Q & A

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Reader Questions

Author Interview


Reader Questions

Q Will you have information regarding the qualifications evaluation panel (QEP) in the latest edition of your book? If so, do you have any helpful insights you can share?

The QEP, which the second edition discusses, is for most candidates the least transparent and most puzzling part of the entry process.

Candidates who pass the written test — usually about 45 percent of those who take it — are asked to answer five questions with written personal narratives that provide examples, drawn from the candidate’s life history and experience, of aptitude and accomplishment in areas of importance to the foreign service. The narratives go to a qualifications evaluation panel, which reviews them together with the test results and the rest of the applicant’s file. The QEP then creates five rank-order lists, one for each career cone or track (consular affairs, economic affairs, management, political affairs, public diplomacy). The top candidates in each list are invited to the oral assessment, with the number of candidates invited determined primarily by the needs of the service in each cone and by the funds available for new hires.

The QEP looks for candidates with substantive knowledge and skills in leadership, management, interpersonal relations, oral and written communication (including the ability to listen), and information collection and analysis. The panel wants candidates who show discipline and can follow directions, but who are also able to act independently and creatively. As one personnel expert put it, the panel wants someone who is a great Clark Kent, and who when the need arises can also be Superman.

Q Can life in the FS be good for a male “trailing spouse”?

Answer: Yes, absolutely—but not necessarily. Life can be good, or not so good, anywhere, for those who work and those who don’t. Personal and internal resources are the primary drivers of the quality of life.

In recent years men and women have joined the foreign service in roughly equal numbers, but the upper ranks are still more male than female. A dependent husband is generally less common than a dependent wife, but not so rare as to draw comment.

Regardless of gender, a dependent spouse overseas faces certain challenges, whether or not he or she is part of a tandem couple. (A tandem is foreign service jargon for a couple in which both partners are members of the service. It often happens that one spouse in a tandem, either for family reasons or to avoid separation, will choose to take leave without pay and travel to post as a dependent.) A dependent spouse who wants to work may find opportunities severely limited or non-existent, because of economic conditions, language problems, local rules on professional certification or employment of foreigners, or an unwillingness of employers to hire someone who has diplomatic status and cannot be held subject to most local laws. Many posts, however, offer in-house work to dependents (consular assistant and family liaison positions, for example). For dependents with the right skills and professional certifications, teaching positions in American or international overseas schools may be available. And nearly everywhere there are opportunities for volunteer work.

Q How difficult is it to change cones?

Answer: Changing cones is possible but happens quite rarely, and only when a change suits the needs of the service. An officer may request a change of cone or skill code, but the department’s Bureau of Human Resources is not required to agree and may dismiss the request out of hand.

Out-of-cone assignments, however, are fairly common. Language skills sometimes trump functional skills: An officer who speaks a critical language well may be an attractive candidate for assignment to a language-designated position regardless of cone. Officers ready to go to unaccompanied positions (postings where family members are not allowed) or to historically hard-to-staff posts may also find that the lack of a fit between their cone and the open position is no barrier to assignment. As a matter of policy, the department wants every mid-career officer to have at least one out-of-cone assignment before competing for promotion to the senior foreign service. A very few officers spend most of their careers working outside their cones.

Q How are cost-of-living allowances calculated?

Answer: Cost-of-living allowances (COLA) are based on comparisons between costs for a standard basket of goods and services at post and in Washington. Overseas posts determine costs through annual hands-on surveys. (How much is a gallon of milk? Go to three markets, get the prices, and take an average.) The local costs are translated into dollars at the exchange rate used by the post. The department determines the content of the basket, calculates the costs in the Washington area, and sets the allowance for each post. Many private organizations use the State Department’s COLA calculations in adjusting dollar compensation for their overseas U.S. employees.

Q This past decade, especially, the US underperformed in almost every area (society, business, diplomacy, education, etc.). Some blame this on the trend of the past several decades of focusing on extrinsic motivators. The Foreign Service draws people who are motivated primarily by intrinsic things (service and patriotism, for example). Where does the State Department fall on this spectrum of motivating its employees? Where do you think it needs to be? And where do you think it’s headed?

Answer: We’ve had a rough decade, for sure, but extrinsic motivators, which served us well for a couple of centuries and seem now to be doing China no harm, are probably not the root cause.

People want to work at the Department of State. Universum Communications recently surveyed 10,000 US professionals about their ideal employer. The Department of State ranked:
• first as ideal employer among senior professionals (8+ years of experience)
• second as ideal employer among military/veterans
• fourth as ideal employer among young professionals (1-8 years of experience)
(To view all the rankings, visit: http://www.universumglobal.com/IDEAL-Employer-Rankings/Professional-Surveys/United-States.)

It seems safe to say that the Department’s appeal is not based primarily on monetary compensation, although the presence of a number of federal government agencies in the top ranks of “ideal employers” (the FBI, CIA, and NASA are also in the top ten among all US professionals) suggests that the combination of good pay and benefits with little risk of layoffs is attractive.

The Department uses hardship pay and danger pay to attract its employees to service in difficult and dangerous places, and to reward those who accept high levels of discomfort and risk. The Department also instructs its promotion boards to give particular consideration to officers who officers who perform well in the most difficult conditions. For members of the foreign service, who tend to be competitive and ambitious, the opportunity for rapid promotion is a powerful motivator.

Monetary compensation of its employees is largely beyond the control of the Department’s leadership. Pay and allowances depend largely on decisions made outside the Department, in the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of Personnel Management, and Congress. The Department has taken steps in recent years to strengthen non-monetary recognition of employee value, for example with a much improved awards program and the introduction of a retirement ceremony. The effort to provide the foreign service with a sense of continuity and a bit of pageantry was overdue and has been well received.

Q How do you “manage up”?

Answer: In the foreign service or any other hierarchy, you want to make the boss look good. Managing up means giving the boss what the boss wants, adapting to the boss’s style, and making his or her work easier, more effective, and less time-consuming.

A personal example: My first day on the job as deputy chief of mission at a large embassy, the ambassador told me my role. “It’s your job to know what I’m doing and thinking,” he said, “but it’s not my job to tell you.” He was telling me to manage up.

Q How does our foreign service compare with other countries’ services?

Answer: The American Foreign Service Association recently surveyed practices in the diplomatic services of Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Mexico, and the United Kingdom. AFSA found that the United States Foreign Service is unique in its approach to hiring, training, and career development. Other countries in nearly every case require candidates to have credentials, such as degrees in international relations, political science, economics, or other fields related to diplomatic work, and to have command of at least one foreign language. Despite these requirements for entry, most other services also require their new officers to undergo lengthy courses of training and professional formation (sixty days in Canada, eighteen months in Brazil) prior to assignment abroad. Some services routinely assign new members first to service in the home ministry, as a form of orientation. In the Chinese service, the first assignment abroad normally follows several years of work in Beijing.

The U.S. service covers more posts in more countries and is larger than any other. The size of the service allows and promotes specialization. No other service surveyed had anything like the U.S. cone system. But many other countries also have many agencies represented overseas, with officials from ministries of trade and commerce and development assistance often carrying out functions similar to those of U.S. foreign service officers in the Department of Commerce and USAID.

The U.S. service has a far more robust program of language training than other services. Most other services expect their diplomats to acquire languages on their own, without formal training.

Some countries, notably Brazil, place foreign service personnel from the ministry of foreign relations in other ministres, where they commonly head bureaus of international affairs and cooperation.

Other services have a high regard for the quality of U.S. diplomatic work. The EU Observer, an independent publication, carried a report last December by Andrew Reitman quoting an EU official on reading U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks: EU reports, said the official, “are crap compared to this. These are political, concise, incisive, almost literary…. It sets a benchmark for diplomacy” (http://euobserver.com/?aid=31394).

Q How will the recently released Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) affect the approach of FSOs to their jobs?

Answer: The QDDR gives strong verbal support to the integration of diplomacy and development as tools of policy, but it did not go as far as many thought (or feared) that it would in calling for closer integration of the Department of State and USAID, which will apparently remain quite separate bureaucracies.

The QDDR does signal some likely changes. Over the next ten years, if the ideas embodied in the QDDR take hold and its proposals are implemented, more FSOs will spend more time building skills in program management and interagency collaboration. FSOs must be able to work within, coordinate, and lead efforts that involve many U.S. government agencies, each of which has its own budget, skills, constituencies, and priorities. The FSOs who conduct this work most successfully, especially in regions of conflict and instability, should advance most rapidly.

Q What career trajectory can an older candidate expect?

Answer: Members of the foreign service who begin their career relatively late in life can expect to follow the same trajectory as their younger colleagues, but for fewer years. Retirement is mandatory at age sixty-five.

Q What do you see happening to the foreign service if the Republicans take over the Senate as well?

Answer: Budget cuts seem likely regardless of which party controls the Senate. The cuts are likely to reduce U.S. spending on foreign aid and cause foreign service agencies to scale back or suspend plans for large-scale hiring above attrition. However, hiring below attrition, which reduced the size of the foreign service in all foreign service agencies in the 1990s, seems unlikely.

The foreign service, which is widely seen on Capitol Hill as smart and knowledgeable but weak and indecisive, has done a fairly poor job winning the confidence of political leaders, regardless of their party. But the notion that Republicans are less friendly to the service than Democrats has some truth to it, as does its more important corollary, that the service is less attuned to Republican than Democratic thinking on foreign affairs.

Most FSOs are internationalists, willing (indeed, eager) to see the world from more than one point of view and reluctant to express problems of foreign relations in moral terms. The idealistic strain in American foreign policy, which seeks to promote American political and moral values even at the expense of short-term interests, is for the time being more pronounced in the Republican than the Democratic party. Perhaps paradoxically, the isolationist strain in American foreign policy is also for the time being more pronounced in the Republican than the Democratic party. Neither of these strains finds much resonance in the foreign service, leaving traces of discomfort and sometimes suspicion on both sides.

Q What professional opportunities are open to retired FSOs?

Answer: Foreign service officers with at least twenty years of service can retire with pension as early as age fifty. Retirement is mandatory at age sixty-five. The department offers a seminar and placement service to prepare officers for retirement.

Retired FSOs seeking second careers often turn to teaching, research, and writing, most often in academic institutions or think tanks like the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the U.S. Institute of Peace, or the RAND Corporation. Some join nongovernmental organizations or charitable enterprises that have an international focus, including those that run exchange programs or relief efforts, or promote particular causes like de-mining or environmental protection. A few go into business, particularly international banking and finance, and some into journalism or politics. Many do volunteer work in their communities.

Many retired FSOs—currently more than a thousand—continue their foreign service work as contract employees who are paid “when actually employed” (WAE). WAEs who have retained their security and medical clearances fill temporary vacancies around the world on short-term assignments, generally up to six months. Retired members of the senior foreign service may also be called back to senior positions in Washington, pending nomination and confirmation of a successor. For example, retired Ambassador Robert Loftis is the State Department’s acting Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization; retired Ambassador Harry Geisel is the State Department’s acting inspector general.

Q What prompted you to come out with a second edition of the book?

Answer: The manuscript for the first edition was completed in 2007, and parts of the text had become dated.

The second edition brings data current to fiscal years 2009 and 2010 wherever possible. It includes new material on Secretary Clinton’s approach to diplomacy as a component of smart power, including new discussions of the service in Iraq and Afghanistan, the role of USAID, and the effort to develop civilian capacity in stabilization and reconstruction. It covers the five-year plan to increase the number of foreign service personnel by 25 percent in State and 100 percent in USAID above FY 2008 levels, looking at what has been accomplished and the uncertain prospects for the future. The joint State-USAID first quadrennial diplomacy and development review (QDDR) is taken into account, although the report was released too late (December 15, 2010) for detailed analysis. To keep the book at roughly the same length, sections and passages that had become outdated or that readers found dull or useless were deleted.

In all, new matter accounts for about 25 to 30 percent of the second edition.

Q What is the difference between hardship and danger?

Answer: A post differential, commonly called a hardship allowance, is “designed to provide additional compensation to employees for service in foreign areas where environmental conditions differ substantially from environmental conditions in the continental United States and warrant additional compensation as a recruitment and retention incentive” (Foreign Affairs Manual, volume 3, section 3261.1). The differential ranges from 5 to 25 percent of base pay.

Danger pay provides “additional compensation to all U.S. government civilian employees, including Chiefs of Mission, for service at places in foreign areas where there exist conditions of civil insurrection, civil war, terrorism or war, when these conditions threaten physical harm or imminent danger to the health or well-being of an employee” (Foreign Affairs Manual, volume 3, section 3272.1). The Foreign Affairs Manual adds: “These conditions do not include acts that are economically motivated,” meaning muggings and similar crime. Danger pay may be up to 25 percent of base pay.

Employees at some posts receive both danger pay and a hardship differential, but Department regulations note that “the part of a post’s hardship differential rate that is attributable to political violence may be reduced when the danger pay allowance is authorized to avoid dual credit for political violence” (3 FAM 3275).

Q Why do consular officers still get looked down upon by some other cones?

Answer: I am tempted to put up some bumf denying this in-house snobbery, but the truth is that within the foreign service, the political cone enjoys the most prestige, the consular and management cones the least. Political work is generally considered more glamorous, not because it is conducted in the swank capitals of Europe (where in fact its prestige is in decline), but because foreign service officers themselves consider it more tightly linked to issues of national security and high policy than other foreign service work. The political cone produces the most ambassadors.

Q Will the expansion of the service be fully realized?

Answer: The plan called “Diplomacy 3.0,” laid out early in 2009, called for increasing the size of the service by 25 percent from FY 2008 levels in five years, that is, by the end of FY 2013.

By the end of hiring under FY 2010 authorities, the service will have grown by about 15 percent from FY 2008 levels. (Not all hiring under FY 2010 authorities had been completed by the end of the FY 2010.) Budget stringencies will delay completion of the program, but the objective has not been abandoned.

Q The department used the additional hires in FY 2009-2010 mainly to reduce the number of vacancies and shorten their duration, and only secondarily to expand training in languages, functional skills, and tradecraft. (The American Academy of Diplomacy and the Stimson Center recommended a greatly expanded program of training and professional education for the foreign service in a February 2011 report, published at http://www.academyofdiplomacy.org/.) The need for increased training, especially in languages, is widely acknowledged and is likely to drive personnel strategy for many years to come. The Department is likely to return to its hiring program as soon as budgetary conditions permit.

Author Interview

Q What prompted the writing of this book?

Kopp: The book started with General Jack Galvin, a soldier-diplomat who was NATO commander and later dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. General Galvin joined the policy committee of the Cox Foundation, a private group that supports a strong foreign service, and wanted a book that would teach him the basics of the organization. Told there was no such book, he said, “Well, there should be.” Tony Gillespie, another member of the committee, heard him and agreed. Gillespie recruited me for the project.

Q What made you want to enter the U.S. Foreign Service?

Kopp: In high school in New Rochelle, New York, a social studies teacher [Rafael Cortada, who later became president of the University of the District of Columbia] talked me into taking part in the Model United Nations. I won a prize for best delegate and was hooked.

This past decade, especially, the US underperformed in almost every area (society, business, diplomacy, education, etc.). Some blame this on the trend of the past several decades of focusing on extrinsic motivators. The Foreign Service draws people who are motivated primarily by intrinsic things (service and patriotism, for example). Where does the State Department fall on this spectrum of motivating its employees? Where do you think it needs to be? And where do you think it’s headed?

Q What is the biggest perk of working in the foreign service? What is the biggest drawback?

Kopp: Of course different people have different answers to that question. But most members of the service are people who seek engagement with foreign cultures and with American foreign policy. They like the travel and the change. What they usually don’t like is the bureaucracy and the squabbling among U.S. government agencies.

Q If you could offer one piece of advice to someone considering a career in the foreign service, what would it be?

Kopp: Read this book.

Q Do you have a favorite anecdote from your time as a diplomat?

Kopp: I once spent ten hours in a sealed railway car in the People’s Republic of Poland playing penny-ante poker with Senator Hubert Humphrey and three Minnesota journalists. I didn’t get to commit much diplomacy during the train ride, but I learned a lot of politics. Ten hours with Hubert Humphrey is a powerful antidote to cynicism.

Q Why does the U.S. need the foreign service?

Kopp: We have a foreign service because the U.S. government has to deal with other countries – which, when we do it peaceably, is what we call diplomacy. Diplomacy requires persuasion, negotiation and an understanding of foreign cultures, languages, interests, and motivations. These skills are best cultivated and identified in a professional, competitive setting, like the U.S. Foreign Service. We’re not the only ones to figure this out. Every country that has a department or ministry of foreign affairs has a corps of people who make diplomacy their life’s work.

Q In the book, you discuss how the war in Iraq has tested the foreign service. What have been some of the main challenges, and how have the diplomats addressed those challenges?

Kopp: The foreign service was not prepared for the mission it was given. The mission was to create political conditions in Iraq that would allow the Iraqi people to choose a government responsive to their needs, able to provide security and basic services, and ready to live in peace with its neighbors. This was a daunting task, and the foreign service was daunted. The service didn’t have enough people or the right people. The service had to strip posts all over the world of personnel and bring in technical specialists from the Department of Defense, the National Guard, and the private sector. A shortage of Arabic-speaking diplomats meant too much reliance on interpreters and English-speaking Iraqis. And the diplomats and the U.S. military had to learn to work together, which was difficult on both sides. The foreign service needs to do a much better job of identifying how many and what kind of people it will need in the future, and then recruiting and training to meet the need. The administration will have to ask for enough money, and Congress will have to provide it, year after year after year.

Q What would you say is the most important function of a U.S. Foreign Service officer?

Kopp: Three are equally important: representation, operations, and policy. Representation is negotiation, persuasion, reporting, and analysis – in other words, trying to understand what is going on and finding ways to shape events favorably. Operations is running U.S. government programs, like provincial reconstruction in Iraq, administering U.S. laws, like the visa provisions of the immigration act, and managing support for the U.S. civilian presence overseas. Policy is connecting U.S. actions to their international consequences – figuring out what kind of a world our behavior will produce, and what kind of behavior will produce the world we want.

Q What are some of the biggest changes that have happened within the foreign service over the last few years and where is the organization headed?

Kopp: Since the end of the Cold War, the pace of political, economic, and technological change in the world has accelerated. The service was slow to adapt, but now the pace of change seems to be accelerating in the service as well. Positions and resources are moving out of Europe, into China, India, Central Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Tours in Washington have been cut back. Promotions are coming most quickly to those who can speak critical languages well and who are prepared work in areas where danger is high and infrastructure is poor. This administration speaks of the need to conduct transformational diplomacy, a foreign policy that aims to change foreign societies, not just government policies. Diplomats have to change as diplomacy changes, and inside the foreign service there’s been a shift in the center of gravity away from reporting and analysis toward operations and management.


Q & A — 6 Comments

  1. The 2010 QDDR emphasizes the need for more expertise in science and technology within the Department of State. Do you see more FSOs with engineering or scientific backgrounds being recruited in the future, or will the service try to train for those skills?

  2. Luis — A great question. The Department of State has a poor record in in-service training, other than language training. Foreign Service staffing is inadequate to support long-term (six months or more) training for more than a handful of people. Members of the service by and large try to avoid training, which they believe is a detour from the preferred career path. Efforts to increase resources and change attitudes to permit or require more in-service training have so far failed. But workforce planning and recruitment of people with special skills are also weak points in the personnel system. Foreign Service officers (generalists) have to scramble on their own to acquire the layman’s knowledge needed to negotiate agreements on climate change or protection of pharmaceutical patents, or administer foreign assistance programs to improve public health and sanitation, or carry out similar missions. And very often, the Department turns to civil service employees (often from agencies other than State) or outside experts on temporary appointment to fill positions requiring specialized knowledge. This situation is likely to endure for the foreseeable future.

  3. On page 183 of your book, you discuss the average time-to-hire for FSOs. You say the average is 10 months from test to registry and 18 months from registry to swearing in. This implies that the average candidate doesn’t get hired until they are just about to expire on the registry. Am I missing something?

  4. The eighteen-month gap discussed in the book was the gap between passing the orals and the swearing-in. Between the orals and the registry lie medical and security clearances, which account for part of the gap.

    But these timelines shift constantly. In FY 2013, State hired only 291 FSOs (and 299 FSSs). The low number of hires meant more names languishing on the registry.

    The budget for FY 2014 is $4.8 billion below the budget enacted for FY 2013. Hiring data is available only in retrospect, and I can’t tell you how many people will be a) placed on the registry or b) hired in 2014. The budget number suggests, however, that hiring this year will also be below the average of the recent past. If so, either very few names will be placed on the registry, or the registry will be crowded.

  5. Thanks for writing this book! I’ve listened to the audio version twice, and am just starting it again with my family. I just passed the FSOT, and am working on my personal narrative statements.

    Do you anticipate updating the book with newer data and developments?

  6. Thanks for the kind words. Work is just now beginning on a third edition, which will revise old material and introduce new topics to reflect changes since 2011. The third edition will have a new co-author, FSO John K. Naland. John and I hope to complete the manuscript in 2016 for publication by Georgetown University Press in 2017.

    If you have any suggestions, especially for subjects that should be added or deleted, please pass them along.

    Congratulations on passing the FSOT, and good luck going forward.

    Harry Kopp

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