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Unleashing Our Black Belts
Read in conjunction with AFSA
President Susan Johnson’s recent col-
umns about the institutional culture of
the Foreign Service, the January
Speaking Out column by George Jones,
“The Next 50 Years,” got me thinking.
Can an organization like ours, often de-
scribed as even more hierarchical than
the military, adapt and change quickly?
And if so, how?
Based on his column, Mr. Jones’ an-
swer to that question would seem to be
“no.” Rarely an early adopter of tech-
nology, the Foreign Service will always
lag behind the private sector.
I ammore optimistic, for I truly be-
lieve that our greatest asset is our peo-
ple. Still, there is no denying that the
current personnel structure of the For-
eign Service hobbles us in addressing
complex challenges.
I would posit that some of the
newest FSOs are among the most ex-
perienced people anywhere in our
ranks. But does the Foreign Service
tap their talents fully?
The recent crop of new hires —
bankers, professors, politicians, lawyers
and entrepreneurs — bring with them
a remarkable wealth of specialized
skills. Yet they are treated essentially
the same as 20-somethings who have
just completed college and have no
practical experience.
Yes, organizational culture is impor-
tant, and yes, we can learn valuable les-
sons serving on the visa line or working
as a general services officer for a tour.
That is one reason simply importing a
private-sector executive into a FS-2 po-
sition probably would not work. But
immediately promoting an executive
with 20 years of management experi-
ence to FS-2 upon tenuring might
make sense.
Alternatively, State could eliminate
mandatory minimum time in class so
that all FSOs are promoted, regardless
of age or tenure, based on their ability
to move up and manage at the next
level.
We have many new people with
new ideas and knowledge who are the
black belts of expertise that the Foreign
Service needs. Yet they are treated as
white belts: unknowing, unenlightened
and clumsy. After just one or two tours,
many become sure-footed and adept
within the culture of the Foreign Serv-
ice, but they are still constrained—not
by a lack of ability, but by the organiza-
tional culture.
Our hierarchy needs to become
more of a meritocracy. Time in class
does not equal expertise. Longevity
does not equal competence. Seniority
should not confer entitlement. One of
the greatest reasons for the downfall of
the union movement over the last 50
years is the failure to recognize and ad-
just to that set of facts.
As an AFSA post representative, I
am fully committed to protecting all
employees’ rights. But as a mid-career
hire, I am desperately hoping not to be
bored during the first several tours of
my career.
The State Department is a big bu-
reaucracy, already limited in effective-
ness by funding constraints, an unclear
mission and a circumscribed role in
world affairs relative to the Depart-
ment of Defense. But there are so
many areas of our internal culture and
structure that we
can
control.
We should put in place a person-
nel system that hires the best, lets
them rise as fast as they can and has
zero tolerance for incompetence, all
while advancing America’s interna-
tional interests.
That would be a noble goal for any
governmental agency. But such a shift
is absolutely critical for the Depart-
ment of State as we head into budget
cycle after budget cycle where we are
told to do more with less.
Instead, how about we domore with
what we have? Because what we have
is pretty great, but sorely underutilized.
Bob Perls
AFSA Representative
Consulate General
Frankfurt
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