Thursday, April 10, 2008

Staffing the Foreign Service - Part II

This is a follow-up post to the Foreign Service staffing piece I did previously here. I'm just thinking that even if State obtains funding for 700 positions requested under FY09 or 3500 positions to address the cumulative staffing deficit, the fact remains that we cannot leapfrog these new officers from FS-06 to the mid-level ranks (FS-03-FS-01) overnight. Training them and allowing them to build experience takes time. And the world is not going to pause for us while we do all these things. So what can be done in the meantime? Here are a couple of ideas to chew on …

# Allow Officers to Identify Secondary Cones

Foreign Service Officers have to select a “cone” or career track upon joining the State Department. There are five tracks in the Foreign Service: political, economic, public diplomacy, consular and management. Officers who serve out of cone can sometimes see their careers suffer in terms of promotion potential. With the midlevel staffing deficit, we see consular managers overseeing whole sections populated by entry level officers and few mid-career peers in between. We see management officers who become the default HR and Financial Management officers in our embassies and consulates. Although I have seen consular and management coned officers managed budget and projects as a matter of course, you don’t see a lot of that among political and economic officers, the tracks that are more reporting and policy driven.

One DCM told me that his managerial experience prior to becoming number #2 at a U.S. mission was 15 years earlier when he was a junior officer supervising local employees at a Consular Section and one prior post where he was political counselor directly supervising his deputy. I’m not saying that folks who came up the ranks like this could not do the job, but I’m saying that the learning curve is pretty steep when you leap from supervising a small office to supervising section chiefs and managing interagency issues.

If there is one thing this past decade has taught us, it is that we are more interconnected than ever before; the world’s walls and borders continue to fall down demanding from us all a new way of seeing and doing things. To limit the real possibility of developing “conal specialists,” I think it is time for State to give officers the option of selecting a secondary cone that would complement each primary career track (e.g. Political officer with PD as secondary cone, or a Management officer with Political as secondary cone).

This strategy would address several things:

1) to mitigate midlevel staffing deficit in the foreseeable future by allowing the sharing of the staffing burden across cones 2) enable officers to gain needed skills and experience necessary for functioning effectively at the next step in their careers 3) help break down the barrier between cones and minimize stovepiping

#Obtain Temporary Hiring Authority

State should also work with Congress to obtain temporary hiring authority to intake mid-level personnel (I suspect that AFSA may not like this). Anyway, the Federal Times reported last month that in 2005, 33 percent of the government’s new hires were for jobs that ranged from GS-12 to GS-15; that compares with 25 percent in 1990. The Defense Department alone hired 47 percent of the new upper-level employees in fiscal 2005. The report cited six other agencies — "the Homeland Security, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Agriculture and Treasury departments and the Social Security Administration — accounted for another 33 percent of the new upper-level hires that year." I’m sure somebody would disagree with this - but there is no reason why a retired military colonel has to start as an FS-5 when entering the FS or why a candidate with substantial international experience and a ready language capability should come in as a junior officer.

Yes, I realized that we need to staff those ever growing Consular Sections, but we don’t use mid-level officers for visa interviews normally, so this should not even be an argument. Unless the argument is based more on organizational culture and the notion that everyone must “pay their dues.”

Non-fed employees with experience in mid-level management can fill the gaps in our staffing deficit now, while we are “growing” the next crop of diplomats. State could identify the needed skills across the mid-level jobs, then hire with those skills in mind for an excepted appointment in the FS. People with outside experience are used to being managed by the results and the bottom line. And new blood - by virtue of being newcomers also have the gumption of saying ‘Here’s another way to do this...,’ of looking at things in a different light. With budget funds shrinking more than ever, and workloads going off the roof, we need to reinvent our systems now; now, before an external force reinvents it for us.

Of course change, any change, by its nature is a gain/loss proposition. Stephen Barr recently wrote about the trouble brewing at the Marshals Service which "demonstrates the ill feelings that can develop in federal agencies when officials change hiring and promotion practices to fill gaps in staffing or meet the demands of increased workloads." A cautionary tale for sure, but I don't think we have a lot of good choices left in our case.


Digger said...

I have quoted and commented on your post here:

DS said...

Thanks Digger!

Heather said...

I completely agree with your suggestion that the FS should be able to hire mid-level officers, even if it's only a temporary measure. There are so many people entering the foreign service as a career change with years of valuable experience under their belt. It's a shame that the FS doesn't have the flexibility to post these qualified people directly into mid-level jobs, considering there is such a shortage of mid-level officers.

Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here:

DS said...

CAA - Thanks for your comments! The only place where I have seen midlevels doing visa interviews is in small posts where there's only the section chief and maybe one or two other consular officers and where the workload is not off the roof. At other posts where we lacked midlevel officers, we stretched JOs to fill in those gaps. Of course, I don't know what its like in visa mills in Africa.

I think we have an "abundance" of entry level folks but you are right, new midlevel intake needs to understand how State works to be able to managed their staff effectively. I think the accelerated apprenticeship you talked about should be useful especially if each new intake is already identified for a specific job (these folks should be on directed assignment the entire time they are on excepted service). The only bit of concern I have here is that entry level officers tend to work at consular sections and given their workload, JOs sometimes depart their first tour without a deeper understanding of other mission functions except visas.

I'm wondering if the accelerated apprenticeship would be more effective if conducted according to conal needs? I have not seen the midlevel deficit broken down into cones but that would be interesting to see ...

moondog said...

I don't think bringing in retired military officers at mid-level is a good idea. It has nothing to do with competence or paying your dues. I am concerned that a retired military officer comes from an environment that does not encourage or tolerate dissent, that does not reward unconventional thought (witness how many years special operations forces were the stepchildren, even after Congressional interest and intervention), and finally, it is critical that these mid-level officers have some relevant experiences and credibility in their own service before they break into the senior ranks (just as each of the services still promote their GOs from within, regardless of how many bright performers they have in joint assignments from the other services). Why should we expect any less for the Foreign Service?

DS said...

Thanks Moondog for your thoughtful comments. I understand your concern and you made a good point. DOD does have a different culture than State and those who came in as JOs to start a second career do go through an adjustment period. But I think the process of acculturation goes for everyone else; its just that everyone adapts to organizational culture in varying degrees and speed. I'd be the first to admit that any new midlevel intake would be challenging at best, but I think the risk is not overwhelming as a temporary option.

As to intolerance for dissent and unconventional thought, I have worked with some in our ranks who could be similarly described (to my utter dismay). What I suggested in my post is not the ideal solution, I have to admit that but what other options are there? I'm working on Part III of this focusing on our most under-utilized human capital resource. But that's for later when I get more sleep :-)

Consul-At-Arms said...


I'm wondering if I'm understanding what you mean by excepted service. Would mid-level hires have limited appointments/career options or would they be full-fledged generalists competing for positions/promotions on the same basis as FSO generalists who'd worked their way up from FS-06?

Your concern about entry-level officers not getting sufficient exposure to non-consular aspects of their profession is an ongoing issue for both the ELOs and their supervisors. It's certainly their bosses responsibility to ensure their ELOs get experience outside of the purely consular, but "at the end of the day," the ELOs themselves have a responsibility to ask for such opportunities.

Good/smart managers are going to ensure "their" ELOs get the experiences under their supervision that will make them effective generalists later in their careers.

How would you envision a transition scheme for excepted service mid-level officers to move to the mainstream?


p.s. I also responded to your comment over at CAA.