Bureaucrats As Pundits, Part IV

James–along with Dr. Demarche–has a good conversation going about bureaucrats, particularly in the State Dept., and their “proper” roles. I’d like to toss in a couple of other variables that I think affect the conversation. The first deals with the population that comprises State Department employees (the subject of this post). Another is that the “communications revolution” has been changing State for a long time and many–including those in State–haven’t always noticed. That will be the subject of a future post.

One has to realize that State Dept. has three populations: Foreign Service Officers, General/Civil Service Officers, and Political Appointees. Each of these groups is very different from the others.

FSOs are generally recruited through a process of testing–both written and oral–and passing security and medical clearances. Though the exact process has varied over time, an FSO is sworn in, undergoes training in either a “cone” (i.e., field of specialization like Political Officer, Economic Officer, Admin, Public Diplomacy, etc.), gets a few assignments, and if given adequately high marks on annual appraisals, gets tenure, which offers a high degree of job security, though nothing like academic tenure. FSOs, as with military officers, also face an up-or-out promotion system, where they need to achieve certain ranks within certain periods of time or find their careers either over or permanently at a particular grade. Promotion into the Senior Foreign Service–“getting a star” in other words–is a high-risk venture where the officer “opens a window” during which time s/he gets promoted or is forever stuck at the rank of FS-01, equivalent to a full Colonel or Navy Captain. The lowest 2% of of rated officers of all grades light danger warnings. If one gets low-ranked two years in a row, one’s likely to be invited to leave before being thrown out.

General Service employees are much like those in any other federal agency. They enter through a process very different from FSOs, sometimes starting with the Civil Service Exam (or whatever it’s called today), sometimes coming in at a high rank based on background and experience. While many of these jobs are of the paper-pushing sort, many involve detailed analysis, as in State’s INR Bureau. As a general rule, GS Officers are permanently assigned stateside, though “excursion tours” of several years’ duration abroad are not unheard of, and depending on the exact job, temporary duty or visits abroad do happen.

Political Appointees are just that: people getting jobs because of the Administration’s positive views of them. Some are simple political payback. It’s not hard to find big contributors getting assigned as Ambassador, usually to the less significant countries or those with large FSO staffs to keep things on the straight and narrow. But you also find people who worked hard to get someone elected getting nice little jobs in Washington that have something to do with their backgrounds. These guys tend to be placed as heads of bureaus or departments within State. Some come in with attitude problems–“State is filled with traitors, need to kick some ass”–but some come in with the realization that they are dealing with people who actually are experts on the subject.

These three groups have very different expectations, reward systems, approaches to work. The interplay among them is sometimes smooth and productive, but sometimes it’s utterly dysfunctional and either hysterically funny or heartbreakingly tragic, depending on where you stand.

Each of these groups brings good and bad things to the equation. FSOs certainly know the field, the world outside the US. GS employees have continuity and depth of DC experience. They know where lots of bodies are buried and what’s been tried before and is now being “reinvented” under a new name. Appointees bring with them generally clear ideas of what makes a new Administration and its goals different from the last one.

FSOs, in my experience, rarely suffer from “clientitis,” the disease in which one identifies too closely to the country or region one tends to work in. They do bring a non-Washington perspective, however, which often runs counter to perceived wisdom. There’s no way polite enough to tell another, particularly an Appointee, that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about and not encure enmity. But because assignments tend to be two-to-four years in length, there’s considerable turnover and little continuity unless one stays in one part of the world. They compete against other officers in the same cone and at the same grade for promotion, the number of which is set by the HR department of State.

GS employees tend to be like other GS employees; they work 8:00-5:00, Monday-Friday, and have what normal people consider normal lives. They work in an essentially competitive environment where bonuses get divided out of pools, so that the more who do better, the less money there is in any individual award. Promotions, too, are competitive and not restricted to any given office. GS employees bounce around a lot between offices–even agencies–to climb the career ladder.

Appointees are already being rewarded by being given their jobs. They are eligible for Presidential Awards for good work. But they have no job security whatsoever. They’re gone if their party loses the next election (“burrowing in” to the bureaucracy is another matter). If they screw up, they can find themselves relocated or fired with no appeal. For better or worse, they are the ones who try to keep the bureaucracy on-message, consistent with the policies issuing from the White House. Some, in my experience, are too young; some have ideological blinders on; some are simply jerks; some, though, are exceptionally good at what they do.

Members of each of these groups has its own way of throwing its weight around. GS employees tend toward burying things in red tape to slow them down, if not stop them. FSOs can simply not lift disfavored policies as heavily as they might favored ones. Appointees can get “problem employees” moved into another office or play with budget or program priorities.

None of these groups is “disloyal” as a rule. But each of these groups is made up of human beings, with all the strengths and weakness of other human beings. There are out-and-out traitors in the federal government–like Aldrich Ames–but those are, luckily, rare. There are Consular Officers who can’t say no to bribes to issue visas. They, too, are rare. There are petty thieves who fudge on timesheets or misuse their official positions, but no more than in any other sector of employment. There are political appointees who use their positions to promote, improperly, the interests of friends and relatives. These are not good people and they do need to be stopped, but it’s not a pandemic.

There are those who are not good losers in policy arguments. These are the ones that leak to the media, who mischaracterize things to promote their preferred version. There are those who simply ignore, where possible, policy directives while not actively countering them. I could cite instances of this from all three groups. These failings, though, are pretty much human failings that happen to take place in a policy and political environment.

We expect a lot from State and deserve to get it. We don’t fund it adequately, given our expectations, nor do we work hard enough to resolve serious issues that confront it as an agency–particularly in the personnel area, in my opinion. A lot of this is brought on by the bureaucratic structure and nature of State itself, of course, but it’s not the only factor.

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John Burgess
About John Burgess
John Burgess retired after 25 years as a US Foreign Service Officer, serving predominantly in the Middle East. He contributed 35 pieces to OTB between February 2006 and April 2014. He was the proprietor of the influential Crossroads Arabia until his death in February 2016.


  1. Anderson says:

    This is actually part IV.

  2. John Burgess says:

    That may be, but as James is the one who started this, I’ll let him relabel it. I’m furthering the discussion on his previous post, but perhaps it deserve promotion…

  3. James Joyner says:

    Heh. Well, it’s either part II of “On Bureaucrats as Pundits” or part IV of the larger series. I’ve made a command decision that it’s the latter and put in the related links section.

    In any case, an excellent addition to the discussion.

  4. Two quibbles:

    The Admin cone was re-named Management cone sometime in the past couple of years.

    There’re also several smaller corps of Foreign Service Specialist (FSS) within the Department, who serve overseas in such career fields as diplomatic security agents, office managers, information management, nurses, physicians &tc. Their selection process is something in between that of FSO generalists and General Schedule employees.

  5. John Burgess says:

    Corrections noted. I left State in 2003 and apparently missed the renaming.

    And I certainly did neglect to mention the FSS. These include important groups of people without whom embassies would fall apart. In addition to those you mention, there are also all the Communications people, though their work is becoming ever more intertwined with IT.

    Also not mention are the Foreign Service National staffs (FSNs) and locally-hired Americans.

    I recall trying to explain to the newly appointed USIA Director, Bruce Gelb, what FSNs did and how we worked with them. He couldn’t get his mind around the facts that a) they were trusted employees and b) we’d be waay up the creek if we didn’t have them. Not sure he ever got it.

    Not sure, in fact, that the bean-counters at State realize it either.