Are U.S. Foreign Service officers an endangered breed?
They fear the State Department wants to define them away.
This is one thrust of a new report from the American Academy of Diplomacy. Another is what it calls “the politicization of the policy and appointment process.”
“American Diplomacy at Risk” is the name of the report, but it focuses on American diplomats, specifically career Foreign Service officers (FSOs). The risk comes from political appointees encroaching on their turf and State confusing the roles of FSOs and civil service employees, according to the Academy. It bills itself as “a prestigious, independent, non-profit association of former ambassadors and senior level government officials whose mission is to strengthen American diplomacy.”
Diplomats are known for cautious language that says little. Those who wrote the Academy’s report decided to shuck that and go for the blunt.
“America’s diplomacy — the front line of our defenses — is in trouble,” it says.
Of course, there is a strong element of self-interest in the document, but the Academy makes a case that should not be dismissed.
While Academy officials emphasize their respect and appreciation for their civil service colleagues, the document attacks the State Department’s “real and significant effort . . . to homogenize the Foreign and Civil Services in a manner that is fundamentally detrimental to the existence of a professional Foreign Service.”
As if to make that case, an April 12, 2013, press guidance issued by the department, and reprinted in the report, said something called “The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review requires that we break down institutional, cultural, and legal barriers between the Foreign Service and the Civil Service.” Known as QDDR, the review is a four-year blueprint for the use of American diplomacy and foreign assistance.
Another part of State’s effort is “the nullification of the Foreign Service Act of 1980,” which the Academy says, “establishes a Foreign Service officer corps as an elite organization.”
Rather than supporting the Foreign Service, State Department officials “have sought consistently to erase the terms ‘Foreign Service’ as an institution, ‘Foreign Service Officer,’ and the acronym ‘FSO’ from the State Department vocabulary,” the report says. “You will rarely hear those words uttered by State’s officials at all levels in their speeches and materials prepared for the public.”
Indeed, when asked for Foreign Service racial and gender demographics, State provided a table that showed unacceptably low African American participation in key categories and had classifications for “Civil Service,” “FS Specialist” and “FS Generalist,” but nothing for Foreign Service Officers. A visit to state.gov, however, finds a number of links to FSO pages.
Thomas Boyatt, a former ambassador and a past president of the American Foreign Service Association, said calling FSOs out of their name “is institutionalized disrespect.”
Kate Starr, a department spokeswoman, strongly disagreed “with the characterization that the department is ignoring or nullifying the Foreign Service Act of 1980. It has always and continues to provide the legal framework in which we operate.
“Both the civil and foreign services bring unique and complementary expertise and talent to our national security mission,” she said by e-mail. “The opportunities and challenges that we face are growing, not receding; therefore, it is essential and urgent that we amplify the strengths of all of our employees.”
While issues involving FSOs and civil service employees are unique to the State Department, those dealing with political appointees and career staff are not. The number of political appointees has been a point of contention across the government. At State, the portion of political people in senior positions, assistant secretary and above, jumped to 51 percent last year from 37 percent in 1975, according to Academy pie charts based on State Department data. Notably, those same charts show the percentage of civil service and Senior Executive Service members in senior positions at 3 percent both years.
“The role of money in politics has made more egregious the practice of appointing political ambassadors who lack the appropriate experience or credentials for that role,” the Academy said. “Some highly talented citizens have served brilliantly as ambassadors. The practice of calling on private citizens, however, does not justify sending overseas ambassadors so deficient in evident qualifications as to make them laughing stocks at home and abroad. The sale of office is contrary to law.”
Starr said most overseas ambassador slots are filled with career Foreign Service officers.
The Academy didn’t just complain, it offered recommendations for both FSOs and civil service employees. FSOs need more professional education and greater understanding of other agencies that also work abroad, said Ronald E. Neumann, the Academy’s president and a former ambassador.
For State’s civil service employees, the report recommends a new track that would allow them to bid on up to 10 percent of Foreign Service domestic openings, while taking on some characteristics of FSOs, including mandatory mobility and “up-or-out” competitive promotions.
The Academy urged State “to comprehensively review and modernize it entire system of workforce management.” Good advice.
Previous columns by Joe Davidson are available at wapo.st/JoeDavidson.