Moments in U.S. Diplomatic History

Up or Out — The Challenges of the State Department Personnel System


Folder-Dance_041912-572x368The United States Department of State is not the monolithic entity it may at first appear to be.  The lack of streamlined appointment and promotion policy between the Civil Service and the Foreign Service has at times created an atmosphere of tension within the Department. Previous Directors General of the Foreign Service have attempted to bridge the divide between the agencies, with mixed success. After the Foreign Service Act was revised in 1980, subsequent Directors have sought to accommodate the changes. Former Directors General George Vest (who served from 1985-1989) and Anthony Quainton (1995-1997) discuss their experiences implementing the new Act and addressing matters of personnel and the relationship between the Civil and Foreign Service. Vest was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 1990, Quainton in 1997. See also Susan Johnson’s piece on Civil Service vs. Foreign Service.

“The up-or-out system is largely a facet of our society today”

Q: What is the job of Director General and what were the particular problems that you were faced with?

VEST: These come from the same origins. There was a new act passed, the new act of 1986 governing the Foreign Service. And in the course of that act, first of all, the act took all aspects of personnel — Foreign Service and Civil Service, worldwide and in the building, everything involving personnel — and put it under the immediate responsibility of the Director General. Prior to the act of 1986, the Director General did not personally run personnel himself. He sat above it and did policy and very important assignments. But with that one, you had it from the nitty gritty from the bottom up, and the Director General was responsible for everything from the advertising, examination, appointment, job assignments worldwide, discipline when things went wrong — it means firing people from time to time, or lesser discipline — promotion and recommending the senior most choices where Foreign Service officers go. In other words, everything involving the Foreign Service.

That was on the one hand. Now in that same Foreign Service Act was a second thing, which was entirely revolutionary for our Foreign Service. Before 1946, when you came into the Foreign Service, you could reasonably aspire to a lifetime career if you did a reasonable job. [Up until] age 60 to the early 60s. What that had done was, because of our normal niceness as Americans, we had never of come to terms with the fact that if you’re going to maintain a Service, you’re going to have to fire some people for being inefficient or acting improperly or doing it improperly or doing whatever, and we had not adequately applied this business of if you’re at the bottom of your class, you should retire. And so we had far too many chiefs in relation to the Indians, in relation to the number of jobs to be filled. A great many. In fact, the year that I took over the job, there were over 200 senior officers who had no job of any kind to do and were drawing top senior salaries and just having coffee in the cafeteria and agitating, hoping they could find a job someday.

musical-chairsThe new Foreign Service Act instituted an up-or-out system, which set out to have a rational system related to the number of jobs to be filled in the Foreign Service, with a steady proportion of promotions and, at the senior levels, a certain number of people would be honorably retired under varying conditions which led to that retirement. This would mean that a certain number of people would be lost at various stages at the top, beginning primarily with some at the early 50s, some in the late 50s, and some in the early 60s. But in our senior group, there would be a significant number of people who would be asked to retire. Honorable retirement with all perquisites and allowances you’d normally get at such a time, a system which was comparable to the way in which captains in the Navy, colonels in the Army, who do not make general and admiral, are asked to retire. In fact, frankly, a system which, if you looked larger, is increasingly applied in law firms, in colleges, those who get tenure and those who do not. I mean, the up-or-out system is largely a facet of our society today.

But we had never had it before. And a whole bunch of people had worked for years in the Foreign Service and were suddenly told, “This is applicable to you,” and they were outraged. They said, “You changed the rules in the middle of the game. We were misled as to whether we should compete for these senior slots.” Many things were said, and there was very, very deep-seated anger, agitation, unease, and a great many people were complaining and morale was very deeply affected by it. There was no question.

To put this into effect, it just happened that it would come into effect with significant numbers of people being asked to retire exactly during the period when I was going to be the director general. [Laughter] Its effectiveness came with my arrival….

George_ShultzI had the dubious honor, and the not at all dubious pleasure, of putting this into effect, and we had many new things. People grieved and went to law, made lawsuits about this, and there were people who felt very upset about it, wives who were deeply offended. I mean, it was an extremely difficult period. I would have to say, however, as we went on through it, one, I had total backing from Secretary Shultz; and secondly — it meant even more important in one sense because it was a day-to-day thing–I had total backing from the Under Secretary of State, Ron Spiers, and without that kind of backing, it couldn’t possibly have been done. If you’re going to put in all new rules, try to do it as honestly and as compassionately as you can. You do have to do a lot of disagreeable things, and you’re going to have to be backed so that people aren’t going to try to undercut what you’ve done. And I was never undercut by either Secretary Shultz or Spiers, and every time I went to them, I was backed.…..

“It is hard to catch the attention of the top management for anything dealing with personnel matters”

QUAINTON: I came in in late December of 1995 and was Director General until August of 1997. I came in the midst of the closure of government. Congress had failed to pass a continuing resolution to fund the State Department’s operations in early December 1995. I arrived in the middle of this when the State Department was essentially closed…. Essential functions were going on. Many of the functions of our embassies overseas were closed. It was quite an extraordinary time to take over the personnel system.

Morale, of course, was dreadful for all sorts of reasons but basically because the Congress had made it quite clear that they didn’t think the State Department was very important in the grand scheme of things. This problem was exacerbated internally because the people who were asked to come to work were perceived to be the people who were important, and the people who weren’t asked to come to work were seen as somehow being characterized as less valuable, and their work less important. Those were often Civil Service employees while Foreign Service people were deemed essential. All of the internal tensions in the Department were exacerbated by what happened.

afsa_logo_w_ribbonOne of the first things I had to do in my capacity as director general was to appear on the barricades in a public meeting denouncing the furlough of government employees held in the little park on the 21st Street entrance of the Department. AFSA [the American Foreign Service Association] and AFGE [the American Federation of Government Employees] organized a public demonstration complete with banners, trade union representatives who exhorted the brothers and sisters, as we were called, to stalwart opposition to our elected leaders who were doing wicked things. There were a variety of banners hostile to the Speaker of the House and to the Secretary of State. There was one I remember that said, “Mr. Christopher, where are you?” Strobe Talbot attended, as did I. In fact I was asked to speak on the barricades….

The Secretary was doing a great deal behind the scenes. But, the sense that he was not particularly visible on this issue was reflected in the profound unhappiness of the workforce….

The second thing that happened which marked my tenure was a meeting of the Board of the Foreign Service. The Director General is the chairman of this board, which was setup statutorily under the Foreign Service Act of 1980. The Secretary of State is supposed to be the chair, but he historically always designates that role to the Director General of the Foreign Service. It was an institution that had not met very often. My predecessor had only one meeting of the board her whole time as director general, but I thought this was an institution that deserved to be revitalized, that there were a lot of issues among the foreign affairs agencies that needed to be discussed, including differences in personnel policy and personnel management styles.

So, we had a meeting in February at which we discussed the furlough and the different ways in which the foreign affairs agencies had handled the furlough overseas. There were quite extraordinary discrepancies, most of them not very conducive to harmony at an overseas post or indeed here in Washington. We discussed this for some time. It was quite a useful discussion. But, at the end of the meeting, the USIA [U.S. Information Agency] representative, the counselor of USIA who was the senior career officer in her agency, said that this had been a fascinating discussion, but she had to say in all honesty that it had not been an important discussion. There was only one thing the Board of the Foreign Service should be discussing: the question of why should we have a Foreign Service.

Jesse HelmsThat was not a question I had given much thought to frankly before becoming Director General and I spent almost all of my time from then until the end of my tenure asking myself that question and asking it of my colleagues. It was quite clear as Senator Helms pressed for the consolidation of the foreign affair agencies and Congressman Gilman continually raised issues about discrimination between the Foreign Service and the Civil Service in the Department of State that people on the Hill did not understand why we had a Foreign Service. And it was probably not clear to the American public why we have a Foreign Service. And given the tremendous breakup, breakdown of institutional cohesion in the Department, it is not even clear to the employees of the Department, what is the unique value added that the Foreign Service provides to the foreign policy of the United State….

I didn’t mention a growing issue throughout my tenure which was the whole question of the role of the Civil Service in the Department of State. The Civil Service ombudsman issued a report to the Secretary in December, 1995, just before I took over, which was very critical of the Department, and which suggested that the Department was organized to discriminate against the Civil Service institutionally as well as individually. The Secretary was quite concerned about this. This report got some considerable publicity inside the Department.

And there was always the issue that began to be a problem under my predecessor, of whether we were being fair to the Civil Service side of the house. I worked very hard to try and build bridges between the Civil Service and the Foreign Service, to get them to see themselves as being on the same team. One of the efforts I made that worked well was the creation of Public Service Recognition Week in the summer of 1997. Historically there had always been Foreign Service Day, in the first or second week in May, which was the only day devoted to a portion of the Department’s workforce. But the Civil Service became increasingly critical of Foreign Service Day. They kept asking why there wasn’t a Civil Service Day.

Directors General, Public Service Recognition WeekIn the summer of 1996, I had been invited to the Mall to attend the celebrations of Public Service Recognition Week, and I sat on the podium while a whole string of people got recognition from various Federal agencies. Indeed, there was an award for distinction in international affairs which went to someone from the Customs Service, if my recollection is correct. I wondered why the State Department wasn’t recognized…. It was a big event. There was a big exhibition on The Mall and it turned out that there was a State Department portion of this, a tiny table, at which a State Department officer handed out copies of the Foreign Service Journal or AFSA publications.

It seemed to me that I made a very poor impression. So, when I got to the next year, having lived through a great deal of tension between the Civil Service and the Foreign Service, I said that we would make something of Public Service Recognition Week. It turned out that Foreign Service Day fell within Public Service Recognition Week, and we organized a whole series of events. We held ceremonies which recognized the Civil Service and the Foreign Service, Civil Service Day, Foreign Service Day. It went pretty well.

As we have seen subsequently, it is very hard to catch the attention of the top management of the Department for anything dealing with personnel matters because of the enormous substantive agenda that they have to confront. But, I think we managed to get the Civil Service and Foreign Service working somewhat better together. I was happy to see that much of this was carried on after I left. But I think this problem of Civil Service versus Foreign Service goes back to the question that I was asked by the Board of the Foreign Service. Why do we have a foreign service? Why do we have something that is different, and call it different and treat it differently? And [there is] the issue of assignments to our embassies, Civil Service assignments, and the way this has changed, the way we are filling jobs overseas by people who are not traditional Foreign Service officers, who have been the core of the Foreign Service for the last 75 years….

The Foreign Service Officer Test and Recruiting for Diversity

When I arrived as Director General I was presented a proposal to change the basis on which the Foreign Service recruited its candidates. This was a proposal which had been developed in the previous six to eight months and which suggested that we should experiment with an alternative to the traditional Foreign Service Exam which had been in existence in its present broad format since the mid-1950s when the multiple-choice written exam supplanted the three and a half days essay-type exam. I was in the first group that took the new exam.

The problem with the existing examination was that for reasons which no one could adequately explain either to the management of the Department or to the courts, it did not seem to produce sufficient diversity in the pool of candidates going on to the oral assessment. It was not clear whether there was some inherent problem with the questions themselves, which made them harder for particular ethnic groups to pass or whether there had been questions which were in some way male-oriented, disadvantaging female candidates.

In any case, it was suggested to me that we ought to substitute or at least supplement the traditional intake by examination with a system which permitted us to do recruitment on the basis of the skill needs of the Service. The idea was to model the recruitment process on the system currently used elsewhere in the U.S. government for the presidential management interns. PMIs, as they are known, apply from their graduate schools, are nominated and supported by their deans and professors and go forward to a competitive oral assessment run by the Office of Personnel Management. If they pass that oral assessment at which the assessors have access not only to the candidate but to the candidate’s record in terms of previous employment and academic history, they are then offered appointments as PMIs in one of the government departments including the Department of State.

searching-blindfolded-manThe advantage of this system was that selection would be based in part, at least, on past performance:  how well people have done academically and how well they may have done with any professional experience they may have. The current Foreign Service Exam precludes the examiners or the system from knowing anything about the candidates either in terms of their academic performance or their previous work experience. So, candidates in areas where we may have substantial need, take East Asian studies as a possible area looking to the 21st century, we do not have any ability to find out whether we are getting candidates who have already demonstrated mastery in Chinese or Japanese or have worked in the Far East or whatever.

We are limited to what we get through the sieve of the written examination and then through the oral assessment which is very narrowly and very fairly focused on particular jobs and work related scenarios in which candidates have to make demarches, write reports, and deal with hypothetical situations. All of these aspects of the oral assessment were designed to meet the court’s preoccupation that the examination be purely and demonstratively relevant to the Foreign Service work that successful candidates would have to carry out. It is an extremely fair system, but it denies us a range of candidates which we might otherwise want. It possibly also denies us a certain diversity, but the argument was not essentially a diversity argument but one based on skills.

That proposal is still making its way as we speak, in the middle of 1998, through the bureaucracy, more than two and a half years after it was first put forward. It has been enormously controversial. Senior members of the Foreign Service and particularly the retiree members, objected furiously to any dilution of the traditional exam entry procedures on the grounds that this would delete the elite status of the Foreign Service and the requirement that officers all pass over a clearly defined threshold for entry….

slippery rockHarvard-logoCertainly when you passed through the examination many, many years ago, considerable attention was given to your past experience and demonstrated qualities. There is none of that now. In fact, candidates are warned at least three times in the course of the day that the oral assessment will make no reference whatsoever to past experience, background, academic institutions attended or anything of this kind. So, we were denying ourselves knowledge of our candidates for fear that we would make subjective judgments giving advantage to Harvard graduates and disadvantaging the graduates of Slippery Rock University, that we would in fact not get a Foreign Service which was representative of America as the Foreign Service Act of 1980 required….

The recruitment for the rest of the Foreign Service is, in fact, much along the lines of the so-called alternate hiring that we proposed for FSOs. If you wish to be a security officer, if you wish to be a doctor in the Foreign Service, an information management specialist, or any of the other skill groups which compose nearly 50 percent of the State Department’s Foreign Service, you must demonstrate ability in that area. Work experience and educational criteria are taken into account in the assessment process which is supplemented by an oral assessment focused rather more on an interest in the Foreign Service, in worldwide availability and questions that relate to those subjects rather than to past experience. So, we have in fact a multiple system of examination and testing.

The recruitment begins, of course, at the level of advertisement, of outreach, of efforts to attract men and women into the generalist officer corps, and into the specialist categories of the Foreign Service. An enormous effort was made and continues to be made to recruit on those campuses where it is hoped we will get more minority candidates. We cannot guarantee that any of those candidates will pass either the written or oral assessments but one of the problems was, and is that of the total number of people who took the Foreign Service Examination only a very small number came from minorities.

So, we did a lot of recruiting on the campuses of the historically black colleges and universities and on the campuses of those universities which belonged to the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. That did produce in the last two examinations significantly increased numbers of exam takers who came from minority groups and has, I think, resulted in an increased number of passers, although the overall numbers are still relatively low….

You will see from this as from the earlier discussions of other issues regarding the Foreign Service, that diversity was an all consuming concern of management from the secretary on down, including the under secretary and certainly the director general. We were sensitive to the insistent and repeated congressional criticism of the Foreign Service’s failure to be representative of America as it was intended to be.

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Up or Out — The Challeng…

by Chris Sibilla time to read: 14 min
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