restricted access 3. The Foreign Service Today
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3 The Foreign Service Today This book opened with a question: “What do we need them for?” The answer in the Foreign Service Act of 1980 is dry but clear. The foreign service, it says, exists to “represent the interests of the United States in relation to foreign countries and international organizations,” to “provide guidance for the formulation and conduct of programs and activities of the Department [of State] and other agencies,” and to “perform functions on behalf of any agency or other Government establishment (including any establishment in the legislative or judicial branch) requiring their services.”1 The Department of State is the government’s lead agency in foreign affairs , and the secretary of state is the president’s chief foreign policy adviser (to be sure, on any given issue they both have plenty of competition). The Foreign Service Act says that “the Secretary of State shall administer and direct the Service,” but other agencies, including USAID, the Department of Agriculture, and the Department of Commerce, “may utilize the Foreign Service personnel system.” No matter what agency they work for, all foreign service personnel are paid on the same salary scale and have access to the same retirement, insurance , and other benefits. An interagency Foreign Service Board set up in 1982 is supposed to ensure “maximum compatibility” among the personnel systems of the foreign service agencies. But within the limits of the law, each agency establishes its own rules and policies for recruitment, hiring, training , assignment, and promotion. Exchanges of personnel between foreign service agencies are rare, and personnel transfers from one agency to another rarer still. The foreign service and the civil service are civilian institutions established by law to ensure that the work of government is carried forward professionally , without partisanship or taint of corruption. Their similarities of purpose and design are great, but the differences in their missions lead to important differences in the rights and obligations that each service offers 39 40 The Institution to and demands of its members. Four features in particular distinguish the foreign service. First is rank in person. Members of the foreign service, like members of the military, have a personal rank that determines base pay. Rank in the regular foreign service is designated by a number, starting at nine and rising to one. Members of the senior foreign service have ranks designated with titles: counselor, minister-counselor, and career minister. Rank is in the person and pay is linked to rank. In the civil service, however, rank and pay are in the position, not in the person. The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) maintains a general schedule (GS) of pay grades, and each civil service position in the federal government has a pay grade associated with it. A civil service employee who changes jobs may end up with a pay raise or a pay cut, depending on whether the new job has a higher or lower pay grade than the old one; a foreign service employee who changes jobs keeps the same base salary.2 Second is worldwide availability. Members of the foreign service may be sent anywhere in the world. They can expect to spend about two-thirds of their careers abroad. They have a voice in choosing their assignments, but in the end they must respond to the needs of the service. Civil service personnel , however, are routinely assigned to domestic positions only; overseas assignments are voluntary and exceptional. Of the nearly 2 million civil servants in the federal government, only a few hundred work abroad. Third is up or out. After a certain number of years in grade without promotion , or years in service without advancement to the senior ranks, a foreign service officer faces mandatory retirement. Officers may also be forced to retire for substandard performance (selection out). Civil servants face no such requirements. Fourth is early retirement at the option of the employee. Foreign service personnel may retire as early as age fifty with twenty years’ service. The earliest retirement in the civil service is ordinarily at age fifty-five with thirty years’ service, or at sixty with twenty years’ service. In congressional testimony over many years, the foreign service has defended its more generous retirement benefits by pointing to the hardship of worldwide availability and the insecurity of up or out. Congress has agreed. The Department of State Understanding the foreign service begins with the Department of State. The two organizations are distinct but inseparable. The Foreign Service Today 41 There is no...