Thursday, April 3, 2008

Staffing the Foreign Service

A recent Federal Times report indicates that State has about 3,000 mid career Foreign Service generalist officers — grades FS-03 to FS-01 — and needs about 3,800. The Department is reportedly asking Congress for enough money to hire about 700 Foreign Service officers in fiscal year 2009. That’s not even a quarter of our cumulative staffing deficit but hey, there must be a good reason for a good round number like that – let’s see:

A) 700 is the Secretary’s favorite number

B) 700 is the reverse of Bond 007 (our expeditionary force, get it?)

C) 700 from Remington Model 700 – the Foreign Service version

D) 700 is the max word for the Meaning of Life

E) All of the above

But seriously -- the same report quoted Linda Taglialatela, State’s deputy assistant secretary for human resources as saying that, “About 19 percent of Foreign Service employees today are “stretching” to do jobs above their pay grade […] and that “When State relies on employees working above their pay grades, embassies and consulates aren’t running at peak efficiency. Most of them are very bright and capable, and they can do 70 percent of the job,” Taglialatela said. “But they need more supervision, they need more time, more direction; and they can’t hit the ground running like a more senior person would be able to.” Amen to that (when the stretch assignment works, it's fantastic; but when it does not work, it's a train wreck with the next person having to deal with morale issues and the % of the job that did not get done).

So from decades of underfunding and downsizing, here is the law of unintended consequences playing out now. Even if Congress approves the FY09 funding request, this is not going to ease the pain in Foreign Service posts worldwide in the immediate future. Writing for the Foreign Service Journal, FSO Mark Johnsen in One Hand Clapping: The Sound of Staffing the Foreign Service writes:

Developing a trained, professional force takes time — an average of 10 years of experience and training to reach mid-level proficiency. Even if the hiring of entry-level officers were doubled or tripled tomorrow, it will take as long as it takes the average Foreign Service officer to advance to senior ranks —between 20 and 30 years — to raise staffing by a third at all levels of the Foreign Service.

This is clear as night and day, even if we’re going to start hiring fast and furious, tomorrow, the mid-career staffing deficit is not going away very soon. Which means – we’ll see more mid-level Foreign Service officers holding, no - juggling the demands of 2-3 other jobs at a given post. The result is either we’ll have a spike in officer burnout or things are going to fall into the cracks. This is just not sustainable.

Mark Johnsen writes that the "actual shortfall for Foreign Service staffing was not 700 positions — the number commonly accepted at the time as the deficit and the target for the subsequent Diplomatic Readiness Initiative. Because of the additional, cumulative deficits that were never addressed... it was actually more like 2,000 to 3,500 positions." Although I must admit that 700 is better than 0, in the whole system scheme of things, I'm not sure how much of an impact this would have to our diplomatic readiness in the 21st century.

Almost with certainty, 2019 would be a more challenging time than where we are now. Ten years from now, there will be approximately 7.5 billion people in the world. The countries with the highest population growth rate are either in the Middle East or are listed as developing nations. Robert Kaplan writing for the Atlantic Monthly describes our "map of the future:"

"a cartography in three dimensions... [with] overlapping sediments of group and other identities atop the merely two-dimensional color markings of city-states and the remaining nations, themselves confused in places by shadowy tentacles, hovering overhead, indicating the power of drug cartels, mafias, and private security agencies. Instead of borders, there would be moving "centers" of power, as in the Middle Ages. ...To this protean cartographic hologram one must add other factors, such as migrations of populations, explosions of birth rates, vectors of disease. Henceforward the map of the world will never be static. This future map—in a sense, the "Last Map"—will be an ever-mutating representation of chaos."

He wrote this in 1994; we'd be hard pressed not to recognize that this is where we are living now. Imagine then years from now, with all this and the reality of diminishing resources hitting us. More than ever, now and in the future, we need seasoned diplomats who knows how to negotiate, engage, influence and build partnerships in this interconnected, chaotic world; because as long as they are working, the guns will be silent, and the world in a perpetual war would not be a sitting in our doorsteps.

So, I would hazard a prediction that the 7th Floor must already know but Congress may not: Unless the Foreign Service is funded fully now to address the cumulative staffing deficits we currently have, transformational diplomacy would be nothing more than a footnote in the history books and we'd be ill-equipped to confront the challenges of our future map.


Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here:

DS said...

Thanks CAA!