Reforming Entry-Level Assignments

Speaking Out


In April’s President’s Views column “Building the Deep Bench,” Ambassador Barbara Stephenson brought up the challenge that surging demand for consular adjudicators poses to the career development of entry-level officers.

With increasing frequency, non-consular coned officers are being called on to serve consecutive assignments out of cone. This has resulted in more officers entering the mid-level ranks without any in-cone experience.

As Amb. Stephenson pointed out, most officers can expect 90 percent of their career development to come from assignments and mentoring. The consequences of officers never serving in their assigned cone at the entry level are real, both for individual officers seeking to learn their craft and for the overall health of a Service that depends on well-rounded generalists.

Lately there has been much discussion about reforming the assignments process to make it easier for newly minted mid-level officers to gain in-cone experience. New positions have been created and existing positions have been re-graded. Both changes may prove helpful in the short term, but are Band-Aids on the larger issue of how we handle consular adjudicator assignments.

A Model for Handling Structural Imbalance

I propose that the manner in which the U.S. Army handles a similar structural imbalance within its officer ranks may offer a model for how to reform entry-level assignments in our own Service.

I joined the Foreign Service in late 2010 following four years as an active-duty Army officer. At the time, there was a one-year consular service requirement, though most officers could expect to spend a full two years adjudicating visas.

My first impression of the way the Foreign Service assigns entry-level officers (ELOs) to vice-consul positions was that it was similar to the Army program of branch detailing junior officers. I have since learned that while there are many similarities, there are also important differences.

Every year the Army commissions more than 5,000 second lieutenants. As in our own Service, those officers are assigned to a specific “branch” in which most will spend their entire career.

However, different branches have different entry-level staffing requirements. For example, the infantry requires a high proportion of lieutenants to more senior officers, a situation that is reversed in the military intelligence branch.

As long as our career development model is so heavily slanted toward on-the-job training, ELO assignments should be viewed as just that—training—and not simply as encumbered positions.

To address this imbalance the Army often details newly commissioned intelligence officers to the infantry for the first three years of their career. Prior to arriving at their unit, these officers attend the Infantry Basic Officer Leaders Course while their non-detailed colleagues go on to the intelligence version of the same school.

It is important to note that branch details almost always involve detailing an officer from a combat support branch into one of the three combat arms (infantry, armor, field artillery) and almost never the reverse.

Maintaining Career Prospects

This system manages to address structural staffing imbalances without negatively affecting the career prospects of Army officers who spend their first three years “out-of-cone.” That it is able to do so is primarily due to the Army’s more regimented training and assignments process.

Practically, it isn’t hugely important whether an Army officer served in their assigned branch as a lieutenant. This is because on promotion to captain all officers must attend the comprehensive Captains Career Course of their assigned branch.

As a result, any advantage the non-detailed officers may have had in job experience is ameliorated by the uniform education all officers receive at the career course. It also helps that there is widespread acceptance that serving in the combat arms is excellent preparation for service in any branch of the Army.

There is an obvious parallel between the view that the combat arms are central to the Army’s mission and that consular work lies at the heart of ours. In extremis all Foreign Service officers become American Citizen Services officers, and a strong argument can be made that an out-of-cone consular tour is the best way of satisfying visa demand, introducing new officers to the Service and building esprit de corps.

The important role a consular tour plays in the last two points is of particular importance given our Service’s dearth of lengthy professional training. However, in the same way that some Army officers think the branch detail program exists because infantrymen make better intelligence officers, some in the Foreign Service consider the consular requirement a policy that was adopted because it makes for better officers in the other cones.

Eating Our Seed Corn

This may often prove true, but the underlying thinking is specious. Both programs were developed to address a staffing challenge and not primarily as a professional development tool. While the experience of serving out-of-cone or out-of-branch may be positive, it is incidental to the primary purpose of such assignments.

This is an important point to keep in mind when considering how the Foreign Service handles entry-level consular assignments. Skyrocketing demand for consular adjudicators has led to officers entering the mid-level ranks without in-cone experience, something our assignment process (and arguably our promotion process) penalizes.

Successful reform in how we handle ELO assignments is likely to have a magnified effect at the mid-levels.

More importantly, a new mid-level officer ought to be able to perform at the mid-level. For a tenured FS-4 or new FS-3 (the rank equivalents of an Army captain and major) this entails many cone-specific tasks and may include supervising locally employed staff and direct-hire employees, or managing a small section.

It goes without saying that in an ideal world officers would first gain exposure to their cone prior to entering a management position. In fact, if there is to be a prerequisite in our current model of officer development, this should be it. By denying officers a chance to learn their trade at the entry-level we retard their professional development and undermine the distinction between the entry and mid-level ranks. It is the human resources equivalent of eating our seed corn.

What Is to Be Done?

I would offer the following suggestions:

1. The Director General has called for ELOs to serve one tour in cone. As an interim measure, have the Bureau of Human Resources adopt the stated goal that every ELO will serve at least one year in an in-cone position over the course of their first two tours or five years of service. Consider expanding the use of limited non-career appointments, qualified EFMs and rotational assignments to make up any shortage of adjudicators.

2. Move in the direction of having HR front-load consular assignments. Most ELOs already serve their first tour in a consular position, so make this a uniform policy.

3. Once the aforementioned policy is achieved, combine A-100, consular training and tradecraft courses on economic, political and public diplomacy work into a beefed-up 10-week A-100 course. This reformed A-100 orientation would more closely resemble the military’s Basic Officer Leaders Course for new lieutenants, and could become the first step in the much-touted goal of formalizing Foreign Service training over the course of a career.

4. Once the new A-100 course has operated for a few years, start developing mid-level cone-specific training that more closely resembles the Army’s Captains Career Course. Make attending this course a requirement within three years of promotion to FS-3, and optional for tenured FS-4s.

If sufficiently substantive, such a course should lessen variations in the level of competence among officers who have different lengths of in-cone experience at the entry level. That, combined with the fact that every tenured officer will have at least some in-cone experience, will make it more likely that new mid-level officers are given a fair shake in the assignments process.

Difficult, Yet Achievable

All of this is easier said than done, but eminently achievable. There will be difficulties along the way; but successful reform in how we handle ELO assignments is likely to have a magnified effect at the mid-levels, since many of the perceived inequities in mid-level rating and bidding stem from frustration at not having been being able to serve in cone.

In particular, increasing the number of rotational assignments will cause near-term difficulties for HR and increased levels of staff turnover for supervisors. Challenging as that may be, as long as our career development model is so heavily slanted toward on-the-job training, ELO assignments should be viewed as just that—training—and not simply as encumbered positions.

In the past three months significant, if incremental, reforms have been implemented to improve the rating and assignment processes. Similar reforms should now be undertaken in how we handle the assignment of ELOs.

Andrew Kelly is an FSO vice consul in Manila, where he also served as the ambassador’s staff aide. Previously he held the rule-of-law portfolio in Sofia. Prior to joining the Foreign Service he served two tours in Iraq with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. He joined the Foreign Service in 2010 and is a member of the 157th A-100 class.