The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2021

52 JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2021 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL AFSA NEWS STATE VP VOICE | BY TOM YAZDGERDI AFSA NEWS Contact: | (202) 647-8160 Reforming the State Department With the advent of a new administration, the time is ripe to reverse the policies of the outgoing administration that treated the career For- eign Service with disdain. On a more fundamental level, it is also time to address systemic change by question- ing long-held assumptions that have prevented the State Department from realizing its full potential. In November Harvard’s Belfer Center and the Council on Foreign Relations released separate in-depth reports that deal with these twin challenges. Both groups consulted AFSA on what we believe to be the main issues facing our Service and profession, and the contents of both reports largely reflect our hopes and concerns: to increase the size of the Foreign Service; to greatly expand the time for training, especially at the entry level; to put more FSOs in the field, especially economic officers; to limit the number of political appoin- tees, both ambassadors overseas and assistant sec- retaries domestically; and to make diversity and workplace flexibility an integral part of our Service. (See more about the Belfer Center report on p. 19 and the CFR report on p. 37. ) Change of Culture. Both reports point to the overrid- ing need to change depart- ment practices through a systemic shift in our cul- ture. Among other serious problems, the Belfer study cites a “reluctance to speak truth to power, a lack of individual accountability and the pursuit of risk avoidance over risk management.” That probably rings true for most members. At a roll-out event moder- ated by AFSA President Eric Rubin on Nov. 19 (see story on p. 19) , Ambassador (ret.) Nick Burns, one of the report’s co-authors (with Ambassadors (ret.) Marcie Ries and Marc Grossman), noted that there needs to be a “brutally honest” self- examination of longstanding department practices, such as the cone system, the gen- eral aversion to professional education and training, and inflexible personnel policies. Amb. Burns added that the military and intelligence communities went through this crucial process years before, culminating in the passage of landmark legisla- tion that codified transforma- tional change. An Amended Foreign Service Act? Both reports also favor amending the Foreign Service Act of 1980. They argue that fundamental changes need to be codified in law with the support of the president and the Congress but say they would “oppose new legislation that does not retain what is right about the current act.” It may be time to amend the FSA—it is hard to con- tend that the world hasn’t changed dramatically since 1980—but in this hyperparti- san atmosphere the ground would need to be prepared very carefully in advance. At the very least, I would want to see the House Diplo- macy Caucus and the Senate Foreign Service Caucus agree on strengthening and updat- ing the current FSA without touching the elements that have made the Foreign Service a distinct body with a strong esprit de corps. Midlevel Entry—Really? To increase diversity and specialized expertise. both reports call for bringing in people from outside the nor- mal Foreign Service intake processes. The Belfer report pro- poses a three-year pilot program aimed at midlevel entrants that would have 25 people enter in the first two years and 50 in the third year. Then the program would pause to be evaluated. The CFR goes further, arguing to “open career entry pipelines at all levels…from entry to senior levels….” There is reason for con- cern that this quick fix likely will not work. New employees hired at the midlevel would have no experience serving at embas- sies and consulates. They could not effectively mentor entry-level officers on Foreign Service career planning. During the first assign- ment as a newly hired mid- level officer, their initial per- formance would be degraded by the overseas adjustment process that current Foreign Service members overcome during their entry-level assignments. Further, an influx of newly hired midlevel officers would block the career advance- ment of many current For- eign Service members, the infamous “pig in the python” issue. Given the up-or-out promotion system, many current midlevel FSOs would face the prospect of early retirement even more than they do now. If there is need for specific expertise in today’s world— cybersecurity, quantum computing, biotechnology, say—wouldn’t a modest-size program staffed by experts hired as Foreign Service spe- cialists or civil servants make more sense? As to the diversity aspect, we have heard from some of our members that increasing the Pickering and Rangel Fel- lowships (as is being done), providing paid internships to attract underrepresented communities, establishing a formal mentorship program for minority officers and including more people of color on selection and pro- motion boards is the better way to go. Please let us know what you think at member@afsa. org. n