The Foreign Service Blues

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Foreign Service—the 6,500 officers and 5,000 support staff who make up the State Department’s diplomatic corps—has changed dramatically since the 1990s, shedding much of its insular culture, broadening its workforce, and adapting to the rapid changes of the post –Cold War world. Unfortunately, many of our critics haven’t noticed these changes because one of the service’s greatest weaknesses—an inability to communicate effectively with the people whose taxes pay our salaries —remains as woeful as ever. This weakness hit home this past fall and winter when the press suggested that the Foreign Service was somehow failing to meet its obligations in Baghdad.

The truth was the direct opposite, but the story, once misrepresented by some news organizations and bloggers, took on a life of its own. The Foreign Service does have a personnel crisis, but it has nothing to do with any reluctance to support the U.S. mission in Iraq.

It helps to understand the Foreign Service assignments process, which will be familiar to anyone who ever served as a midlevel or higher military officer. Each summer, members receive a list of positions for which they are at the proper grade and have the requisite skills. Each officer scheduled to transfer within twelve months submits a list of his or her preferred jobs. A shell game ensues, with officers lobbying for their top picks and supervisors checking candidates ’ references and reputations and informing human resources of their preferences. Assuming the number of candidates matches the number of open positions, eventually all the jobs are filled, a process aided by financial incentives designed to encourage people to serve in remote, unhealthful, or dangerous places.

The jobs-to-candidates steady state requires that hiring keep up with the sum of attrition and new billets; since the 1990s hiring has fallen far behind because of budget constraints. During this period, the breakup of the Soviet Union and disintegration of the Warsaw bloc led to the opening of dozens of new embassies and consulates, most of them staffed by robbing Peter to pay Paul. The 1998 attacks on our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and the 9/11 attacks created a need for hundreds of new security, facilities, and management officers, while new visa requirements greatly expanded our need for consular employees.

A November 2007 independent study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) notes that “America’s capacity for ‘soft power’—winning friends through diplomacy and without coercion—is small compared to its capacity to wage war.”  CSIS recommended that the Foreign Service add 1,000 positions as soon as possible and noted that by the State Department ’s calculations, the Foreign Service was short at least 2,094 employees to fill open positions and training billets. In other words, the service needed to grow by 20 percent just to fill vacancies. Other independent studies recommended that the Foreign Service double in size to meet new needs in the Muslim world and to provide employees adequate time for training, especially in key languages like Arabic.

FILLING CRITICAL POSITIONS

Despite our deepening personnel crisis, the Foreign Service rank and file—both our representative bargaining organization and our senior officers—have supported management’s commitment to ensure that 100 percent of the positions in Iraq and Afghanistan are filled.

By autumn 2007, 10 percent of all Foreign Service personnel had already served a tour in Iraq. Additionally, at least 10 percent of the service had been deployed each year to a “danger pay” post—similar to a combat-pay posting for the military. Despite the toll that such tours were taking on employees ’ families, 200 Foreign Service members had volunteered by October 2007 for the 250 positions that would open in Iraq in the summer of 2008. The deadline for submitting bidding preferences had not passed, though the special “early season” for people interested in bidding on Iraq had closed. All in all, it seemed to many of us in the service that with more than six months to go, the State Department was well on its way to meeting its goal of filling 100 percent of the positions in Iraq without having to resort to “directed assignments”: filling positions with nonvolunteers.

One study notes that America’s ability to win friends through diplomacy “is small, compared to its capacity to wage war,” and that it is urgent for the Foreign Service to grow.

Then, in October, the director general of the Foreign Service—the equivalent of the service’s human resources director—held a conference call with reporters to update them on progress in filling the most difficult positions. The media chose to highlight the director general ’s decision to inform a few hundred officers that if not enough volunteers came forward, the designated officers might be told to report to Iraq. Such an early warning was meant to give the officers an opportunity to inform the service of any health or family issues that would affect their ability to serve in Iraq.

Sadly, the State Department’s success in filling all its positions in Iraq with volunteers never received the attention of the original misleading story.  When the last of the 250 billets were filled with volunteers just a few weeks after the original reporting, few news organizations covered the good news. The same news organizations failed to note that directed assignments such as those broached for Iraq were not new. In recent years the department had regularly created lists of potential “designees” for posts in countries such as Pakistan, where I served in 2006–07 and where the Foreign Service’s personnel shortages hit particularly hard.

A UNIQUE JOB WITH UNIQUE CHALLENGES

The Foreign Service is a small organization with a long list of obligations. Its 6,500 generalist officers are divided among 260 overseas posts and Washington. About two-thirds currently serve outside the United States, from sub-Saharan Africa to deep inside China; from Latin America to Vladivostok. Officers ’ responsibilities include interviewing more than 8 million visa applicants (in fiscal year 2007); adjudicating thousands of claims of U.S. citizenship; keeping the generators running at our embassies and roofs over the heads of our colleagues; strengthening the security of Americans and American business overseas; negotiating civil aviation agreements and decreased trade barriers; encouraging democracy; monitoring human rights records; and fostering cooperation in the United Nations and other organizations.

The State Department’s success in filling all its positions in Iraq with volunteers never received the attention of the original misleading story.

Very little of this work takes place in London or Paris. Most of my colleagues have served at least one year in a danger-pay locale. Some are on their second or third rotations in such areas. There are a few officers who still have not stepped forward to do their fair share in difficult and dangerous places, but, to put it bluntly, their careers are over. These days, if you expect to be promoted, you have to spend time in some pretty tough situations.

A few months after the Iraq staffing story appeared, the press offered another claim of low morale in the Foreign Service and supposed unhappiness with Iraq war policy. I remain angry over the way the reporting of this story has been used by many to impugn my patriotism and that of my colleagues.

It began with a fall 2007 survey conducted by the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), which is both the professional association and the collective bargaining body for the Foreign Service. AFSA differs from most unions in many respects, including that most of its leaders come from senior management and return to management after their terms expire. AFSA tends to be a collegial, rather than adversarial, organization.

Almost 4,300 members completed AFSA’s electronic questionnaire—a sizable number in a workforce of 11,500. The biggest concerns of the respondents were not terribly surprising. By far the most important issue —one virtually ignored by reporters—was the substantial pay cut all but the most senior Foreign Service members absorb when they transfer overseas.

Let me explain. During the 1990s, in an effort to attract and retain government employees in expensive urban areas, Washington adopted a locality pay structure. Employees in areas like New York, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco would receive a percentage bonus over their base pay. Within a few years, the plan was modified in a way that had deep consequences for the Foreign Service: the pay structure added the category “rest of the U.S,” meaning that locality pay applies to any government employee living anywhere in the continental 48 states not covered by one of the higher bonuses. (Alaska and Hawaii are covered by a different cost-of-living bonus system.) Thus, although locality pay for Washington, D.C., in 2008 appears to be 20.89 percent, in reality it is only a 7.71 percent increase, considering the “rest of the U.S.” rate of 13.18 percent.

State Department employees who hope for promotion know they have to spend time in some tough places.

By law, civilians serving overseas receive zero locality pay, meaning that employees transferring from Washington to any overseas assignment take a 21 percent pay cut. Other agencies have developed various bonus structures to help employees recoup such losses, but the State Department has not. Exacerbating the 21 percent pay cut for married officers is the difficulty spouses have in finding appropriate jobs overseas, meaning families often lose an entire income when they deploy.

Some observers note that employees receive free housing when overseas. Although that is true, that benefit tends to counteract the loss in salary only for the youngest officers. Someone who has owned a home in the capital area for a number of years is generally paying significantly less than 20 percent of his salary toward his or her housing. Moreover, employees who hold on to their homes and rent them out while overseas often do so at a substantial loss. And the 10 percent of service members at unaccompanied posts must maintain their families —and mortgage payments—at home, though the government does try to defray some of those “separate maintenance” expenses.

The AFSA survey brought out other morale issues, most of them having to do with the assignments and promotion process. Of course, if there is a company in America that does not field similar complaints, I have not found it. (That does not negate the need for management to continue to improve fairness in personnel practices, especially at a time when members are risking their lives in dangerous places.)

The third biggest concern to members was “family friendliness,” generally referring to lack of employment opportunities for spouses overseas and the declining quality of some overseas schools. Additionally, as in the military, family separations due to the growing list of unaccompanied posts are taking their toll.

Thousands of Foreign Service employees told survey-takers that they had already served in Iraq or were willing to volunteer to do so. When asked why, 59 percent said it was their patriotic duty.

Of considerably less concern to those employees who responded to the questionnaire were questions about Iraq service and directed assignments. Yet in covering the survey, the press focused on those topics, even though they ranked fourth and fifth in terms of employee concerns. The stories sidestepped the pay and promotion concerns, the overwhelmingly greatest issues for employees.

THE HEALTH OF THE FOREIGN SERVICE

In recent months, unexpected (though welcome) public concern over and support for the Foreign Service has come from the Heritage Foundation, Newt Gingrich, and Secretary of Defense William Gates. All have noted that projecting a positive image of America and Americans overseas and encouraging stability, democracy, and economic growth are the most important challenges facing our generation. The Foreign Service needs to be in the lead in all these areas, but without adequate resources, the frustrations of doing more with less and making greater and greater sacrifices without commensurate compensation are taking their toll.

At the same time, anecdotal reports of increasing problems with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) led the Foreign Service Journal to dedicate its January 2008 issue to recognizing PTSD symptoms and seeking treatment. The PTSD problem is particularly acute in a small organization, where one supervisor suffering from acute stress and taking out his or her frustrations on subordinates and colleagues can have a huge effect on morale and retention. Anyone who has ever been in a poisonous work environment with inadequate resources will recognize the problem; now imagine the same office in a combat zone.

But there is good news amid the concern. Thousands who responded to the AFSA survey reported that they had already served in Iraq or were willing to volunteer to do so. When asked why, 59 percent said it was their patriotic duty. The press greeted that finding with a deafening silence.