The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2024

In my first assignment with the Commercial Service, I had the honor to serve in one of our U.S. Export Assistant Centers (USEACs). We counseled small and medium businesses on the basics of exporting and doing business internationally. It was a great role that allowed me to learn the core of our mission. Yet, having come from a hard-charging management consulting firm, the workload at the USEAC was a bit lighter than I was used to. So, with some additional capacity, my wife and I started a side hustle investing in real estate. It was a wonderful whirlwind of contractors, architects, frustration, and elation. By the time we left for our first overseas tour, we had renovated 30 apartment units in 30 months. Throughout nearly two decades of renovating homes since those early days, we’ve learned a good deal. One of the core tenets of any major renovation project is that you first bolster the foundation and “bones” of the property before tackling any other major work. But does the same hold true for renovating an organization? In mid-May, a longplanned modernized Commercial Service was launched by the secretary of Commerce and the assistant secretary of the Foreign Commercial Service. From Building a Strong Foundation 52 JULY AUGUST 2024 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL what I have seen so far, this appears to be a very promising step forward for our organization. With a tremendous amount of energy and focus, teams within FCS have been working for more than a year on this rollout. It was done the right way, with input gathered from the field to foster stakeholder buy-in. And the secretary’s involvement will ensure that these modernization efforts are here to stay. Embracing cutting-edge technology, FCS will adjust its focus and processes for how we engage with businesses, enabling additional capacity dedicated to strategic policy moves. This effort, envisioned by our capable assistant secretary, and embraced by our outstanding team, has tremendous promise and should be celebrated. So, what’s not to like? It remains to be seen if these shiny new tools and processes will lift or add to the burden of the already burned-out field staff. AFSA recently conducted a survey to better understand how budget challenges are affecting FCS officers serving overseas. The results were shocking, as members cited more than 30 percent reductions in staffing, a more than 100 percent increase in demand for services, and a lack of strategic organizational direction. This has led to a decline in the physical and mental health of our members and an inability to effectively compete with the People’s Republic of China, which has 10 times more commercial officers in some markets than the United States. According to an AFSA survey: • 96 percent of officers indicated that budgetary constraints have affected their ability to perform their primary duties. • 96 percent of officers indicated that budgetary constraints have negatively affected team morale at post. • 93 percent believe that the budget cuts have led to a decline in the quality of the organization’s work. • 56 percent of America’s commercial diplomats are considering leaving FCS due to budgetary constraints. • Additionally, basic training, including tradecraft and security, are no longer offered for officers, locally employed (LE) staff, or spouses. The FSOs, Civil Service, and LE staff who work at USEACs and at FCS Washington, D.C., headquarters are the true foundation of our Service, but our foundation is crumbling. We are in dire need of a deep renovation. So, while I applaud the new modernized addition to our organization, I am hopeful that the same energy, attention, and budget will be invested into reinforcing what has always made us great: our people. n Contact: FCS VP VOICE | BY JOSHUA BURKE AFSA Governing Board Meeting, May 15, 2024 AFSA NEWS The Governing Board met on May 15, 2024. While there were no items to vote on this month, the board discussed upcoming issues of interest, including final plans for the centennial gala on May 21. Additionally, each board member received a copy of AFSA’s newest book, the second edition of Harry Kopp’s The Voice of the Foreign Service. n Embracing cutting-edge technology, FCS will adjust its focus and processes for how we engage with businesses.