Reform Can’t Wait: No Time to Waste

President’s Views


As I write, we are six months into the Biden administration. We are still wrestling with the traumatic impact of the COVID-19 crisis on our world, our country and our profession. There are also some hopeful signs: a developing bipartisan consensus on increased foreign affairs funding, hiring and overseas staffing, as well as on expanded training and professional education, and an overdue return to having senior career officers nominated and confirmed for top-level positions.

Much is not right, however. As of the end of July, only one new ambassador had been confirmed by the Senate since the start of the Biden administration. More than 90 countries have no U.S. ambassador in place.

Dozens of nominations have been placed on hold, primarily by one senator, damaging the national interest. Dozens of jobs have yet to be filled or even have nominees, including a long list of ambassadorships, more than half the assistant secretary of State positions, nearly all of the USAID assistant administrator positions and most of the senior jobs in our other foreign affairs agencies. Both the administration and the Senate bear responsibility and need to move quickly to break these logjams.

A nominee for under secretary of State for management was finally announced at the end of July, six months after the start of the administration. It will likely be months before he is confirmed and can start work. The nominee for Director General of the Foreign Service was selected months ago, but as of this writing has not moved toward confirmation. We stand to lose most of the first year of the administration before the conversation on change and reform can even begin.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 continues to warp and obstruct our ability to accomplish our mission for the American people, and new obstacles—some self-inflicted—keep popping up. From the CDC dog ban—a real crisis for our members with beloved canine companions—to reduced official support for families, tandem couples, singles and others in the Foreign Service family, it keeps getting harder to pursue the challenging career path that our members have chosen.

One-third of them, according to both State Department statistics and a survey we helped sponsor, have considered leaving this year. Thankfully, attrition is nowhere near that level. But numbers like that are a clear warning sign of unhappiness and a perception that the future is not bright for those who stay in the Service. The lack of visible engagement from our top leadership on issues like the dog ban, “unidentified health incidents” (UHI) and Foreign Service reform does not help.

Add capricious and nontransparent security clearance suspensions that continue for years without any semblance of due process, ongoing challenges such as the UHI that have affected our members in Cuba, China and elsewhere, painfully slow progress on diversity and inclusion, and some of the lowest promotion rates in the modern history of the Service, and we are looking at a recipe for attrition and unhappiness. That is no way to win any kind of “war for talent.”

I believe that this administration, like most of its predecessors, wants to support the career employees who are the backbone of our federal government. Words are not enough, however. We need to begin now on an ambitious and comprehensive effort to fix what is broken, address the causes of low morale and attrition, and create a proud, truly diverse and well-led corps of professionals who are committed to staying on, and who love what they do.

The Foreign Service had some of the highest career satisfaction ratings in the federal government for decades. It no longer does. If we don’t identify the reasons, and commit to fixing them, we will see more attrition, more discouragement, and a loss of the talent we need to help our country deal with a very unstable and troubling world.

AFSA is eager to begin serious, in-depth work with senior officials of all of our member agencies on the urgently needed process of reform and modernization. We have no time to lose.

Please share your thoughts and ideas on what such a dialogue should include:

Ambassador Eric Rubin is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.