On State Reform

Speaking Out


Speaking Out is the Journal’s opinion forum, a place for lively discussion of issues affecting the U.S. Foreign Service and American diplomacy. The views expressed are those of the author; their publication here does not imply endorsement by the American Foreign Service Association. Responses are welcome; send them to journal@afsa.org.

It’s enough to leave one with a sense of what Yogi Berra once called “déjà vu all over again.” The January-February issue of The Foreign Service Journal was devoted to a series of articles about how to reform the State Department. Not quite 20 years ago the May 2001 edition of the FSJ did the same thing.

One of the recommendations in 2001 urged the crafting of a clear plan of action to modernize the State Department, including the transformation of its outdated culture, the embrace of new technology and managerial techniques, better resource management and a compelling case for new resources to reinvigorate the institution. In other words, 2021 sounds a whole lot like 2001, leaving one to wonder whether State, like Chicago politics, will ever really be ready for reform.

Despite the passage of two decades, the department’s dysfunction is described in much the same way. State does not have enough resources, people or technological savvy. It is out of touch with Congress and the American people; it doesn’t provide leadership; and it lacks management skills.

In response, in both 2001 and 2021 the Journal published a number of proposals for reform. Unfortunately, some of them would only make things worse. In 2001, for instance, the elimination of most functional bureaus was proposed. Fortunately, that didn’t happen; with globalization spreading problems around the world with complete disregard for national borders, a global rather than a geographic approach is often called for.

While there are many similarities between the proposals of 2001 and 2021, two of the latest recommendations stand out as different and some are misguided. And, there is one additional proposal that was not made that merits consideration.

Promoting Diversity

The first difference in the 2021 recommendations is the call for greater diversity. It is not that diversity was not a problem 20 years ago, but today awareness of the problem is much greater. The deaths of George Floyd and others, and the Black Lives Matter movement they inspired, have ensured that the problem of systemic racism can no longer be ignored.

But there is a difference between being determined to deal with a problem and effectively addressing it. One of the reform plans suggests that all promotions in the Foreign Service should be dependent and contingent on whether the person has mentored someone and has worked to advance the cause of diversity.

No one would argue against the idea that greater diversity will create a stronger and more representative Foreign Service, and anyone who opposes it should not get promoted.

But it will be hard for officers at every promotion level to demonstrate the things suggested. Whom does a junior officer mentor, and based on what experience do they provide the advice such a role requires? And just how does the average FSO, who has nothing to do with hiring, show evidence of support for diversity?

While expanding the Pickering, Rangel, Payne and Diplomats in Residence programs is essential—and is, in fact, happening—further work will be required to come up with practical measures to improve retention and deliver the desired result. Denying promotions to those who don’t have the opportunity to demonstrate their seriousness about diversity is not one of those measures.

Political Ambassadors

The second significant difference is that the 2001 reform proposals did not speak about political appointee ambassadors, even though it was not a new problem back then and remains an issue today. The 2021 suggestions include limiting political ambassadors, and the Harvard Belfer Center report calls for a 10 percent cap on them.

The Foreign Service Act of 1980 tried to address this question by stating clearly: “Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as chief of mission.” That stipulation brought about only a very small reduction in the percentage. None of the presidents since Richard Nixon have adhered to it, and the selling of ambassadorships, a thinly veiled form of corruption, remains a regular American exercise that no other developed democracy practices. This needs to stop.

Since 1980 the percentage of political ambassadors generally hovered around 30 percent, with the exception of the Reagan administration, which bumped it up to 38 percent by sending noncareer ambassadors to places like Malawi and Rwanda. During the Trump era, it reached a post–World War II high of 43 percent. So who the president is matters.

A numerical limit on the number of political appointees would be hard to get through Congress, however. It might not withstand a challenge to its constitutionality; nor does it address the quality problem. A better approach would be to ensure more transparency and accountability when it comes to ambassadors—both political appointees and career officers.

The certificates of competence the State Department sends to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for each nominee to be ambassador, and puts on the department’s website, should include all political donations by the nominee and his or her immediate family for the last 10 years. The certificate should also include test scores from the Foreign Service Institute to demonstrate the degree to which the nominee can speak the local language.

And it should describe in detail how the nominee acquired “knowledge and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people,” which is also required by the 1980 act. That would at least provide more transparency.

The selling of ambassadorships, a thinly veiled form of corruption, remains a regular American exercise that no other developed democracy practices.

Accountability could be achieved if State’s inspector general sent a short email questionnaire every year to all Americans working in every embassy asking how well the mission is run. Those ambassadors with low scores would get a quick visit from a pair of senior inspectors, who would then write up a report with recommendations for how to improve the situation.

Like embassy inspections (which only happen once every 10 years even though they are supposed to happen every five years), those reports would be posted on the IG’s website for all to see. If aspiring ambassadors knew that their performance will be judged in a very public way, fewer of those whose only qualification is their wealth would apply.

Another way to improve the performance of noncareer ambassadors would be to insist they actually spend some time learning about the State Department, the people who work in an embassy and the problems they will face in their countries. Currently they attend a three-week “charm school,” and then they are off to post. Why not require them to spend four to six months taking courses at FSI, especially those with no experience in government or the military and little to no ability in the local language?

Solutions Seeking Problems

Some 2021 suggestions are not well thought out. Consider the proposal to establish a program modeled on the military’s Reserve Officer Training Corps. The military selects students as they enter college, provides funding for part or all of their undergraduate education, and requires training courses taught on campus by military officers as well as military training in the summer. Upon graduation the student receives a commission as a second lieutenant (or ensign) and has a five-year obligation to serve in the U.S. armed forces.

Such a program applied to State would be expensive, and it would produce junior officers with far less education, experience and maturity than those who are currently selected. Average entrants into the Foreign Service today are in their 30s, have a master’s degree and six years of work experience and, often, have also served in the Peace Corps or the military.

State rightly does not want to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars bringing people on board and training them, only to have them arrive at their first post and decide they don’t like the life they have found. An 18-year-old college freshman does not have anywhere near enough of a record to enable State to make a judgment on whether they are right for the Foreign Service or not.

Moreover, what problem is a ROTC-type program trying to solve? The number of applicants to take the Foreign Service exam was down in recent years, no doubt because of President Donald Trump’s contempt for government service in general and the State Department in particular. But that will change under the Biden administration, and there will again be no shortage of applicants.

State will again be faced with picking a few hundred good candidates from tens of thousands of applicants, making an ROTC program unnecessary. If the goal is diversity, that can be better accomplished by expanding programs already in place than by trying to create a new one that won’t be cheap or effective.

Midlevel Entry? Abolish Cones?

Another solution in search of a problem is the idea of establishing a midlevel entry program, as suggested in the Belfer report. That can only result in current entry-level officers waiting years longer before they can expect a promotion. And since these midlevel entrants would have so little experience at State, they would be at a major disadvantage in competing to enter the senior ranks.

The justification is to enable the recruitment of people with expertise in the cyber world, artificial intelligence, data analytics and financial technologies. Does the State Department really need 500 people with résumés laden with hi-tech buzz words? How many posts are there where those skills are needed? Would anyone with such talents want to work in a job where their specialized skills could not be used? It would also not be a good way to attempt to achieve a shortcut to diversity.

The department already has several fellowship programs for scientists and engineers. It would make far more sense to expand them, and provide a path through them to midlevel entry into a career Civil Service position in a job in Washington where those skills can be used.

Another bad idea is the proposal to abolish the cones, which divide FSOs into five career tracks (political, economic, public diplomacy, management, consular). This would supposedly end the caste system in which roughly 50 percent of career ambassador slots go to political officers and 20 percent to economic officers, with the remaining three cones getting about 10 percent each. The justification for eliminating cones is the assertion that one shouldn’t be an ambassador “unless you can run and understand every part of your mission.”

But how is an officer going to effectively spend a tour in a consular job, then one in a general services slot followed by an economic reporting position? FSOs are skilled and adaptable, but the experience obtained in one cone does not mean one is ready to take on all the others. And a multiconed ambassador would still lack experience in all the other agencies in the embassy, so that is not the key to good management of a mission.

To end the caste system, it would be better to create more interfunctional positions, be more flexible about out-of-cone assignments and task the committee that selects deputy chiefs of mission with more carefully considering officers from other cones.

One Missing Proposal

Finally, here is a suggestion that I did not see in any of the reform plans. One of the perennial observations about the Foreign Service is that neither Congress nor the public understand the importance of what it does. To expand that understanding and support, how about vastly increasing the Pearson program to get more FSOs on Capitol Hill and out into the heartland?

Serving in a Pearson assignment, or taking a tour as diplomat in residence recruiting people for State, should be a requirement for promotion to the senior ranks. That would help achieve more diversity, and it would put the State Department much more in touch with the country it represents.

Dennis Jett, a retired FSO and former ambassador, is a professor of international affairs at Penn State University and the author of American Ambassadors and other books. In 28 years with the State Department, he served as ambassador to Peru and Mozambique and deputy chief of mission in Liberia and Malawi, among other postings.