and LE staff evaluation reports and work requirements statements are being completed within the appropriate time frame, but many of the 34 EFM evaluations were not. The EFMs believe that they are being overlooked, Supervisors claim that reminder notices are not sent to them. However, some supervisors were reminded but still did not prepare evaluations by the required due date. Some evaluations were still outstanding at the time of the inspection.

At the US Embassy in Germany:

In some instances, supervisors fail to provide EFMs with evaluation reports within the appropriate time frame or do not complete them at all. EFM evaluations are not tracked with the same regard as American
officers and local staff, [REDACTED]

Department guidelines do not currently require supervisors to complete performance evaluations for EFMs. This confusion is even found in the mission’s human resources office, where one supervisor left his position without preparing evaluations for seven EFMs. OIG teams have also found this problem at other inspected posts. This lack of clarity may affect the 2,687 EFMs employed worldwide. It is a detriment to EFMs not to receive an evaluation and impacts their prospective employment.

Also in its Berlin report, the OIG explains why EFMs are cheap, affordable resources, they are practically a sale. Add to that the fact that they all live in a captive labor pool.

Because they are hired under differing salary schedules and differing authorities, EFMs receive lower salaries than local staff performing comparable duties. They accrue 4 hours of annual leave and sick leave per pay period while their counterparts receive 6 weeks’ vacation and unlimited sick leave. The salaries of EFMs from foreign affairs agencies include Washington, DC, locality pay but not the cost-of-living adjustment their spouses receive. Spouses from non-foreign affairs agencies receive neither locality pay  nor the cost-of-living allowance. London and Tokyo have been granted an exception to the rule that  employed EFMs are ineligible for cost-of-living allowances.

At the US Embassy in India:

A major impediment to optimizing the contributions of professional associates is the lack of training requirements, and suggested or desired training sometimes comes at personal expense. Distance learning courses are not sufficient in all cases. While there is no cost for FSI courses, the Department does not pay per diem, and the employee must take training during home leave, rest and recuperation, or personal travel. The Department acknowledges that these options may not be feasible for many individuals. Professional associates who have not yet traveled to post to begin employment do not receive salary for time spent in training. Although it is understandable that the Department wants to allocate shrinking training funds to permanent employees, this policy comes at the expense of equipping professional associates to perform as effectively as possible. The Department may want to explore alternatives to the current policy.

At the US Embassy in Pakistan:

Neither of the consular EFMs in Islamabad has work requirements statements or has received a performance evaluation.

EFM personnel files included job announcements, position descriptions, and resumes, but did not include EFM work requirements or evaluations. The OIG team made an informal recommendation that work requirements and evaluations be prepared for all EFMs.

At the US Embassy in Afghanistan, several anomalies, including nepotism “reviews”:

The OIG team found several other anomalies: an occasional lack of EFM personnel files, missing EFM work requirements statements, inappropriate procedures to document the superior qualification rate process, and, in one instance, a position description that had not been updated when the employee was assigned to another EFM position. Finally, the selection process could be improved.

Although the Embassy has been requesting the requisite nepotism reviews from the Bureau of Human Resources, the inspectors found that the information the Embassy provided to the Bureau of Human Resources has not been comprehensive or detailed enough for some positions, including those involving EFMs of senior-level officers. The Embassy does not have a standard formal process for developing the information that is needed to conduct the nepotism reviews. A standard checklist that applies to all nepotism reviews, especially those for spouses of senior-level officers and section heads, is a useful tool.

Oops, that’s a long section on taking care of the troops.  But that’s all good. If you sleep with your EFMs at night, this should make you wonder why the State Department and its hiring, rating, supervising officers do not treat them better? And oh, have you sat in some of those job interviews they conduct with EFMs? Goodness gracious, some of those folks have no idea they could be taken to the EEOC for asking illegal interview questions.  Might you also wonder what you can do to improve their bureaucratic treatment?  Please wonder.  And if you are the FSO, the next EFM denied leave, passed up for performance evaluation, or training (what training?), subjected to inappropriate job interview questions, etc., etc, could be your very own family member. Think about it.

 

Domani Spero