Lessons from Silicon Valley: Practical Suggestions for a Modern Workplace

Speaking Out


Speaking Out is the Journal’s opinion forum, a place for lively discussion of issues affecting the U.S. Foreign Service and American diplomacy. The views expressed are those of the author; their publication here does not imply endorsement by the American Foreign Service Association. Responses are welcome; send to journal@afsa.org.

Returning to the State Department in 2019 after three years in Silicon Valley brought the joy of homecoming and the pain of loss. The grass is not always greener in the private sector, but it can be—and not just because of the free artisanal kombucha. Even at Google, I found familiar, everyday technical problems and workplace challenges, but the experience also introduced me to new cultural practices and ways of working.

During my time away, the State Department made strides to improve the quality of its work environment, not least in response to the new coronavirus. However, it must do more to modernize.

Here are a few recommendations, developed during my stay in California’s innovation hub, aimed at improving how the department supports employees, builds a usable knowledge base, learns from feedback and eases barriers to interoperability.

Empowering Our Diplomats to Carry Out Foreign Policy

At the State Department, our people are our most valuable asset. Given the department estimates that it costs $400,000 a year to keep a U.S. government employee overseas, we need to make each employee as productive as possible. Just as the military seeks force multipliers to enhance the capability of each warfighter on the front lines, the State Department must ease the logistical burdens, provide more tools and deliver better training opportunities to maximize the effectiveness of our diplomats.

First, centralize human resources and support functions to reduce points of contact for every employee. Unfortunately, many State Department processes and procedures were not designed with the employee experience in mind. Most slowly evolved from past practice; and if designed at all, they were fashioned to meet bureaucratic, compliance or liability requirements. Take one look at the human resources forms, and this becomes clear.

Moves to create one-stop-shop customer service centers overseas to handle human resources and administrative needs should be expanded. To find the answer to a question, it can be difficult to know whether to email the HR (now Global Talent Management) Service Center, Help Desk, PayHelp or one of the many people a typical Foreign Service employee regularly interacts with, including local HR representatives, travel technicians, assignments officers, career development officers and more.

While these resources are meant to be supportive, the onus is placed on individual employees to understand and navigate the bureaucratic labyrinth, which detracts from employees’ core responsibilities overseas. The most successful employees become masters of bureaucracy rather than masters of their substantive responsibilities.

State should consider mimicking companies that divide human resource responsibilities, offering employees two HR contacts: one for career development and one for everything else. Those two individuals would then manage the internal bureaucracy to find the right answer to any question for each employee. This would enable U.S. diplomats to focus on diplomacy instead of spending, for example, nine months and sending more than 30 emails—as I once did—to receive a $50 reimbursement.

To implement this change, we should introduce more “design thinking” in government. Design thinking is an iterative method for creative problem solving that begins with empathy for the user (in this case, the diplomat) to identify pain points and diagnose underlying problems. The department should use this human-centered approach to study the difficulties employees have navigating the fragmented talent management support structure, especially through frequent overseas moves. Service provision can then be redesigned to empower our diplomats, not force them to master Byzantine internal regulations.

Second, leverage employees’ capabilities by offering them greater back-office support, such as mapmaking, visualization, research support and data analysis. We ask a lot of our people overseas to serve the demands of policymakers in Washington, D.C.; we must, in turn, provide them the support necessary to do the real work of forward-deployed diplomacy.

We already have some great tools that are lightly used, not well understood or not intended to be resources. These could be reframed to aid U.S. missions overseas. For example, the Office of the Geographer can support posts worldwide with maps and geographic visualizations. The Office of the Historian and the Center for the Study of the Conduct of Diplomacy can research past examples relevant to present-day challenges.

The same goes for the Ralph J. Bunche Library and its research team, which already assists Foreign Service officers in finding past cables and outside research on important topics. Such support will provide context and help officers write more insightful reports.

As the department offers more training in data and analytics, it should also create a data team that can help gather, sort, use and visualize data to better explain the world to U.S. policymakers and advocate U.S. policy to foreign governments. This is a common practice in the private sector.

Stanford’s centralized research support team is a great example. Its trained specialists support faculty across the university, manage the procurement of datasets, supervise the storage and protection of data, and do preliminary data cleaning and analysis. The team shares insights, ensures work is not replicated unnecessarily and safeguards data. All these capabilities would be force multipliers for officers in the field. The department’s new Center for Analytics could fill this role.

Third, commit time and resources to training to ensure our diplomats are the best prepared in the world. This has been a perpetual refrain since the department’s founding, but resource constraints have meant that time in training for anything beyond language is scarce. In the absence of the long-sought training float, the department has made strides to offer better coursework and more flexible courses online through the Foreign Service Institute. It has also expanded training and exchange programs and broadened its leave without pay policy to facilitate self-directed opportunities. I am a grateful beneficiary of that change.

One way to appeal for greater training resources would be to adopt a practice the U.S. military has used with great success: invite foreign diplomats to train alongside their U.S counterparts. Just as the National War Colleges host thousands of the world’s best military officers each year, the Foreign Service Institute could train the world’s best diplomats, providing greater insight to our own officers and helping build connections with diplomats around the world.

Beyond the training opportunities themselves, one of the greatest—and least-discussed—bars to improved training is cultural. Many employees avoid long-term training for fear it harms their promotion prospects. Just as the U.S. military has done, the department needs to incentivize training to flip this narrative. If the department makes long-term training a desired and promotable position, it will encourage broader participation and find itself with better trained officers.

Putting Knowledge to Work

While people may be the department’s most valuable asset, knowledge is the currency in which they deal. For diplomats, knowledge is power. There is much to learn from those who work in similar, knowledge-based professions, like law and consulting. Companies in these industries don’t build products but produce ideas, and offer insights on how to grow, teach, share and retain knowledge.

The first step is to increase collaboration. Perhaps the most-lauded accomplishment of former Secretary Rex Tillerson’s ill-fated redesign was the re-addition of USAID employees to the global address listing, an email lookup system that allows employees to connect with their colleagues. That was a welcome first step, but we need to go beyond names and emails.

Most other organizations, especially those where collaboration is prized, have internal websites where employees are listed with pictures, previous work experience and more. These sites are essential at law firms, consulting firms and even technology companies so employees can expand their networks and reach the right people with the right information. Google even makes all its employees’ work requirements, what it calls objectives and key results, available on its intranet.

In contrast to current practice, in which it is common for an FSO to never meet their predecessor before taking a new position, such a site could allow officers to connect with many of those who came before them who have important regional or other relevant subject matter experience. This would help lessen the knowledge and productivity gap that typically follows a transition and could be invaluable in an emergency. Say an earthquake tragically strikes in Pakistan: one could look up colleagues who managed the last natural disaster there, as well as others who listed similar work experience elsewhere in the world on their departmentwide profiles.

Second, to complement a culture of sharing knowledge and expertise, create better internal and external knowledge repositories. While Diplopedia, the department’s internal wiki page, is a great start, the department should facilitate and encourage employees to author internal pages that share best practices, ideas and tools.

Imagine a world where an employee travels to a new country, arrives at a U.S. diplomatic facility and immediately gains access to the compound by swiping a global identification badge.

Externally, to better serve and connect with the American people, the State Department should help make information on international relations more accessible, through a design thinking process. While a new administration is entitled to a website redesign, that process should be informed by how people use the site today based on searches and page views.

Thought should be given to how to display and make historical information intuitively accessible: the annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, for example, are presently grouped by presidential administration and are not available on a single page, to the frustration of researchers and curious lay people alike.

Third, develop expert career pathways in the State Department. Employees should have the option to grow in their careers by building expertise, not only by managing people and resources, just as in many Silicon Valley companies. For the Foreign Service, the rank-in-person personnel system should facilitate an expert career track. As employees move through Facebook, for example, they can become experts in their field or product managers leading teams and initiatives.

Such a change could also alleviate some of the pressure around promotion quotas by allowing individuals to be recognized for their accomplishments and potential not only as supervisors but as individual contributors to U.S. diplomacy.

Feedback Is a Gift

The first lesson in business school is that feedback is a gift. Genuine feedback can be both hard to elicit and hard to hear in the professional world. While some professionals, like salespeople, face recorded metrics and others hire executive coaches, in diplomacy performance feedback is far harder to find because of the absence of clear metrics and a culture of direct feedback.

The consular and management divisions have led the charge in surveying employees and gathering responses at the State Department. FSI has also instituted a leadership survey as part of management training, but most employees receive little feedback, even as part of the performance evaluation process.

Employee-led feedback is far more common at high-performing companies. Google holds an annual Googlegeist survey across the entire company to gauge employee sentiment. Google also offers awards for the best postmortem assessments—akin to “hot-wash” sessions in the military—designed to gather reflections on how to improve. At the consulting firm McKinsey, team-based surveys are sent every two weeks to gauge team performance; this is a helpful tool for leadership to assess when intervention is needed by more senior managers.

Radical candor may be too much for most diplomats, but the department can encourage employees to get curious and not defensive when presented with feedback. We all need data and help from others to understand our performance and how we are perceived. Broadening existing surveys to measure performance at each level, at each post, each year would be a great first step (rather than once every five years in an Office of Inspector General survey).

The department should also teach employees and supervisors to give and receive feedback in ways research suggests are most effective. For example, encouraging givers to demonstrate a genuine interest in the rated employee’s performance, incentivizing employees to seek feedback and making feedback concrete, actionable and directed at the work itself helps employees disassociate their egos from their actions.

Global Interoperability

For an inherently global organization that recently adopted a One Team One Mission motto, we are often siloed into regional or functional bureaus and budgets. Imagine a world where an employee travels to a new country, arrives at a U.S. diplomatic facility and immediately gains access to the compound by swiping a global identification badge. The employee’s phone or other department-issued devices connect automatically to the same protected wifi network used at U.S. diplomatic facilities around the world.

The employee sits down in a common area and starts to work with a laptop with a screen-protector. If problems or questions arise, there is a tech help desk where one’s badge can be scanned, allowing a local tech team to see the individual’s status and devices and provide assistance.

This scenario plays out every day at every Google office in the world. Yes, there are heightened security concerns for the U.S. government; but for unclassified work this should be possible. Greater interoperability will require different parts of the bureaucracy with different budgets to work together, but we can aspire to a day when employees retain their government-issued devices and credit cards across postings.

Because our people truly are our greatest asset, we need to treat them that way. Let’s make their lives easier and remove logistical barriers to productivity, no matter where they work.

Looking Ahead

After my sojourn in Silicon Valley, I have been pleasantly surprised by some new developments at the department. The Center for Analytics, the streamlining of unnecessary regulation (e.g., the elimination of Fair Share bidding and the “6” in the 6/8 rule) and the launch of new collaboration tools will all simplify the lives of employees and make the department a better place to work.

Perhaps most important is the department’s focus on setting the conditions for success and its willingness to try new approaches informed by data and research.

As the saying goes, “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” and now is a great time to build on the department’s response to the coronavirus pandemic to further expand resources to support telework and video conferencing, untethering employees from their offices and expanding workplace flexibility.

With a “design thinking” mindset and a recognition of the productivity savings brought about by easing the logistical burden on employees, much more can be done, even within the constraints of government.

In some cases, the greatest barrier to productivity is not the creation of new tools or processes, but their adoption. Organizational change is hard, especially for an enterprise spread across the world.

Yet there is also an advantage to the department’s geographic reach. Each of its more than 270 U.S. diplomatic posts acts as a laboratory of diplomacy, a place where new ideas can be developed and tested before being rolled out to other posts. The challenge is identifying and disseminating best practices.

State can embrace this challenge with open-source engagement and a willingness to elicit employee input, test and iterate. There is much to learn from the best of Silicon Valley and from the practices of well-run companies and foreign ministries around the world.

Yet it is State Department employees who can provide the best feedback to designers and reformers willing to listen. We have inherited this bureaucracy, and with it the responsibility to make the State Department more agile, productive and responsive to the needs of our modern workforce.

Andrew R. Moore is a Foreign Service officer in Jerusalem. He recently completed J.D. and MBA degrees at Stanford University and worked as an Eagleburger Fellow at Google X. He previously served overseas in Melbourne and Islamabad, and in Washington, D.C., as a line officer in the Executive Secretariat and as a desk officer for Australia and the Pacific region. The views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State.