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A New Way of Teaching America’s Frontline Diplomats

The State Department invests significant resources in training its incoming consular officers. They learn through courses taught at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) by senior consular officers using group projects and case studies, as well as field trips to airports to observe how visa holders are processed at the port of U.S. entry. Officers must pass weekly examinations that measure and document their mastery of US immigration law. The training does not stop at FSI; once consular officers have reported to work at their embassies abroad, they are immediately given additional on-the-job training and receive ongoing instruction in consular law application and interpretation throughout their careers. It is a carefully-engineered academic and experiential way of learning to prepare officers to serve at the forefront of U.S. diplomacy and to represent, for many abroad, the face of the United States.

It did not start out that way. In the 1980s, FSI underwent a shift in the way it taught consular courses, from lectures and book learning to scenario-oriented training. John T. Sprott, Deputy Director of FSI from 1981-1993, devoted most of his career to developing diplomatic talent at the Foreign Service Institute. While he was dean of Professional Studies, he argued for the development of “ConGen Rosslyn,” leading the push for experiential learning into the overall FSI curriculum. The highlight of Sprott’s service was the contribution he made to the design, construction and relocation of FSI to its current campus in the fall of 1993.

In this interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy in October, 1998, Sprott describes the transformation of consular training and the impact it had on how consular services are carried out at U.S. embassies.

To read more about the creation of the Foreign Service Institute, follow the links to read the accounts of Stephen Low and Brandon Grove, and to learn more about consular affairs.


“He dreamt up a way to do consular training differently”

 John T. Sprott, Deputy Director of FSI, 1981-1993

SPROTT:  [Training for the average consular officer] was all lectures. And then, if you were like everybody else, at the very end toward the time for taking the test, you crammed everything you could because you couldn’t possibly remember all the boring lectures. Even if they were interesting, they were boring after the sixth hour of the day.

Well, most people then went off overseas and served in the average consulate, and it was probably in the neighborhood — depending on the complexity of the issues that the consular officer had to face — it could be 12 months before a chief of section would put them on the visa line by themselves.

Later, as I moved from economic training into the role as Dean of Professional Studies, a man by the name of John Kaufman became the head of consular training. He had had some eye operations after which he had to sit very still and stay out of the light for a long period of time. If my memory serves me correctly, it was probably somewhere in the neighborhood of a month he found himself having to be very still and in a very quiet place, and in this position, he dreamt up a way to do consular training differently.

So when he came into the institute… he quickly sold me on the idea of what we now know as “ConGen (Consulate General) Rosslyn” and went to work developing it. It was a really fun to go through that process and work on the development of it with him. [FSI was located at the time in Rosslyn, Virginia.]

He picked some other consular officers to work with him and that too was an interesting process, since he knew what he was looking for in those he chose, to complement his own skills and knowledge.

Well, it wasn’t long after this new course was started that people were, within days, being trusted on the line to serve fully as a consular officer. Now, just look at the productivity change.

Say we were way off, by double, so that it was only six months that it took to get somebody so they could be trusted to act effectively on the line: that’s six months of salary for a junior officer, nonetheless, as compared to, let’s say, it’s a week or two weeks or call it a month — you’ve still got a gain of five months of salary at the very least, plus, I think, you had much more effective people over time, much more competent people.

The concept was that people should learn by doing, and that consular law and regulation are the kinds of things that are best dealt with by experience, and that in many cases, while there is the law that one must follow and the regulations that one must use in making consular decisions, there’s tremendous room for judgment.

And you, at the same time, have to make your judgments in a fairly short period of time. It’s hard to teach judgment by itself. What you can do is give people experience in using the materials that they will have to draw on to help them make the decision, so that when they’re faced with a situation, they know how to apply the rules, the law, and they know how to make the judgments that are necessary.

They were getting that experience out in the field, but it was taking months to do this, because supervisors had to watch them and stand over their shoulders and so on. What we did was to create an actual Consular Section with actual case studies from real life, so that the officers would actually go through and live the work.

And if they had to read the regulations, they were reading them because they were engaged in a case at hand. Somebody they’d just interviewed has asked for an American passport, claiming they’re an American. Well, what are the rules? What are the regulations? How do I know this person is telling the truth? How do I know they’re American?

All these kinds of issues then get dealt with. And they were critiqued afterwards. They would make a decision in one part of the course and might have to live with the decision they’d made in a subsequent part of the course. Or they might find that an ambassador or DCM (Deputy Chief of Mission) would turn the case around. What do they do in those situations, and how do they deal with the DCM or the ambassador who wants to do that kind of thing?

“The degree of difficulty of the exams had to be increased three times”

So the idea was to try to create a real-world situation. They needed to interview people in jails, American citizens in jails, so we created a jail that had bars and graffiti on the walls and all that sort of thing, and they would go in and it was amazing how realistic some of those students, acting as incarcerated person, could act out their roles.

And we are told, were told very early on, by the graduates of the program that it was very successful. Another indication of the success of the program is that within the first six months, the degree of difficulty of the exams that were given in the course had to be increased three times.

The test that I took… after, I think it was the seven-week course initially when I took it in the lecture format, was just simply not hard enough. It didn’t really tell you what people knew, and that was another kind of change that took place.

It’s easy to find out what people don’t know. But we were trying to make sure that people knew what they needed to know, and under the old course and the testing system, you were really very limited in pursuing just exactly how much people had learned. We still required that they had to pass all of the elements, and they do, very successfully.

One of the things we tried to do at this stage, too, at least in the School of Professional Studies, where I was at this point Dean, was to try to move this whole concept to other specialties. We now had economic training taking place increasingly in a realistic environment, or at least the lessons were applied in increasingly realistic environment.

We had some history of political training, having done some of that but never gone very far. There was an officer by the name of Paul Kattenburg and another by the name of John Bowling, who, in the late ‘60s, were assigned to FSI for reasons having to do with their prior assignments. Both of them were Ph.D. political scientists, both of them had taught before, both of them had a number of years’ service in Vietnam and in East Asia and Southeast Asia — Kattenburg in East Asia and Bowling in Southeast Asia.

They pushed the idea of teaching political work in a much more practical, pragmatic way. So the first course of political reporting was created under them back in the late 60’s. At any rate, the idea was to try to move toward an “Embassy Rosslyn;” FSI was then in Rosslyn. We had “ConGen Rosslyn,” why not an Embassy Rosslyn? And have the various sections doing their own work, but interacting with one another at the same time.

So we moved next to try to do what we had done in the consular training in the admin area. At that time, Tom Tracy was still in the Department as Assistant Secretary for Administration, and after lots of discussions, tremendous amount of support from him, we moved to start the admin Rosslyn training first in the budget area.

What you see today in the training of budget officers is to a degree a result of what was created back then. Our initial attempt was to use a particular embassy budgeting system as the model and adopted Ireland. We brought Foreign Service nationals from Ireland over to help us set up the accounts structure and the system just as it was in Ireland. The budget was run as it was run in Ireland except we cut it short so that everybody went through the full budget cycle in the time period.

We continued to try to push this into other areas of admin training—GSO (General Services Operations) work, general admin—thence breaking down into specific areas like contracting and so on. It’s progressed over time, but we’ve never quite got that integrated embassy, never really got the same kind of training that we could see in consular training applied across the board to the admin area.