2025 HR Revolution

State Department 2025 – A Revolution in Diplomatic Affairs

(postscript. When I drafted this in 2005, I was serving as special assistant to the under secretary for management, also called, M.  I covered HR, FSI, Consular Affairs, and a handful of smaller offices in the M family.)

This thought piece sets forth a vision of how the State Department might look in the year 2025.   The focus is primarily on human resources and training because, in a generic sense, how people enter, how they exit, and how they move upward through a career is a major determinant to any organization’s success in achieving its goals.  In an organization such as State, where people provide both the motive force and the organizing structure that contains and channels that force to implement and represent the nation’s foreign policy to the world, people are our most important resource.  People, human resources, therefore, deserve our greatest and most immediate attention.

Some very sweeping changes may occur on the human resources/training front over the next twenty years.  I suggest below, for example, that the distinction between the foreign service and the civil service at State will continue to blur until it fades away completely.  The significance attached to training will continue to rise in prominence.  A system of incentives and disincentives will actively inform officers’ career decisions at every level, resulting in a playing field that approaches transparency.  Pay raises will be based solely on performance.  The money saved by eliminating annual step increases will fund both performance pay and Washington locality pay for all employees.

There will be opposition to change, as traditionalists attempt to hold on to their historical turf.  But changes in world politics and in the technology of diplomacy will require adjustments and changes in how State operates at all levels.

  1. Entry –  Foreign Affairs Service of the United States

As late at 2005, there were several different ways to enter what was then known as the foreign service.  Most generalist entrants passed a written test and an oral assessment.  Some “generalists” were allowed to skip the written exam and go directly to the oral assessment.  “Specialists” and “civil service” had completely separate entry tracks.  It was determined that a great deal of the division that existed in the organization stemmed from the many different ways of entering. The remedy, it was theorized, would be to come up with a unified entry program.

By 2010 all officer level entrants, generalists, specialists, civil service employees, would submit to the following unified entry assessment:

100% score based on the following:
25% prior experience (language/area skills, management/leadership/business/nonprofit)
25% written exam
25% EQ (emotional intelligence quotient) assessment (NEW!)
25% standard oral assessment

Three-day testing process:  Bureau of Examiners (BEX):
Day one: written exam and prior experience assessment
Day two: EQ assessment for those who pass Day one
Day three: oral assessment for those who pass Day two (BEX)

All candidates will take a written exam and provide a standard formatted resume for assessment of previous professional work experience.  The combination of the exam score and the experience assessment will result in 50% of the candidate’s final score.  The experience assessment will be done by an outside organization, ensuring impartiality and fairness, and will focus on overseas experience, leadership and management skills, and expertise in targeted languages and regions.  The written exam and the experience assessment will be equally weighted.

The EQ assessment will be conducted by an outside firm.  Only those who pass the written exam/experience assessment section will proceed to the EQ assessment.  Those who get a passing score on the EQ assessment will proceed to the oral assessment.

The standard oral assessment will continue to be administered by the Bureau of Examiners (BEX).  Service in BEX will be extremely career enhancing, and will award performance points and performance bonus payments.  It will be especially sought after by mid level officers seeking to cross the threshold.

Scoring will be separate based on career path, i.e., political officer candidates would be scored and ranked against other political officer candidates, information techs against other information techs, and so on for all career paths.  Testing, however, and especially the oral assessment, would be conducted in a mixed group, because in the work setting, office and embassy staffs work together most efficiently as a mixed group, not as separate career “cones.”  Once ranked, invitations to join the service will be extended to the top ranked candidates in each category based on actual and projected service need.

Five percent of the annual intake of foreign affairs officer candidates will be appointed by members of Congress.  The Congressional appointment process will complement, not override the three-day testing process.   Congressional nominees  will be required to undergo and achieve a passing score on all sections of the testing process.   nonetheless because successful completion may qualify them for either a recruitment bonus or performance points once tenured (see next para.).  A selection panel for Congressional appointees will consist of senior level foreign affairs officers and senior level congressional staffers.

A threshold score will be established each year.  Candidates whose final score is greater than the threshold score will be offered entry into State as untenured officers.  Those candidates who score in the top tenth percentile will automatically receive either a recruitment bonus payment or additional performance points once they are tenured and enter the mid-level (see section 4 below for an explanation of performance points).

  1. Unification of State Department Foreign Service and Civil Service

In 2025, there will be no distinctions between civil service and foreign service for foreign affairs positions.  But there will be distinct areas of service.  (See similar discussion in military service). Here is a suggestion:

1) (W) Washington-based positions requiring only TDY travel overseas;

2) (B) Bilateral (overseas-based) positions, including embassy staffers and Washington support positions that essentially support overseas operations;

3) (M) Multilateral positions, domestically and overseas, that support domestic and international multilateral operations.

Foreign affairs officers (FAOs) will include the traditional management, consular, economic, public affairs, and political officer cones, but will also include traditionally civil service-filled IROG, foreign affairs officer, and “functional” bureau program officer positions.  New additions to the unified foreign affairs officer group will be diplomatic security officers (RSOs), intelligence officers, legislative affairs officers, and USAID international development officers, any of whom, at the senior level, may elect to bid on or be considered for DCM positions overseas.  Directed assignments may be made for unsuccessful DCM candidates who are world-wide available.  Those who are not world-wide available will not be eligible to bid on or be considered for DCM positions at any post.

All ambassadorial-level postings, including assistant secretary-level positions in the Department, will be Schedule C political appointments.  Chiefs of Mission preside over an inter-agency collective and should be seen as representing the President and US policy, not any specific agency.  Career foreign affairs officers who aspire for ambassadorial or assistant secretary-level positions will be required to resign their foreign affairs commission upon acceptance of the Schedule C political appointment.  Those foreign affairs officers who remain in Schedule C positions for more than 48 months or less may automatically revert to their previous career foreign affairs designation.

3. Initial training and tenuring

All professional level foreign affairs officers will attend an orientation course together, which will essentially be a slimmed down four-week standard A-100 course, appended to a four-week expanded Washington Tradecraft course.  After this eight-week orientation, all untenured foreign affairs officers will serve their first tour (12-18 months) in Washington or in domestic field offices.  M and B officers will then do their specialized training, which may include language training, before going out to serve in overseas embassies or international organizations.

There will be a much larger emphasis placed on service in the M positions, driven primarily by changes in world politics by 2025.  Multilateral organizations will take on a much higher profile with the emergence of an enlarged and internationally-engaged European Union, a reformed and dynamic UN, and strengthened regional groupings, such as ASEAN, the African Union, the Organization of American States, the Organization of Islamic Countries, and others.

Tenuring will take place at the four (first look, 65% tenured) and six (last look, 25% tenured) year anniversaries of service entry.  Entry level officers not tenured after the six year look (10%) will be separated. Commissioning and Tenuring Boards (CTB) will be made up of senior level officers, public members and senior level congressional staffers.

  1. FSI/NFATC

By 2025, FSI will have become the premier foreign affairs training institution in the country.  The Area Studies and Languages Departments will attract leading teaching experts from around the world and grant highly sought-after degrees at the bachelor’s, masters, and PhD levels.

Service by FAOs in FSI occupational training positions will qualify for performance points and annual performance bonus payments.  All occupational training programs will be available by correspondence for foreign affairs officers based outside Washington and overseas.  Completion of tuition-free FSI distance degree and certificate programs by foreign affairs officers also qualifies for performance points.

Fully 10% of all FSI students in degree and certificate programs are public, tuition-paying students hoping for a Foreign Affairs Officer appointment.  Five to ten percent are diplomats from friendly and allied nations.

A non-profit organization, the Foreign Affairs Institute Association (FAIA), markets FSI-developed teaching products to the public.  Sales of FSI language and areas studies courses will result in a huge financial windfall to FSI/NFATC, resulting in endowed teaching positions at the Institute and tuition-free correspondence-based and residential training for all State Department employees (including FSNs) and dependents.

  1. Pay grades, promotions, performance pay, selection out, and retirement

There will be essentially three pay bands:

  1. A) Entry level (four to six years, including initial training)
  2. B) Mid-level (from tenuring to ten years after tenuring)
  3. C) Senior level (from ten years after tenuring until retirement)

Base pay will include locality pay for all officers at all levels.  Those officers assigned domestically will receive the locality pay of their geographic location.  Officers assigned overseas who maintain a residence in the US will receive the locality pay for the city where their residence is maintained.  All others will receive the “all the rest” locality pay.

Certain categories of annual performance pay will become a part of the officer’s base pay calculation.

Ideally, a foreign affairs officer will be eligible to “cross the threshold” after 14 years of service.  Promotion across the threshold will be based on quantified standards established in 2004.  However, upward movement through a given pay band will be exclusively performance-based, and only those at the top rung of the band will be recommended to “cross the threshold” from mid to senior level.

Meritorious service at hardship, dangerous and unaccompanied postings, qualification and recertification in difficult languages, and area studies expertise in targeted areas will add performance points annually on a sliding scale, i.e., the higher the hardship (or the more difficult the language or the higher the competency in a difficult language), the larger the performance benefit.  Performance points will be added annually and accrued based on set criteria.  A performance pay bonus (10% of gross salary) will also be awarded annually based on meritorious service and performance points accrued in a given calendar year.  Annually, the Department will designate high profile assignments, based on national foreign affairs priorities.  Meritorious service in these positions will be rewarded annually with performance points and performance pay.  With the exception of Congressionally-mandated cost of living increases, there will be no annual increases in pay or promotion potential based exclusively on time in service.  All upward movement within a pay band will be performance based.

Annual evaluations will continue, but the format will be reduced to two pages of evaluation and a cover sheet.  Page one will be the rated employee’s statement.  Page two will consist of a block of comments by the direct supervisor, and a block of review comments (including input by subordinates, Washington supporting offices, and serviced organizations at post).  The rated employee, if he or she so chooses, may comment at the bottom of page one on the page two comments.

Selection Board and Special Performance Board service will be on a volunteer basis, and meritorious board service will qualify for performance points and performance pay bonus.  Overseas volunteers, once selected and approved, will be centrally funded to encourage participation.

Officers recommended for promotion but not promoted will be awarded performance points and 10% performance bonus payments.

Untenured officers who fail to tenure at the six-year look will be selected out.  Mid-level officers who do not cross the threshold by the twentieth anniversary of tenuring will be selected out.  All senior level members and mid levels who have “opened the window”  will be assessed and ranked annually with low ranking going to the bottom 5%.  Employees found non-competitive will be selected out upon receipt of two low ranks within four years.  Low ranking will be performance-based.

Mid-level officers may “open their windows” for senior level consideration as early as the calendar year of their tenth anniversary of tenuring.  Upon opening their windows, however, they will be assessed annually along with senior members, and if warranted, may be low ranked.

Mandatory retirement age will be raised to 75.  At age 65, however, officers will be eligible to transfer to the Retired Reserves, a combination of reduced hours, pay, allowances and benefits, where they will continue to accrue years in service towards their retirement pension.  Voluntary retirement will be permitted for officers who reach age 50 with 20 years of service.

6. Assignment process

The assignment process will continue, providing flexibility and latitude for bidders and positions.  Events of 2005 effectively broke the senior level monopoly on leadership positions, with trickle effects throughout all operational levels of the Department.  The Secretary, Under Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries may nominate “extraordinarily talented officers” to leadership positions in Bureaus and at bilateral and multilateral posts, but their documented performance records must be equivalent in performance points to the performance records of normal bidders, as determined by special performance review boards made up of senior level foreign affairs officers.

All foreign affairs officers who declare world-wide availability can bid on DCM positions.  Selection will be based on demonstrated leadership and job performance, without any regard for designations based on gender, race, or career path within the professional level.  However, world-wide availability declaration opens up unsuccessful DCM bidders to directed assignments per Section 2 above.   Also, per Section 2 above, only world-wide available officers will be eligible for DCM positions overseas.

Outstanding performance in mid-level assignments and details to other foreign affairs agencies, such as DHS, USTR, Commerce, Agriculture, and the Intelligence Community, and to non-foreign affairs government agencies and departments, such as state and local government, the legislative branch, other executive branch departments, etc., all qualify for performance points.

Meritorious performance in HR/CDA positions and on selection and performance boards qualifies for performance points and performance bonus payments.

  1. Additional ideas for discussion

FSN pay and allowances: FSN pay is pitifully low in most developing countries, so low that we can’t attract the best local talent to crucial jobs (IT, econ, pol analysis).

Post Iraq/Afghanistan, there will be a massive influx of veterans into State with language skills and area expertise.  Will we be ready to utilize their talents?

How will we deal with the DRI coming of age?  Will we be able to keep them or will there be a great falling away from State?

DHS is strategically encroaching on consular turf.  What does Consular Affairs 2025 look like?  What is our HR strategy for CA?

What impact will the Revolution in Intelligence Affairs have on State Operations?  Will INR continue to be the preeminent intelligence outfit in 2025?  What are the HR and training implications if INR is to remain on top?

Transformational diplomacy (TD) is really about transformational leadership.  Is TD just a blimp on the radar screen, or does it have hardcore human resource implications in terms of recruitment and retention?

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