Unpacking “Stewardship”

Where We Stand


Being a “steward” of the Foreign Service sounds like a great honor and responsibility, but what does it really mean? In this column, I will unpack the notion of stewardship and suggest some ways AFSA can help our members think about and practice it.

The expectation that Foreign Service members will be stewards of the organization is baked into the Foreign Service Act of 1980. The Act describes the Foreign Service as a professional body, and it lays out duties and responsibilities similar to those of other professional bodies, such as the American Bar Association.

If performed with integrity, those foundational obligations (e.g., hiring new employees, mentoring and training, deciding on tenure and promotion—including across the senior threshold—and enforcing discipline) keep the Service healthy. Foreign Service members are expected to perform these duties, which are encouraged by all the promotion precepts and required at senior levels.

So how can you put stewardship front and center? Here are some ideas and practices to put in place now.

Ask: Will it strengthen the Service? In reacting to a policy or administrative proposal regarding the Foreign Service as an institution, ask yourself whether the action or policy will truly make the Service stronger—not just solve the immediate problem presented, but ultimately lead to a Foreign Service better positioned to meet the challenges our country faces. If the answer is no, it might be better to seek alternatives.

Don’t assume stewardship is just for seniors. Although the current Foreign Service promotion precepts place an emphasis on institution-wide stewardship at the senior levels, it is possible and indeed necessary at all levels.

For example, one of the most important duties Foreign Service members perform is deciding whether or not to tenure another individual. Many of the raters making crucial tenure recommendations in employee evaluation reports are not of senior rank.

Educate yourself and others. Educate yourself about the Foreign Service and, if you can, educate others. Reading The Foreign Service Journal is a great place to start, as is exploring the AFSA website, which has lists of books about the Foreign Service, a Foreign Service statistics section and helpful Q&As.

Knowing the ins and outs of the Foreign Service can make a huge difference in assessing whether new proposals would strengthen or harm the institution.

Although the current Foreign Service promotion precepts place an emphasis on institution-wide stewardship at the senior levels, it is possible and indeed necessary at all levels.

Take community service and institution building seriously. When you volunteer for Foreign Service recommendation-making bodies—whether it’s service on a promotion panel, a post awards panel, or an EER review board, or just sharing Foreign Service tradecraft in your free time—you are strengthening the institution and modeling best practices for others.

Tell the Foreign Service story. As we pointed out in the call for contributions to The Foreign Service Journal’s “Diplomacy Works” collection, which you can read in this issue: “Often the best diplomatic work leaves no trace because it is achieved behind the scenes, through partnership and shared effort—and an insistence on giving all the credit to others.”

Diplomats most often reach win-win agreements. Occasionally, though, making a tough decision can create pain for the host government in the short run, and knowing how to acknowledge the pain while preserving the diplomatic relationship through to the payoff is a prized diplomatic skill.

It’s not easy to explain this aspect of diplomatic work—but it’s possible. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on how best to explain our work to the public and to our elected representatives.

Finally, push back. Being educated about the structure and functioning of the Foreign Service as an institution can help you push back on inaccurate perceptions.

For example, there are still some people who believe that Foreign Service members did not step up to serve in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

That is untrue. All the positions in those posts have been filled by volunteers, even during the height of the fighting in both war zones, and continue to be filled at rates approaching 100 percent.

Similarly, greater hardship posts throughout the world have lower vacancy rates than posts with no hardship differentials. Knowing the facts can help you confidently push back on these and other damaging narratives about the Foreign Service.

AFSA will continue to assist our members in every way possible to be effective stewards of the Foreign Service. Your thoughts are most welcome—please email us at policy@afsa.org.

Julie Nutter is Director of Professional Policy Issues at the American Foreign Service Association.