The Foreign Service Journal, March 2024

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | MARCH 2024 51 To determine how best to spend learning hours, the new Learning Policy encourages employees to create their own Individual Development Plan. The policy encourages 40 hours of dedicated learning, which can be broken down into time increments that make the most sense for the individual’s learning goals and best fit into their schedule. If someone wants to work on job-related language needs, they may decide to take a mentor-guided course for eight hours of learning time, using one hour per week. Learning a language requires more regular practice, so the individual may carve out 15 minutes on other days of the week to focus on language learning. This practice may consist of study with a language app, searching for videos to work on a specific grammatical issue, or practicing with an LE staff member. For some offices, it may work best if the entire team sets aside one hour per week to focus on individual goals. Setting aside time on individual or office calendars can be a helpful reminder to make sure that working days are not fully consumed by meetings or taskings. For others, working on a dedicated course or type of learning during a season when the workload is more manageable might make more sense. Flexibility Is the Key As he stated during a town hall earlier this fall, Deputy Secretary Verma emphasizes that flexibility is a key component of the policy designed with employees in mind. Ultimately, the policy is meant to be a springboard for culture change—truly integrating continual learning into the fabric of our organization. Many have suggested that to really change the culture, the policy’s major components (Core Curriculum, dedicated learning hours, and IDPs) should be mandatory, otherwise the press of other business will always win out. Those concerns are valid, particularly given the pace and volume of work the workforce faces. The decision to strongly encourage, not mandate, at the present time stemmed from two related considerations. First, the architects of the policy believe that this form of culture change would be best achieved through voluntary compliance. Mandatory requirements can achieve compliance—but the policy seeks not to check a box but rather to win over hearts and minds, something better accomplished through persuasion and positive experiences than by a hammer. Second, the new policy takes into consideration the current state of the workforce as it recuperates from the myriad challenges the past few years have presented. The Learning Policy reinforces the idea that learning is not something employees do in addition to their work; it needs to be a fundamental part of the work. As FSI’s Director Joan Polaschik said during a December 2023 town hall about the Secretary’s Modernization Agenda, “The learning policy really is about creating that expectation that we’re doing learning as part of our normal work week.” That is the only way the department will stay abreast of emerging demands, opportunities, and modalities in the critical mission areas and beyond, and it’s how members of the workforce can stay competitive in their fields for future service in the department—or outside it. So, we must create the space to integrate learning. Doing so will require increasing focus on identifying existing tasks that teams and individuals can “stop doing” or can do more efficiently, e.g., through use of artificial intelligence, and making learning as accessible and flexible as possible. Moreover, research shows that learning something new can actually reduce stress and restore energy at work. Future improvements to the Learning Policy will include additional external training opportunities focused on critical mission priorities and an expanded program to support attendance at relevant workshops and conferences. FSI is revamping an existing program that funds external training to expand opportunities for employees looking to further their knowledge and skills. The long-term goal of these changes is to create a culture shift within the State Department where employees are continually acquiring new skills and knowledge. Speaking directly to employees at the December 2023 town hall, Director General Marcia Bernicat described this shift as a “revolution.” She said: “I would urge each of you to think of what it is you do on a day-to-day basis that you shouldn’t be doing anymore. ... Let’s reprioritize.” She described ways her own team has used technology to save time and urged middle managers especially to work with their teams to think about how they can do work differently, explore the power of AI, and end the cycle of burnout. By changing the culture to work strategically and build in lifelong learning, the department will build teams that are ready to tackle current foreign policy challenges, as well as the challenges of the future. n Straight from the Source is the FSJ space for the foreign affairs agencies to inform the FS community about new policies or innovations in operations. What are your thoughts about the new Learning Policy? Please send your feedback as letters to or comment on FSJ LinkedIn.