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Fifth AFSA Foreign Service Reform Proposal

Following we present another in the series of Foreign Service reform proposal set forth by the American Foreign Service Association. As AFSA points out, the Foreign Service, dating back to 1924 with the Rogers Act that combined the diplomatic and consular services, the Foreign Service has been “a distinct corps with a unique mission and proud history.” This journal most certainly echoes that sentiment.—Ed.
1. Introduction: As we have reported over the past six months, AFSA’s ongoing Foreign Service Reform Initiative has already served as the catalyst for the adoption of a number of significant reforms. But, as Secretary Powell has indicated in calling for a “reinvigoration” of the Foreign Service, some elements of our personnel system do not need to be changed as much as they need to be given new energy and vitality. AFSA believes that one key attribute of the Foreign Service that needs to be preserved and renewed is esprit de corps. As explained in this message, we seek employee input on a proposal intended to help assure that the Foreign Service continues to be staffed by Americans with the outlooks and values required to carry out our unique and demanding mission.The Foreign Service Covenant
2. The Roger’s Act of 1924 established the modern Foreign Service and specifically distinguished it from other categories of federal employment. As Senator Jesse Helms explained during the debate over the 1980 update of the Foreign Service Act, a Foreign Service career entails “additional rigorous duties, greater sacrifices, more dedication to hazardous and onerous service” and, therefore, “Foreign Service personnel must have * additional safeguards and rewards and protections which take cognizance of the greater demands on professional qualification and personal character and dedication.” Senator Helms’ 1980 remarks capture the essence of the covenant that has bound Foreign Service members to the Service since 1924: we comprise a distinct corps from whom more is expected and to whom more is given. AFSA believes that it is essential that this concept not be lost or watered down over time.

3. If anything, since 9/11/01, Foreign Service members have been subjected to even greater sacrifices and more dedication to hazardous service. With international terrorist cells believed to be operating in more than 60 countries around the globe, we may need to stop saying that the Foreign Service operates on the frontlines of freedom and start saying that we operate behind enemy lines. The months and years ahead may see increasing attacks on our overseas missions and members such as occurred twice earlier this year in Pakistan. More Foreign Service members may be separated from their families as the result of evacuations of non-essential personnel. Sadly, more names may have to be added to the AFSA Memorial Plaques.

4. But, regardless of the dangers and dislocations, it is essential that we do our duty and continue to accomplish our mission for the American people. However, this will only happen if current and future Foreign Service members maintain a sense of esprit de corps. Obviously, only those who see themselves as part of a distinct “service” can be expected to exhibit “service discipline.” And without service discipline, it would be impossible for the Secretary of State to staff thousands of positions year in and year out at 259 overseas posts (158 of which are hardship postings).

5. Other federal services with specialized missions understand the importance of preserving and renewing esprit de corps. President Bush, in his June 1 commencement address at the U.S. Military Academy, made these remarks clearly designed to help infuse new U.S. Army officers with a sense that they are doing more than just taking a job: “Today, your last day at West Point, you begin a life of service in a career unlike any other. You’ve answered a calling to hardship and purpose, to risk and honor* May you always be worthy of the long gray line that stretches two centuries behind you.”

6. AFSA believes that it is essential that all new Foreign Service members clearly understand that they are joining a distinct corps with a unique mission and proud history. We strongly endorse Secretary Powell’s remarks at AFSA’s Annual Awards Ceremony on June 27, 2002 when he said that “since I became Secretary of State, we [AFSA and I] have found more and more areas of cooperation in which we can work together to make the Foreign Service even better and stronger, to raise morale and esprit de corps. I have time and time again witnessed that culture, that fraternity, of men and women of extraordinary skill and dedication who represent the Foreign Service.”

7. AFSA, of course, hastens to add that, as then-Secretary of State Albright said when she commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Foreign Service, exhibiting pride in the Foreign Service does not imply that its members are more deserving of the respect and gratitude of the American people than are other categories of employees. As Secretary Powell so eloquently put it during at his first employee Town Hall meeting four days after taking office: “I believe, to the depth of my heart, that there is no job in the State Department that is unimportant. I believe that everybody has a vital role to play, and it is my job to communicate and convey down through every layer to the last person in the organization, the valuable role that they are performing and how what they do contributes to the mission.”

AFSA’s Proposal
8. Below is the draft text of a letter that AFSA would like to propose that the Director General of the Foreign Service send to all new State Department Foreign Service members. The letter explains to new members exactly what they are agreeing to when they join the Foreign Service. While a few new hires might quickly skim and then discard the letter, we believe that the vast majority would give it close attention and would, as a result, enter the Foreign Service with a stronger sense of esprit de corps.

9. We invite employees to review this message and provide input by July 22 by e-mailing, sending a fax to AFSA President at 202-338-6820, sending an AFSA Channel cable, or mailing a letter to AFSA President, 2101 E Street NW, Washington DC 20037. Let us know if there is anything in the letter that does not reflect your own understanding of what a career in the Foreign Service means. Please keep any proposed additions short since it is beyond the scope of this letter to include every possible “pro” and “con” or to address special situations faced in each specific Foreign Service skill code. After we finalize the text of this State Department-focused letter, AFSA’s Vice Presidents for USAID, FCS, and FAS will consider adapting it for use at their agencies.

10. Draft Text of Proposed Letter from DG to new Foreign Service members:

Congratulations upon your appointment as a career-conditional member of the Foreign Service of the United States. I write to advise you of what is entailed in this career path. Please give this letter your close attention, since the Foreign Service is more than just a job; it is a demanding and rewarding way of life.

Foreign Service generalists and specialists work closely with other members of the State Department team to accomplish the Department’s mission of creating a more secure, prosperous, and democratic world for the American people. Diplomacy is an instrument of national power, essential for maintaining effective international relationships, and a principal means through which the United States defends its interests, responds to crises, and achieves its international goals.

The Foreign Service was established to provide the President with a dedicated and skilled corps of professionals who possess keen understandings of the affairs, cultures, and languages of other countries and who are available to serve in assignments throughout the world as ordered by the Secretary. The Foreign Service is a distinct corps of employees from whom more is expected and to whom more is given. In joining this unique corps, you should understand the balance between the burdens and rewards of this service.

The rewards are substantial. As representatives of the United States to foreign governments, Foreign Service members serve on the frontline of America’s engagement abroad. They have a direct impact on people’s lives and witness history in the making. Foreign Service members travel the globe, experiencing new cultures and seeing new sights. They work alongside highly talented colleagues, are challenged every day, and rarely get bored.

Rewards of service include allowances and benefits designed to attract and retain a highly skilled workforce that represents the diversity of the American people. For example, Foreign Service members are provided housing when serving abroad, accrue extra vacation time while overseas, and may retire with benefits after serving 20 years and reaching age 50. Foreign Service members at unhealthy and/or hazardous locations receive additional pay. They enjoy an occupational health maintenance program and have the option of sending their children to away from home schooling at government expense when schools in their country of assignment are deficient or nonexistent.

Unlike most other federal civilian employees, Foreign Service members are in a rank-in-person rather than a rank-in-position personnel system. This gives Foreign Service members greater flexibility to move from position to position while giving the Secretary of State the rotational pool of skilled professionals that is required to staff effectively more than 250 overseas posts year in and year out.

But a Foreign Service career also imposes significant demands on its members. Typically, members spend two-thirds of their careers overseas, often in unhealthy, harsh, and/or isolated locations. They live for extended periods of time far from parents, siblings, and old friends, and often without familiar amenities or access to modern medical facilities. Foreign Service members move every 2 to 4 years. They must constantly learn new jobs and skills, both through formal training and on-the-job experience. Unlike other federal employees, Foreign Service members are subject to a tenuring process, limits on continuous periods of domestic service, possible selection out for poor performance, and mandatory retirement for age.

Foreign Service members often must work long hours under considerable time pressure. Overseas, they are on-call 24 hours a day. They must enthusiastically support and defend U.S. government policies with which they may personally disagree. They must frequently interact with people who are frustrated and angry about their situation and assist people who have placed themselves in difficult situations. Living in a glass bowl overseas, they are held to high standards of personal conduct. Needless to say, careful attention to safeguarding classified material is a prerequisite.

Unlike other domestically based federal civilian employees, Foreign Service members’ base pay does not currently include a “locality pay” adjustment. In many overseas locations, the spouses of Foreign Service members face poor employment opportunities. Both of these factors reduce lifetime family income and retirement savings. In some locations, children of Foreign Service members face sub-standard educational opportunities.

International terrorism and common street crime pose significant threats to Foreign Service members abroad. Although great effort goes into reducing those risks, they cannot be eliminated if we are to perform our mission for the American people. Thus, a Foreign Service career entails exposure to physical danger and may require members to remain at their duty posts in harm’s way while their families are evacuated to the United States.

Those of us who have spent many years in the Foreign Service have found that the rewards of representing our great nation have far outweighed the demands laid upon us. I am confident that you will have the same experience. In joining this corps of dedicated Americans, the expression “the United States of America” will take on a new meaning and importance for you. You will become part of something greater than yourself, something that began in 1776 when our first diplomat Benjamin Franklin set sail for Europe. You will see the world in a way most others can only dream. You will make your family proud and perform an invaluable service to America.

Welcome to the Foreign Service and the State Department team!

Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources


Source: AFSANET, a free service of the American Foreign Service Association. To become a member of AFSA, visit

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