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Reviving the Foreign Service, Part II

This article first appeared in the May 2013 edition of the Foreign Service Journal. In it, Susan R. Johnson, the former President of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), discusses the differences — and deficiencies — in the current personnel systems at the State Department and ways to improve them. You can read Stephanie Kinney’s views on the Foreign Service. For further background on the development of the civil service and the Foreign Service, you can read this article in the Foreign Service Journal.


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We identified two of the factors which have weakened the Foreign Service and undermined the effectiveness of American diplomacy. The first is the steady decline of Foreign Service representation in the senior-most positions at the State Department. Increased reliance on political appointments has limited the number of positions available to Senior Foreign Service officers. The impact of this trend has been exacerbated by the longstanding practice of appointing non-career ambassadors to head the overwhelming majority of our embassies in Group of Eight capitals and other important countries.

The second factor relates to the co-existence under the same roof of two distinct State Department personnel systems: the non-rotational General Schedule Civil Service system, with no common entry standard or up-or-out evaluation; and the Foreign Service’s rotational, rank-in-person, up-or-out system. That system is modeled on the U.S. military and is designed to meet the requirements of worldwide diplomacy, as specified by the Foreign Service Act of 1980. The expansion of GS positions has resulted in a decline in FS opportunities in all bureaus, especially those responsible for human resources, management and global policy issues. Having two fundamentally different, competing personnel systems cannot be expected to create a harmonious corporate environment in the State Department. Ideally, a more integrated personnel system is called for to serve the requirements and purposes of American diplomacy.

At the very least, we must rethink the emphasis on narrow specialization built on static positions that undergirds the Civil Service system, and the Foreign Service framework of specialized political, economic, public diplomacy, management and consular “cones.” But this will require thoughtful re-examination to meet the need for strategic vision and three-dimensional thinking in Foggy Bottom.

Let me be clear: Both the Civil Service and the Foreign Service personnel systems need reform. But the inescapable question is this: How can the Foreign Service develop as a top-notch professional cadre if it is squeezed out of top positions at State and in the very overseas missions that constitute the operational framework for it and for diplomacy?

This trend must be reversed.

The Foreign Service itself needs reform in two areas. First, State must offer enhanced professional education and training at all levels of the Service, integrated with assignments and career advancement, to build and continually renew a professional cadre ready to address the complex, challenging and changing global environment.

Second, State should review how the “cone” system has compartmentalized the Foreign Service into a set of narrow specializations. [Note: The Foreign Service is divided into five “cones” or career tracks: political, economic, consular, administrative, and public diplomacy.]  To nurture an effective, professional cadre of diplomats, especially at the leadership level, FSOs must develop broad experience in dealing with the gamut of bilateral, multilateral, political and economic issues, and diplomatic practice, as well as human resource and management issues.

Discussion of the points raised here is urgent if diplomacy is to regain its primacy in the pursuit of the foreign policy goals of national security, economic prosperity and democratic values. The experience of the two longest wars in U.S. history reveals the limitations of exclusive dependence on military or economic pre-eminence.

Effective diplomacy is indispensable because U.S. strategic goals cannot be achieved by military power alone. Our armed forces should support diplomacy, not the reverse. In the foreign policy arena, the Department of Defense and other national security agencies must not eclipse or sideline the State Department. Similarly, State cannot assert itself as the primary institution responsible for the conduct of diplomacy without a strong, professional Foreign Service.


Excepted personnel system (based on Navy) for global service General Schedule (GS) personnel system for USG employees
Presidentially commissioned at the Officer level; commissioned by the Secretary at the Specialist level

No Commission
Rank in person Rank in position through GS15; rank in person in the SES
Selection through written and oral exam and assessment of potential for advancement through the ranks
Hired to position openings based on
subject matter expertise typically via USAjobs
Recruits to be representative of all 50 states and the American people No mandate to be representative of the nation in terms of geography or academic institutions
Tenure requires foreign language proficiency certification plus satisfactory performance
Tenure requires 3 years of substantially continuous creditable service
America’s diplomatic service governed by Vienna
Convention international legal responsibilities and rights as well as U.S. laws, regulations and obligations
America’s domestic USG employee service governed by U.S. laws and regulations
Worldwide availability (including family), based
on needs of our diplomatic service including rotational assignments
No rotational requirement; mobility at employee's initiative
Annual promotion boards by panel of peers with
assessment of potential to perform at next rank;
(2% low ranked with consequence)
Pro-forma review for satisfactory performance
Up or out career mobility (like military) Mobility at initiative of employee

Time in class/rank (TIC) selection out indefinite tenure

Mandatory retirement at age 65
No mandatory retirement age except for law enforcement
SFS seven year TIC to advance from FE-OC to MC or be involuntarily retired; mandatory rotation and retirement at 65 SES no competitive annual promotion or up or out requirement; no required rotation; no mandatory retirement age



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