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Minutes of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy July 2007 Official Meeting


Meridian International Center
Washington, DC
July 27, 2007

Commission Participants:      Commissioner Barbara Barrett, Chair
Commissioner Sophia Aguirre Commissioner Harold Pachios
Commissioner Jay Snyder Commissioner-nominee John Osborn 
(meeting observer)

Introduction

On behalf of the Commission, Chairman Barrett welcomed the speakers and members of the general public, thanked Amb. Stuart Holliday for making the venue available, briefly described the structure and work of the Commission, previewed the topics for the day, and introduced the speakers. Barrett stated that the questions the Commission wished to explore in this open meeting were:

  1. To what degree is the Department of State making an effort to recruit people with the skills and attributes necessary for the effective conduct of public diplomacy?;
  2. To what degree does, or should, the examination process test for these skills and attributes?; and
  3. To what degree, if at all, does the performance evaluation regime incentivize and reward public diplomacy outreach?

Speakers

  • Mr. Dennis Wolf, Foreign Service Board of Examiners
  • Mr. Charles Peacock, Foreign Service Board of Examiners
  • Mr. Teddy Taylor, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Resources
  • Mr. Gerald McLoughlin, Member, 2007 Promotion Boards
  • Mr. Steve Kashkett, Vice President, American Foreign Service Association (AFSA)

Foreign Service Recruitment and Examination

Peacock began the presentation with an overview of Foreign Service (FS) recruiting efforts. The Foreign Service employs approximately 6,500 generalists and 4,500 specialists. The Department “does not specifically target anyone for public diplomacy (PD) jobs,” he said; more generally, the Department does not recruit people with particular, specialized skill-sets, but rather, seeks to hire generalists, including for the public diplomacy career track. The only specific goal in the Department’s recruiting efforts, he added, is diversity (e.g., racial, ethnic, socioeconomic). Beyond that, Peacock said, Foreign Service recruitees largely “self-select.” Thus, if someone is interested in public diplomacy work, that person will probably check the PD box on the application form; he or she might do so on the basis of having read about PD work on the Department’s recruiting webpage. The State Department’s recruiting website (careers.state.gov) is one of the best in the government, and has earned many accolades, Peacock said.

The recruiting office has a staff of ten that is augmented by ten “Diplomats in Residence,” detailed to major universities across the United States. These individuals represent the front lines of the Department’s recruiting efforts. The Diplomats in Residence, in particular, help ensure some geographic diversity in Department recruiting.

The PD career track (formerly cone) has been the second most popular career track for the past five or six years, Peacock pointed out. [The political career (POL) track is the top choice of would-be FSOs.] Speaking to the critical importance of PD in the Department’s work today, Peacock added, “You consistently hear from the Secretary that we’re all PD officers now.” Over one quarter, or about 27%, of those who pass the oral assessment of the Foreign Service Examination process move into PD jobs. Candidates for PD positions, like those for POL positions, tend to score above average on the assessment – about 5.5-5.6 on a 1 to 7 scale. (The average score, across all cones, is 5.25.)

QUESTION: How exactly does the Department go about recruiting?

Peacock responded that the Department’s ten recruiters travel across the country and speak (and deliver recruiting materials) at universities, youth organizations, and even high schools. Each year, some 25-30,000 individuals sign up to take the exam; between 17,000 and 20,000 actually take it.

QUESTION: What is the Department’s budget for recruiting? (The questioner noted that historically, it has been “miniscule,” in the neighborhood of $75-80,000 a year, whereas, e.g., the Peace Corps has a recruiting budget of some $4 million.)

Peacock said that, in recent years, the recruiting budget has increased dramatically; it is now in the millions, but he added that he was not able to provide an exact figure, owing to the fact that pieces of the recruiting program are lodged within different parts of the State Department organization. The website, in particular, has benefited greatly from sharply increased funding.

QUESTION: Given the “self-selectivity” inherent in the hiring process, is the Department getting the quality of PD officer that it would be getting if it recruited more specifically for individuals with proven PD skills and backgrounds?

Peacock agreed with the premise of the question; Wolf replied that there’s no way to know the answer to the question

QUESTION: What is meant by the term “more diversity”?

Peacock stated that, in this context, the term diversity refers principally to the racial/ethnic composition of the Foreign Service; thus, the Department is making a special effort to bring in more minority FSOs. In terms of gender diversity, the Department has already achieved that objective, as, in recent years, just over half of the incoming FSOs have been women (approximately 52%).

QUESTION: A question was asked about the foreign language skills of FSOs. The questioner cited a 2002 report that indicated that only about five or six FSOs had sufficient proficiency/fluency in Arabic television and engage effectively in substantive discussion and debate. Given that, why not recruit Arab-Americans and other Arabic speakers from the outset? A former senior Foreign Service officer in the audience echoed this point, adding that many foreign languages, such as Russian, require “lifetimes” of learning – hence the desirability of bringing into the Foreign Service those who have a serious head-start in learning the language.

In response, Wolf mused whether the desired output of the recruiting effort is a linguist or an FSO. Brown opined that the conduct of diplomacy – and, in particular, public diplomacy – is impossible in the absence of true foreign language fluency.

QUESTION: Does the Department make a special effort to go to schools of communication to recruit for PD officers?

Peacock stated that the Department lacks the resources to do this; it’s funded only to recruit for diversity. He also reiterated that the active ingredient in recruiting is self-selectivity – that is, people who are interested in PD check that box on the application form and, if they manage to navigate the examination successfully, move into the PD career track. There is no special effort to recruit those with PD skills or experiences. That said, Peacock added, the Department does (and must) recruit for specialized skill-sets in its efforts to bring in FS specialists (e.g., in the medical and IT fields). By definition, he said, generalists are generalists – thus, there’s no effort to bring in people with “specialized generalists’” skills (note: quotes are the Commission’s). A participant countered that public diplomacy is a specialized skill, one we ought to regard as such. Peacock disagreed, pointing again to the fact that PD officers are generalists.

QUESTION: What is the reasoning behind the fact that there is no college degree requirement for entry into the Foreign Service?

Wolf responded by stating that there is not necessarily a correlation between having a particular degree and success in the Foreign Service. He mentioned the example of a couple that applied for the Foreign Service; one spouse had a Ph.D, while the other did not. In the end, the spouse who didn’t have the Ph.D passed the exam, while the spouse with the degree did not.

Wolf briefed the Commissioners on the revamped “Foreign Service Officer Test” (FSOT), which, in a key departure from previous practice, brings the candidate’s resume into consideration. The revamped FSOT also greatly reduces the wait between the recruiting approach and the candidate’s taking of the exam and places a greater, and earlier, premium on demonstrated language proficiency. Peacock reviewed for the Commissioners the relevant numbers (all approximate): 32,000 express interest in taking the written exam; 17,000 actually take the exam; 3,400 were invited by the Department to take the oral examination, of whom 3,300 actually sat for the exam; 320 passed the oral exam (including the new “resume” element); and of these, roughly 65 became PD officers. Peacock noted that a number of other candidates pass all the exams, but are not hired immediately; these individuals remain on a register for two years – if the Department hasn’t hired them by the end of that two-year period, they must start the process from the beginning.

QUESTION: Does the exam process take into account the current needs/deficits of the Department? The questioner commented that, in his view, the process should proceed from the following questions, “What is our Department trying to accomplish? What skills do we now need to achieve these objectives? And how can we get those particular skills?” The questioner observed that the Department doesn’t seem to be approaching recruiting with this kind of rigor.

Wolf noted that the Department conducts a job analysis survey that seeks to gauge what FSOs actually do on a day-to-day basis. The survey yields valuable information, but neither Wolf nor Peacock articulated exactly how, if at all, this information is funneled into the examination process. Peacock added that, to the extent there is a nexus between the Department’s needs and its recruiting or exam-related efforts, the emphasis, again, is on racial/ethnic diversity, not on skills, e.g., the Department doesn’t say, ‘We need more PD officers, or officers with this particular skill or substantive background.’

QUESTION: How does the Department ensure consistence year-to-year in the administration of the oral exam?

Peacock and Wolf explained that the fact that between one-half and two-thirds of the assessors remain on every year helps ensure consistency in the administration of the examination.

Employee Evaluation

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Human Resources Teddy Taylor briefed the Commissioners on the employee evaluation report (EER) system. At the outset, he stated that the critical question in the EER system is, “Has this office demonstrated the potential to serve at the next higher level of the Foreign Service?” The officer is evaluated against a set of “precepts” that articulate the particular skill-sets necessary for advancement. The evaluation forms used for officers at the FS-01 (colonel) level are different from those used to evaluate FSOs at the FS-02 (lieutenant colonel) level and below. Taylor proceeded to explain the mechanics of the EER process, e.g., with reference to the constitution of the Boards, voting procedures, and so on. Taylor highlighted the fact that FSOs are evaluated in two distinct processes: 1) conally (that is, they are evaluated within the group of employees who share the same cone and rank); and 2) class-wide (that is, within the larger group of all employees, irrespective of career track, at the same rank).

QUESTION: How many officers are reviewed by each promotion panel?

Taylor said that, for example, for the FS-01 group, the number was about 230 files.

Taylor added that the promotion precepts – the standards against which all FSOs are supposed to be evaluated – are negotiated with the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the Foreign Service’s union and professional association.

Taylor explained that the number of promotions each year depends on the number of “vacancies” at the next level of the Foreign Service. It also takes into account the training float, and the fact that a good number of FSOs will perform details in other executive branch agencies, multilateral organizations, Congress, the private sector, and the like.

For PD officers, the promotion panels look to see if the individual has undertaken all aspects of PD work; officers who have focused exclusively on one or the other aspect of PD work (e.g., cultural, as opposed to information) often don’t fare as well in the process as those who have accumulated successful experiences in both areas. Breadth of experience is increasingly important, particularly at the higher levels, according to Taylor.

QUESTION: How do FSOs learn about the precepts/processes associated with the promotion process?

Taylor said that all the relevant information is published and also readily available to all employees on the appropriate sections of the State Department intranet site. Employees have a great interest in understand the system, Taylor said, because “this is the only way to get a raise.”

QUESTION: What is the time lag between the review of the performance files and the actual promotions?

Taylor replied that the panels meet in the summer and the promotions are typically announced in September or October. Within this timeframe, there is an administrative vetting process (e.g., for EEO, disciplinary, and legal matters) that takes place. In response to a question from the general public as to whether officers are provided feedback as to they weren’t promoted in a given year, Taylor stated that no such feedback mechanism exists; however, employees can get their “score card” from the Bureau of Human Resources to ascertain how they fared relative to their peers. By law, the Department must “low-rank” five percent of FSOs. On average, it takes about five or six years, and sometimes longer, to move from one level to the next.

QUESTION: To what degree the expression of dissent might have an impact on the evaluation/promotion of an FSO?

Taylor replied by stating, “Candor is valued by good Foreign Service managers,” but added, “If you’re not willing to let it go,” then that could be a problem. A Commissioner observed that Under Secretary did the right thing in standing by an FSO who mis-spoke in the course of a major media appearance. Taylor agreed, “She did the right thing.” Asked if this type of thing can make it into an EER, Taylor replied affirmatively, but noted that experienced FSOs read the files and, generally, are able to put these types of incidents into the proper context.

QUESTION: How could public diplomacy be built into the EER to a greater degree?

Taylor said that, first and foremost, the work requirement statement (WRS), or job description, should make clear what is expected of the employee. A Commissioner pointed out that there is nothing in the EER form itself that calls upon officers to undertake PD outreach work; hence, it would seem that an officer can be promoted without actually haven undertaken PD work. Taylor responded by saying that PD-related job requirements (along with all other job requirements) are set forth in the WRS, but he added, “Everyone is expected to do some outreach as part of his or her job.” PD is “a part of the job,” he stressed. “We all have an outreach component to our job.”

A Commissioner followed up by asking if, given PD’s importance in the work of the Department, it might make sense to build it into the form itself, in a way that it is not at present. Taylor replied, “I don’t think so.” He argued that such “competencies” as leadership, for example, already implicitly embrace not only an internal element, but also an external (i.e., PD-related) one, too.

QUESTION: A person from the public audience observed that the process by which we bring candidates into the Foreign Service, and promote them to the next level, is “very 20th century”; how can we expedite these processes and thus better appeal to a generation of American young people who, in this age of Google and YouTube, aren’t accustomed to waiting months and years for things to play out?

Taylor acknowledged that this was a legitimate question and said he didn’t have a ready answer. At the same time, Taylor said he hasn’t heard many complaints about the pace of promotions; what’s more, the Department’s retention rates are high.

A View from the 2007 Promotion Boards

Gerald McLoughlin, of the 2007 promotion boards, shared with the Commissioners insights he gleaned for his service on the most recent class-wide (all career track) FS-03 to FS-02 promotion boards. He told the Commissioners that, initially, he thought PD officers would fare well in the process in relative terms, because they tended to bring to the table the kinds of experience required for advancement – e.g., managing resources and staffs, working with interagency interlocutors, engaging in public outreach, and so on. As it turned out, however, PD officers, at least in this “batch” of files, were promoted at the lowest rate of any career track.

A key problem, McLoughlin said, was that raters (those writing the EERs) tended to do a poor job of describing the PD job in terms that were meaningful to an outside observer. More “striking,” this problem was particularly pronounced in the case of PD officers rating PD officers. Non-PD raters generally did a better job, McLoughlin recounted, in describing the nature of the public outreach and explaining its importance: the purpose of the outreach, the quality of the outreach, the effect of the outreach, and the ‘so what?’ impact. PD raters, counter-intuitively, did a poorer job of this, according to McLoughlin (himself, an FS-01 PD officer and a veteran chief of a major overseas public affairs office). In his batch of files, the panel elected to “mid-rank” (rather than recommend for promotion) most PD officers.

QUESTION: Could the deficiency in evaluation writing witnessed by McLoughlin be remedied by better training (e.g., in the preparation of EERs)? In McLoughlin’s opinion, was this more an individual problem, or more a systemic problem?

McLoughlin stated that he and others have raised this idea with the appropriate offices, but he’s not sure what, if any, action the Department is undertaking to address this evident problem. In any case, he went on, the problem seems to lie in both the work requirement statements (e.g., to the degree they do not articulate “promote-able” work assignments) and in supervisors’ ability to translate, in the context of an EER, an officers achievements into a narrative that impresses promotion panels.

QUESTION: Were PD officers being underutilized? What could be the solution to the problem?

McLoughlin opined that underutilization might be part of the problem. He said that a cable from the Human Resources Bureau (or other appropriate office) to the field bringing the problem to the attention of supervisors in the field would be a good first step.

QUESTION: A Commissioner recalled the old United States Information Agency (USIA). In the USIA, FSOs (all of whom were PD officers, by definition, as USIA was the designated PD agency), would come into the Foreign Service and immediately move into PD work. Today, in contrast, PD officers come into the Department and, before they have a chance to delve into PD work (the work of their career track), they must log about four years of consular and/or administrative duty (most often, visa work) before they even get the chance to work in their own field. A question was asked if this might be part of the problem. Were EERs for PD officers better prepared in the old USIA era?

Indicating that he was responding in a personal, not official, capacity, McLoughlin expressed agreement with the premise of the question.

A general audience member, a retired senior FSO, opined that consular service (the “consular crunch”) is nonetheless a “very good crucible” for junior officer training.

Moving to the topic of interpersonal skills (e.g., as evaluated in the EER), McLoughlin observed that, to his great surprise, there was often “little mention of the PD officers’ contact with the outside community.” Indeed, in some cases, there was no reference to the specific country in which the officer was serving – that is, it was difficult or impossible, on occasion, for the panel to ascertain from the substantive content of the EER what country the officer was working in. Too often, McLoughlin said, the officer’s accomplishments were linked to too great a degree to the internal workings of the office, not public outreach, per se. Overall, McLoughlin said, he and several other panelists came to the conclusion that PD officers were simply not engaging with foreign publics – a conclusion that he characterized as “devastating.”

QUESTION: Could the problem be that PD officers simply aren’t engaged in outreach to the degree they should be, or, on the other hand, that they are engaged, but that their accomplishments are not being conveyed effectively in the context of the EER process?

Officers would benefit from more feedback on the EER process, McLoughlin replied. Echoing a point made earlier in the session, McLoughlin added that public outreach does appear in the promotion precepts, but speculated that PD officers are sufficiently attuned to the precepts – which, if true, would argue for the inclusion of a PD requirement of some kind into the body of the EER itself. Distilled down to the essence of the matter, the question for PD officers in the EER context is, “Did this officer have an impact on public opinion; on how the United States, or U.S. policy, is viewed in this country?”

At the conclusion of this sub-session, an audience member posited that there might be another explanation for the phenomenon described by McLoughlin: that the PD jobs in question, at least as articulated in these WRSs, were not sufficiently “promote-able” – that they were not sufficiently significant to merit promotion. More broadly, she also put forward the view that, in the 21st century, it might behoove the Department and the U.S. government to redefine diplomacy altogether; more specifically, in this new information-rich world in which the great majority of the nations of the word are democratic and therefore responsive and accountable to electorates, public diplomacy is now more rightly seen as diplomacy itself.

The View of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA)

American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) Vice President (for the State Department) Steve Kashkett shared with the Commissioners AFSA’s views on a number of the issues discussed in the first two hours of the meeting. AFSA is the Foreign Service’s union (collective bargaining unit) and professional association; its members constitute about 85% of the active duty Foreign Service. Kashkett pointed to AFSA’s rich experience in dealing with problems coming out of the promotion process as having shaped his views on these issues.

Kashkett began by noting, as DAS Taylor had pointed out, that AFSA negotiated the current promotion precepts that are currently in force with Department management. Commenting on the new Foreign Service Officer Test (FSOT), Kashkett commented that the new elements of the exam will “make it a bit more likely that we’ll get the caliber of PD officer we’re seeking.” That is because, as noted above, the FSOT will bring language, foreign experience and a number of other relevant factors into this stage of the application process for the first time as part of a “whole candidate” evaluation.

The idea of building PD into the EER form has been floated before informally, Kashkett said. At this point, however, it is only built into the precepts, not the EER form itself. In a survey of some of its members, AFSA raised this idea, and discovered that there was little support for it. While those surveyed said that they saw the value of building PD into the work requirement statements, a number of officers expressed concern about the idea of making this a requirement of all FS personnel, e.g., all generalists and specialists (including, for example, nurse practitioners, IT personnel, and so on).

QUESTION: If PD is, in fact, a part of everyone’s job (as DAS Taylor himself clearly stated), then why not weave it into the fabric the forms used to evaluate all generalists? The questioner, in response to Kashkett’s comments, said that what he had in mind was not extending this requirement to specialist, but rather, to the generalists.

Kashkett stated that, for its part, AFSA has no problem with every FSO generalist having a line in his/her WRS focusing on PD outreach, but does have concerns about mandating this type of activity universally. The problem with this approach, he said, is that “it assumes that every officer has the skills and knowledge to do this kind of work.” In reality, however, the officer who is handling the ordering off supplies for the embassy, for example, may or may not have the skills or inclination – may or may not “feel equipped” – to do this type of work; indeed, he/she, along with visa officers, etc., probably rarely get this kind of opportunity. Kashkett expressed concern about officers who are not accustomed to this type of outreach getting into sensitive situations they might not be trained or able to handle. “This kind of outreach is full of minefields,” he observed.

To Kashkett’s comments, a participant replied that, if, in fact, the Department’s senior-most leadership is calling upon all FSOs to engage in public diplomacy (and, for that matter, public affairs) outreach, then it follows that either the capability is already there, or if it isn’t, then it should be. The Department should view this as a core skill-set that it cultivates in all its personnel. Otherwise, there appear to be a kind of disconnect between the exhortations of the Department’s leaders and the real-world capabilities and expectations of the rank-and-file personnel. A Commissioner agreed, stating, “If it’s in the form, it’s going to happen; if it’s not, it won’t.”

Kashkett pointed out that for a system like this to work, the line supervisors would have to approve and encourage their subordinates to undertake this type of work; in reality, that isn’t the case across the board. Moreover, ambassadors might say, “I’m not sure I want non-PD folks, or even PD folks, giving speeches,” e.g., on sensitive U.S. policy matters. In other words, there remain some very real corporate cultural barriers to rank-and-file officers getting as fully engaged in outreach as the Department leadership would seem to want.

Kashkett noted that AFSA has received complaints from some member (of the PD career track) about non-PD supervisors who don’t understand the essence of PD work, but it has not received complaint from PD officers serving under PD officers.


Released on June 3, 2008

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