By Amb. Anthony Quainton
Ambassador Anthony Quainton is Diplomat-in-Residence and professor of U.S. Foreign Policy at American University, having previously served in the United States Foreign Service and held ambassadorships to the Central African Republic, Nicaragua, Kuwait, and Peru.
Training must remain a high priority for the Department of State but the time has come to investigate new and creative ways to acquire skills at all levels of the Foreign Service. This commitment to innovative solutions is all the more necessary in the current resource environment. More is not necessarily better. A rigorous refocusing of training requirements and opportunities is badly needed and the time for that refocusing is now.
The American Foreign Service has long been known for its resistance to and disdain for systematic training, with the single notable exception of language training, a skill universally recognized as essential to the success of a diplomatic career. In recent months the American Academy of Diplomacy with the support of the Stimson Center carried out a studyof this problem and made substantial recommendations to improve the quality of training and to reverse this anti-training attitude.
Last week, an array of current and former State Department officials as well a senior Government Accountability Office official testified eloquently before the Senate about the need for more resources for State Department training. The rapidly changing needs of this new century were extensively explored with all witnesses agreeing that there are not enough people being trained in the right skills at the right moment in their careers and that the answer to this problem was more generous funding to create a training “float” and to develop new and more relevant courses.
In the current budget climate such appeals may fall on deaf ears.
One of the unstated assumptions of this call for better training is that the Foreign Service is more like the military services than it is like other professions. Other than the fact that military services and the Foreign Service operate on a rank in person, up or out personnel system, this comparison is misleading. Military skills are highly specialized and generally cannot be acquired except through specialized in-service training. In the case of the Foreign Service this assumption is not quite as self-evident.
What is striking about both the Academy’s report and the testimony of the distinguished practitioners was the absence of any discussion of the skill sets and experience required for admission into what is the most competitive and elitist institution of the United States Government.
For example, every major foreign diplomatic service requires knowledge of at least two languages for admission, with the exception of the US Foreign Service, where language skills are desirable but are not required. Given the enormous resources spent on language training at the Foreign Service Institute, one might well ask why State does not require high level language proficiency for all entering officers.
Also, the Service could recruit more intentionally for the public diplomacy track in schools of communication and journalism, for the management track in schools and departments of management. The existing Foreign Service examination does not rigorously explore the knowledge and education which incoming officers may already have. Recruitment materials do not require or even encourage students to acquire expertise in these areas before applying for entry into the Service. There may be some important diversity issues related to this situation, but I am convinced that State can do better.
A more controversial issue is mid-level entry. Here again the military comparison is misleading. It is impossible to bring in an outsider to command a battalion or a battleship. Years of preparation and training are necessary. The skill sets of diplomats are not quite so esoteric, and greater effort should be made to recruit specialized talent on short term renewable appointments to meet service needs. The American Foreign Service Association, the diplomacy’s union, has historically strongly opposed mid-level recruitment for many reasons, some of them persuasive in terms of service morale and mobility. But flexibility must be the hallmark of 21st century personnel policy, particularly since individuals now change jobs regularly in the span of a career. The Foreign Service should be no exception.
Whether or not these ideas gain traction, clearly a more robust training regime is needed throughout the career spectrum. The basic officers course (the so-called A-100 course) is short on subject matter and long on bureaucratic show and tell. Training for Ambassadors remains inadequate, particularly for the 30% who come from outside the Service. And for those within the Service more rigorous management and leadership modules is desirable. Mid-career officers should be offered opportunities to gain specialized knowledge relevant to their future assignment needs. Some of that knowledge may best be provided at local universities. Specialized language fluency will remain critical, but the Department needs also to consider cost-effective ways to acquire these essential skills outside the boundaries of the Foreign Service Institute.
In this tough budget climate, it is more important than ever for the State Department to strategically refocus its limited resources toward its most valuable asset: personnel.
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