Radically Simple Ideas for a Better State: Foreign Service 2.0

Speaking Out


Our jobs are complex; the environment we work in is constantly changing, both at home and abroad. We struggle to learn languages, new cultures and jobs; build relationships; effect positive change; and then do it all again after a couple of years.

Unfortunately, the bureaucracy that supports that Foreign Service has become equally complex, for both good and bad, potentially hampering the Department of State’s ability to effectively accomplish our mission and affecting morale.

In the following I propose several changes to our bureaucracy that I consider radical because they are substantial deviations from our current processes but are also simple. To be clear, “simple” does not necessarily mean easy: if our leadership chooses to implement the ideas below, it will require substantial work and, potentially, even legislative action.

But the result will be worth it, and the future Foreign Service will be better for it.

Generalists Need to Go: Cones Become Specialties

The idea of a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none” or an individual being “a mile wide and an inch deep” is simply not effective in today’s world. Businesses and government agencies have been shifting to specialization for decades, while our generalists are still expected to perform duties outside their field to prove their initial worth (e.g., consular tours).

We need to revamp both our hiring process and our current personnel system to better execute today’s and tomorrow’s mission sets. First, existing generalists should be converted to specialists, and their respective cones to specialties.

We need to revamp both our hiring process and our current personnel system to better execute today’s and tomorrow’s mission sets.

This conversion would have the following benefits:

a) Accurate data on the actual cost of conducting diplomacy, “doing business” and generating congressionally mandated reports can be derived from overtime compensation.

b) Hiring practices and processes can be tailored to necessary and specific skill sets and experience levels for each specialty.

c) Individuals with more experience and relevant skill sets can be hired at higher grades, based on the cost of labor.

d) The number of new hires can equal the number of positions.

e) Tenure requirements can be removed and replaced with a standard three-year probationary period.

f) The consular tour requirement can be eliminated for non-consular specialties.

g) The foreign language requirement can be removed for tenure and probation.

h) A standardized orientation for all Foreign Service officers can be followed by specialty-specific tradecraft training.

Forget the Foreign Service Exam

With the conversion of generalist fields to specialists, the Bureau of Human Resources can develop and tailor specific hiring practices that will attract the most talented, experienced and diverse individuals to excel in each specialty (similar to the way specialists are hired now). Further, each specialty can adjust the hiring grade (salary) based on the market rate and cost of labor.

Welcome, Consular Adjudicators

Create a new consular adjudicator/ interviewer specialty to enable removal of the consular tour requirement for officers and to improve consular services, performance and consistency. These positions would have five-year assignments and would alternate between overseas and domestic to support domestic consular operations.

The assignments for these positions would be based on foreign language skills. For example, someone with Spanish-language fluency might serve in Mexico City, then back in the United States, and then in Bogotá to maximize the department’s investment in foreign language education and also the individual officer’s skill set in language nuances and local cultures.

What Do You Really Think Of Me?

Modify the annual Employee Evaluation Report in two ways:

First, add three boxes that each manager checks:

a. Ready to Promote
b. Ready to Promote with Conditions (spelled out in Manager Statement)
c. Not Ready to Promote

Second, in place of a rater and reviewer statement, have a rater/manager statement, a peer statement and an employee statement. The selection of the peer/ employee should be unique per year and per tour; in other words, the officer has to use a different peer and different employee for each EER.

While not a full 360-degree evaluation, this system captures a more accurate picture of the employee’s accomplishments than the current practice of providing bullet points to a reviewer with whom the employee may only rarely interact.

A Better MED

It has become increasingly difficult to hire competent medical professionals into the Foreign Service because of the difference between private-sector compensation and what the department offers. Other government agencies, such as the Veterans Administration, have overcome this by developing specialized pay scales specific to the respective profession/position.

The Bureau of Medical Services and department management should develop a separate pay scale for regional medical officer, regional medical officer/psychiatrist and other MED professions to better recruit and retain talented practitioners in those fields.

One World

The State geographic bureaus should be aligned with the Department of Defense’s Regional Combatant Commands to better coordinate support and missions.

This would split the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs into South American Affairs and North American Affairs (which would also oversee domestic operations), transfer most of North Africa into the Bureau of African Affairs and combine parts of the bureaus of Near Eastern Affairs and South and Central Asian Affairs to form a new Bureau of Asia Pacific Affairs.

This would change which bureaus some embassies would fall under, but would not require the closure of any overseas facilities.

The deputy chief of mission should also be the chief operating officer of the embassy.

Home or Abroad?

Move as many regional bureau Civil Service positions as appropriate overseas to centralized regional support hubs to better provide real-time support to embassy operations. This may be Nairobi for AF, for example, or Bangkok for EAP. These positions could be staffed at fiveyear intervals, similar to how other agencies announce and advertise for overseas positions (e.g., the Drug Enforcement Administration).

A good litmus test for whether a position should be offshored would be to evaluate how much required HST/D.C. interaction that position involves by comparison with the provision of services directly to posts; if the scale tips more to the latter, then the position should go overseas. This would also free up headquarters space to allow for consolidation of some offices back into Main State and reduce our Washington, D.C., footprint.

No More Bait and Switch

An assignment to an overseas mission should be a contract between the employee and the department, yet the State Department retains unilateral authority to reduce the compensation accorded to that employee.

The Hardship Allowance, Cost of Living Adjustment, Danger Pay Allowance and number of R&Rs should be locked in as a floor based on the panel date of the employee. These benefits can increase during the officer’s tour, but they should not be reduced below the amount at the time of paneling.

This will create more financial stability for the officer, as well as stability for personnel budgeting.

Keep Us Safe

Diplomatic Security should have two different law enforcement professions— DS investigation agents, who would be domestically based and follow a career progression similar to other domestic federal law enforcement agencies; and DS Foreign Service agents, who would spend the majority of their careers overseas.

This would allow both sets of agents to develop specialized skills specifi c to their respective career fi elds.

The World Isn’t Flat, But We Should Be

The deputy chief of mission should also be the chief operating officer of the embassy.

Having an additional layer of bureaucracy between the DCM and the current management sections leads to a constant game of “telephone,” where information is selectively fi ltered both up and down the chain of command. In most instances, this is a severe detriment to embassy operations and the morale of the largest section in the embassy.

The management officer cone/specialty should be eliminated, with the management sections reporting directly to the DCM. Current management officers can be off ered early retirement buyouts or select a specialty and transfer based on availability.


None of the above changes are easy, and many will rail against them as at best naïve or, at worst, malicious. My intent is to generate conversations and eff ect changes with these ideas that will both make our organization more eff ective and improve the lives of Foreign Service officers tomorrow and in the future.

JC Windham is a financial management officer, currently serving in Washington, D.C. His previous assignments were to Khartoum and Asuncion. As an FS family member before that, he served in Brazzaville. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he worked as a civilian financial manager with the Department of the Navy in the Washington, D.C., area for nine years. He lives with his wife and two four-legged children in Arlington, Virginia.