“Should I Join the Foreign Service?”

May 16, 2012

Peter Van Buren, the most recent State Department “white blood cell” looking to do to some institutional housecleaning at Foggy Bottom, commented in a recent Huffington Post article about choosing a career in the State Department:

Understand that promotions and assignments are more and more opaque.  State has recently determined that even promotion statistics cannot be released.  Changes in Congress will further limit pay and benefits.  Your spouse will be un/underemployed most of his or her life.  Your kids will change schools, for better or worse, every one, two or three years.  Some schools will be good, some not so good, and you’ll have no choice unless you are willing to subvert your career choices to school choices, as in let’s go to Bogota because the schools are good even if the assignment otherwise stinks.  You’ll serve more places where you won’t speak the language and get less training as requirements grow without personnel growth.  As you get up there, remember your boss, the politically-appointed ambassador, can arbitrarily be a real estate broker who donated big to the president’s campaign.  Make sure all these conditions make sense to you now, and, if you can, as you imagine yourself 10, 15 and 20 years into the future.

Is he right on these points? Absolutely.

But keep in mind that State is still a damn good place to draw a paycheck with great benefits to boost. As long as you’re resigned to holding out your hand for a paycheck every two weeks, State beats a lot of other employers out there. Every job has it’s draw backs and frustrations and State is not immune.  But few employers out there pay you to work overseas on expat packages.

Personally, I am still on the lower rungs of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, caught between “physiological” (food, water, sex) and “safety” (of body and resources).  If you live in the levels “self-acutalization” (morality, creativity), then ok, maybe you might not want to join State afterall.


“Inside a U.S. Embassy” Now Available

April 30, 2011

From the American Foreign Service Association:

We are pleased to announce the publication of Inside a U.S. Embassy: Diplomacy at Work, the third edition of AFSA’s popular introduction to the Foreign Service. This all-new volume rolled off the presses on April 8 and is now available. The new book includes profiles, day-in-the-life chronicles and stories from 82 Foreign Service members serving at more than 50 U.S. posts around the world, and has been greatly expanded to include guides to the hiring process (State FSO and FSS, USAID, FCS, FAS, IBB) as well as sections on the country team and the Foreign Service career and life.

Inside a U.S. Embassy is a comprehensive guide to the Foreign Service and a great resource for anyone considering a Foreign Service career, as well as those who might simply want to better understand what the Foreign Service does for America.

Many embassies have found Inside a U.S. Embassy to be useful for outreach and representation. Embassies that have purchased 100 or more copies of the previous edition include Baghdad, Madrid, Panama City, Kuwait City, and Moscow. We hope the new edition will prove even more useful to our overseas missions.

Inside a U.S. Embassy: Diplomacy at Work (ISBN 978-0-9649488-46) is available through Amazon here or Potomac Books here.

Awards and Honors in the Foreign Service

March 18, 2011

Every year in the State Department there are a multitude of awards an employee is eligible to earn, 124 different awards to be exact. The awards recognize a range of achievements including regular awards, spotlight pieces on people doing humanitarian work, and other notable work. Most offer a cash award in addition to the recognition and many of these awards are somewhat unique and don’t occur very often. For example, the Thomas Jefferson Star is awarded for death, permanent incapacity or disability while serving on official duty overseas. This is an award I avoid trying to earn every year; so far I have been successful in my failure. There is also the Charles E. Cobb, Jr. Award for Initiative and Success in Trade Development awarded every year to an Ambassador who best promotes U.S. trade overseas. There is a $5000 cash award attached this honor.

Thomas Jefferson Star

The Thomas Jefferson Star

But for most employees of the State Department, there are four core awards that one can earn regularly for good performance:

Superior Honor Award: In recognition of a special act or service or sustained extraordinary performance covering a period of one year or longer. You are nominated by someone at your post and DC has to clear. This award is worth $150-$2000 depending on the breadth of impact of your work.

The Superior Honor Award

The Superior Honor Award

Meritorious Honor Award: In recognition of a special act or service or sustained outstanding performance. The only difference here is that your post management (the people sitting on the Awards Committee) can grant this without asking for DC approval. This award is also worth $150-$2000 depending on the breadth of impact of your work.

The Meritorious Honor Award

The Meritorious Honor Award

Franklin Award: Recognizes the achievements of individuals in a variety of areas of importance to the department: performance, customer service, innovation, teamwork, crisis management, and negotiation. You can earn up to four Franklin Awards per year. This award is worth $200-$750 depending on the breadth of impact of your work.

Extra Mile Award: This is by far the most common and easiest to get. This award provides on-the-spot recognition for one-time, short-term efforts of special merit. You can get up to four of these per year. This award is worth $50-$200 depending on the breadth of impact of your work.

In addition to the benefits of the cash compenent, awards tend to help you get promoted faster as well.  Promotion review panels will often look to awards as an additional inidicator of your suitability for senior ranks.

State in Top 10 Best Places to Work

January 28, 2011

Media Note from the Office of the Spokesman:

The Partnership for Public Service and American University’s Institute for the Study of Public Policy Implementation have announced the results of the 2010 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government ranking, and the Department of State has once again ranked in the top 10, placing seventh overall among the 31 large Federal agencies, third for effective leadership, and fourth among Hispanics.

Rankings are based on the U.S. Office of Personnel Management’s Employee Viewpoint Survey of 263,000 executive branch employees in over 290 federal organizations, conducted in February – March 2010.

Best Places to Work is the most comprehensive ranking of federal government organizations on overall employee engagement, as well as in ten work environment categories. The rankings are designed to offer job seekers unprecedented insight into the best opportunities for public service and to provide managers and government leaders a roadmap for improving employee engagement and commitment.

All rankings and analyses are available at: www.bestplacestowork.org.

Will I Have An Assigned Car and Driver?

January 25, 2011

NO.  Absolutely NOT.  Please get this myth out of your head before applying to the Foreign Service.

The only time you’ll have a car a driver dedicated to you is when you purchase your own car and hire your own driver, or, if you’re good or lucky enough to make ambassador.  But even ambassadors have limits on what they can use official vehicles for.  In general, embassy cars and drivers are for official use ONLY.

So, if you have to head to an official meeting after work, the embassy car can take you to your meeting.  However, if after the meeting you need to go home and home is the other direction of the embassy, you’re on your own.  Officially, the embassy vehicle can only take you back home if passing your home is “incidental” to the vehicle heading to another OFFICIAL location.

The regulations outlining use of official vehicles is 14 FAH-1 H-800 USE AND CONTROL OF OFFICIAL VEHICLES AT POSTS.  Great for bedtime reading if you’re ever having trouble falling asleep.

Do the rules get bent?  Sure, occasionally.  And occasionally they get really bent, but I’ll save that for another post that will likely be titled, “What to do when the Inspector General shows up at my front door at 3AM.”

Feel free to shoot me any questions on this and I’ll do my best to answer your overseas chauffeur related questions.

Pet Peeve #1 – No Personal Appliances at Work

January 15, 2011

Personal convenience appliances are not authorized for use in State Department office spaces. In other words, no coffee makers, microwave ovens, space heaters, fans or anything else that consumes electricity is allowed to be plugged into an outlet in a State Department overseas building.

This may seem like a small issue but it is absolutely infuriating on a day-to-day basis:  can’t brew my own coffee at work, can’t heat up my lunch, can’t cool down when the A/C is down, can’t warm up when it’s below freezing outside and the building heater is doing a poor job of heating the building.

In a prior post where I served, the Facilities Manager would walk around with a pair of heavy-duty scissors and snip the plug end of a power cord of all microwaves, space heaters, fans, etc.

Although I now agree with this policy for occupational safety issues (space heaters are notorious for causing fires), this policy is one of the small inconveniences that makes life in the State Department seem “NQR” (not-quite-right) sometimes.

Top Ten Entry Level Officer (ELO) Rules

May 2, 2010

This is strictly personal opinion but reflects some lessons I think we have not been adequately teaching to new incoming staff:

  1. I will sit at rapt attention in meetings regardless of the meeting topic
  2. I will honor my commitments when representing the U.S. Government.
  3. I will RSVP when requested.
  4. I will volunteer.
  5. I will not appear frustrated or angry before subordinates.
  6. I will watch my colleagues’ backs and work as a team; when one of us looks bad, we all look bad.
  7. I will have the courage to ask management for help and for fairness.
  8. I will listen more than I will speak.
  9. I will assume I have more to learn than I have to contribute.
  10. I will not forget these rules.

Again, strictly personal opinion.