Realigning Foreign Service Assignments
Rice Orders Difficult Posts Filled First
New Rules Will Push Foreign Service Officers Toward More Dangerous Spots
The State Department plans to implement sweeping changes in the way foreign service officers bid for new assignments in an effort to more quickly fill vacancies in Iraq and the growing number of dangerous hardship posts in the Middle East.
The new rules were outlined in a cable sent last week by Foreign Service Director General George M. Staples to department personnel that cited “increasing international turmoil.” They are intended to shake up the State Department culture so that overseas service becomes more frequent and more focused on global hot spots.
The WaPo runs this article today. As it’s a civilian department, not a military organization, State Dept. has always had a different set of issues to deal with in terms of “discipline”. One of the more difficult problems–over the past 15-or-so years–has been dealing with assignments.
I don’t want to say that FS Officers (FSOs) are less duty-bound than in the past–though some are. The major factor is that American life, expectations, and economic activity have changed over the years. In the past (until 1979, actually) spouses and children were practically negligible when it came to Foreign Service life. “Shut up and sit down” was the rule.
Today, of course, that’s impossible. Most American families have two income-earners. If one parent gets sent abroad, then the family faces some tough choices. Do they split up temporarily (for a period of 6-months to 4-years)? Does one resign him/herself to not working for that period? Do they all go overseas and hope that the non-FSO spouse can find a job in the local economy? How are career paths for the non-FSO affected? (They sure aren’t compensated by the government!)
And then there are kids… Will living overseas with good/bad/indifferent schools affect a child’s future education prospects, or even earning prospects later in life? How will this kind of move or not-move affect the child’s social development? Will a kid be academically, athletically, hell, even sexually competitive with the kids growing up back in the State? (While some expat kids find ways to compete athletically, in this case, there are no USG dependents permitted in Saudi Arabia.)
FSOs, like most people, also tend to map their career paths on lines similar to those of other executives: the higher up you get in the organization the better the benefits, living conditions, quality of life and work.
Here, though, Secretary of State Rice is telling them, “Wrong map!” FSOs need to go where their skills and abilities can be of the most use to America, and never mind their druthers. She’s saying that FSOs–who are fully commissioned officers of the USG–should be looking at the way the military handles assignments: you’re sent where you’re needed; your family obligations take second place; your personal preferences, while a factor, are not determinative.
In my 25-year career, I had one “non-hardship” assignment, to London, mid-career. I certainly bid on that position because of family responsibilities. My wife had already been in the Middle East for 12 years; I had a son who needed really good schools to take advantage of his innate abilities. But I knew that the real work of the Foreign Service was where the rubber hit the road. I’m not dissing FSOs assigned to London: work there is very important and complicated. Nor am I claiming any special virtue here; most FSOs saw the job the same way. But clearly, not enough do. And so, strict assignment discipline is being resurrected.