This week I participated in one of a series of forums sponsored by The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA). AFSA is the professional association as well as labor ‘union’ for American Foreign Service Officers and I maintain my membership as a retiree. The purpose of these forums was to present the various candidates now seeking office in AFSA’s leadership positions – President, Vice President, Secretary, various representatives, etc., to different membership groups. This forum was for the retiree community.
After the candidates, or their representatives, had spoken, the meeting was opened to questions from the floor. After hearing several exchanges, I realized that one thing missing from the discussion about how to protect and defend the Foreign Service, etc., was ‘how would these candidates seek to change the Foreign Service and prepare it for the challenges ahead?’ This question arose in my mind because I remembered that the Foreign Service that I joined in 1973 was not the Foreign Service that I thought I was joining. While the Foreign Service from which I retired in 2002 was not the Foreign Service that I had joined thirty years earlier. Knowing that change is inevitable, I wondered what AFSA might do to try and guide and influence that process of change – what would we change about the Foreign Service?
I asked my question, addressing it to the candidates for AFSA President and any other candidate who wanted to discuss this, but it also occurred to me that I should answer my own question as I would if the positions were reversed. So here’s my answer and since I’m not running for anything I feel no compulsion to engage in any prolonged defense of these ideas or to push for their adoption, but I would be interested in seeing how others in AFSA’s ranks might answer the question.
Q) What changes do I think should be made to prepare the Foreign Service for the future?
1) Extend the duration of a standard career path: this would provide additional staffing, retain experience and expertise, and create time within a standard career to allow for more professional training opportunities.
2) Increase staffing and hiring: the added personnel would fill existing vacancies as well as ‘mothballed’ positions, provide a training ‘float’ to carry personnel on professional training assignments, support the interagency role in DoD and other USG agency training exercises in order to prepare both host agency and State Department personnel to work together in real world situations being examined in exercises.
3) Introduce 360 degree evaluations for all staff: experience has proven to me that no one knows an officer or staff member better than those who work under or around them, this would also help the system spot officers who ‘kiss up and kick down’ to the detriment of their supervisors, subordinates, and the Department.
4) Strengthen language requirements and create more language designated positions: language proficiency (and the resulting cultural/political awareness) are the sine qua non of the FSO and facilitate the direct access that enables the FSO to truly become knowledgeable about the host country.
5) Require mid-career professional training at the university graduate degree level with options that include both private institutions and the military war colleges: I’ve found that DOD’s emphasis upon midcareer professional training has produced a corps of officers with both broad and deep knowledge of war and warfare but also of politics and diplomacy, if FSOs are going to hold their own and support the President, the USG, and the Department, we need to up our game.
6) Coordinate with DOD on its annual training calendar to identify exercises that should include State Department participation and designate officers for that duty: Both State and DOD need to have the best possible understanding of what each can and cannot do in future situations and the best way to do that is for FSOs and other State personnel to support and participate in DOD training exercises that call for interagency participation (from writing the scenario to the execution of the exercise in the field, the additional personnel needed to enable State to thus support DOD and other agency exercises will be supported by the expanded personnel float.
7) Enhanced Security Awareness training for all officers regardless of overseas posting to include weapons familiarization and advanced weapons training for selected volunteers: It’s a new and dangerous world out there and State needs to be less risk averse about placing its personnel in harm’s way – but that comes with the requirement for those personnel to be trained appropriately so that they can take a greater responsibility for assessing and assuring their own security and safety and can more effectively cooperate with either Diplomatic Security or DoD personnel tasked with the security function.
8) Restore funding and representational responsibilities at all levels with each post to designate a senior officer to oversee the post’s representational activities program, to include coordination of each officer’s activities and a feedback/guidance loop to enhance the effectiveness of post’s representational activities. I’ve watched with dismay as other agencies representatives at overseas posts have engaged in active representational programs supported by their Department or agency. Such activities are an essential part of the development of the contacts and personal knowledge of a country that should be the hallmark of the FSO.
9) Assignments process? – when I joined the Department, I heard horror stories about the old system dominated and controlled by long-term Civil Service employees who, if they liked you, were your best friends, but if you crossed them you would never leave an endless cycle of hell hole assignments. Now, I suspect the horror stories are more about the wolves that guard the henhouse and FSO assignment officers whose best efforts are dedicated to their own onward posting. I defer to those who now have to live with the assignments process to put forward suggestions about reforming it but I’m sure a close examination would show some work is needed.