Why some of America’s diplomats want to quit

George Hovey

Bureaucratic failures are common at the State Department, but they rarely get international press attention. The last few weeks have been different. The chaotic handling of the evacuation of America’s Afghan allies in the wake of the Taliban takeover has put a rare public spotlight on consular affairs. While heroic last-minute efforts from US diplomats helped evacuate more than 123,000 people out of Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of Afghans who supported the United States were left behind, likely to face retaliation. This is in part due to the 18,000 Afghan allies and 53,000 dependents who remain in processing backlogs for arduous special immigration visas. On Aug. 2, the State Department announced a program that allows Afghans who worked directly with the United States to claim asylum. But it had a rough start and came too late for the majority of Afghans eligible for visas: The Taliban already controlled border crossings and blocked Afghans from reaching the airport, while the Islamic State in Afghanistan targeted the evacuation, killing 13 US servicemembers and nearly 200 Afghans.

Those familiar with the State Department will not have been surprised by its bureaucratically stymied, inflexible, and reactive handling of the evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies from Kabul. In fact, these are some of the same institutional shortcomings that have led to the Foreign Service’s attrition rate to trend above average since 2015, including a quarter of the senior Foreign Service leaving since 2017. This trend shows no signs of abating: One-third of the current US diplomatic force is eyeing the exit door while actively looking for a new job.

The Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and Harvard Kennedy School recently published an alarming report on behalf of the American Foreign Service Association detailing an ongoing retention crisis within the State Department. In addition to a survey showing that 32 percent of US diplomats are actively exploring exit options, the report cited the US Government Accountability Office’s 2020 findings that underrepresented groups disproportionately account for attrition. The alarming results reflect more than merely an instance of a broader, pandemic-driven trend toward career changes. The average age of a Foreign Service officer is 52 — much older than the average career-change candidate. In addition, the relatively high barrier to entry and lack of a mid-level entry point to a Foreign Service career mean that the cost of attrition is disproportionately high for both the Foreign Service and its departing officers. The report indicates that this trend predates the pandemic and the Trump administration.

Discontent in the Foreign Service is rooted in its inflexible assignments and development processes, corrosive in-grouping caused by subjective decision-making, and an accountability deficit that makes self-correction difficult. To stem the exodus, the State Department should investigate the causes of Foreign Service officer attrition with an eye to institutional reform. It should overhaul the promotion and evaluation process to inject objectivity and an evidence-centric approach into its culture. Gains can be made by strengthening the training and development of its workforce, building feedback mechanisms, and fixing incentive structures to encourage smart risk-taking that aligns more closely with US interests. The United States needs to take this problem seriously: Strengthening its diplomatic institutions is an essential component of ensuring US national security and preventing some of the failures that were so evident during the evacuation from Kabul.

Lack of Accountability

Foreign Service officers are motivated, talented individuals who made it through a grueling selection process to serve America’s diplomatic mission. When they get stuck on the rigid hierarchical structure of the State Department and demoralized by a culture that penalizes dissent and diversity of thought, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they seek employment at organizations better able to utilize their talent and initiative.

The fact that the Foreign Service’s retention crisis was reported by outside organizations and not the State Department itself should be shocking. But this is just one example of the Foreign Service’s poor track record of collecting and utilizing data. When talented officers leave, there is no exit interview and no attempt to capture the insights that would help the State Department prevent attrition in the future. The department spends tens of millions of dollars a year in diversity recruitment, yet captures no data on its effect or on attrition of minority Foreign Service officers.

The Foreign Service’s disregard for evidence-based decision-making is both a symptom and a cause of its larger accountability gap. Data, insofar as it is used, is applied post hoc to justify positions that leadership has already decided on. Personal relationships have long been a key diplomatic tool for furthering national interests. However, the defining ethos of the Foreign Service has flipped this on its head, making personal relationships within the service the basis of defining national interests. Transparency, openness to change, and critical evaluation are all aspects necessary for accountability. The Foreign Service’s personality-driven culture lack these elements, and as a result, when Foreign Service officers repeatedly take the blows from their leadership’s decisions, they become disillusioned with an institution incapable of self-correction.

For the Foreign Service to shift toward a culture of accountability, it needs to evaluate its personnel practices to embrace objective, equitable, evidence-based models of decision-making. To this end, it should start by improving its poor knowledge-management practices and create mechanisms to capture data at every level of policy, operations, and personnel. It should use this data to improve performance attribution by designing metrics that measure the contribution of actions to the policy process and then tie individual incentives to long-term institutional outcomes and development. To make this change, the Foreign Service needs to foster a culture where decisions are supported by evidence, arguments, and probabilities. To prevent the system from being gamed by selective control of data and transparency, the Foreign Service should ensure that data, decisions, and justifications are internally transparent to the maximum level allowed under data privacy and classification. To keep the system honest, robust feedback mechanisms should be put in place throughout the organizational structure and a healthy culture of dissent should be encouraged.

The Power of “Corridor Reputation”

Many of the decisions made inside the State Department are determined on the basis of personal relationships. This is especially manifest in the concept of “corridor reputation” — institutionalized gossip that serves as an informal, word-of-mouth mechanism to weigh the contribution of each officer based on the officer’s reputation. Corridor reputation is especially important in the bidding process — the search for a new position that all Foreign Service officers go through every one to three years. Ideally, corridor reputation informs hiring managers about the character of prospective candidates, helps weed out bad apples, and constitutes an important source of information, as Foreign Service officers are spread throughout the world. In practice, corridor reputation is toxic. It functions as a mechanism for in-groups to further their collective advantage. This inequity is exacerbated by the historically “pale, male, and Yale” composition of the service. Furthermore, the power of corridor reputation deters officers from raising legitimate concerns about policy or management for fear of upsetting supervisors.

At best, corridor reputation blocks problematic officers from certain assignments. But those officers will keep circulating in the service, leaving the Foreign Service with the same composition as if corridor reputation didn’t exist. If the State Department wants to solve the root problem of underperforming or toxic officers, such as a Foreign Service officer who reportedly runs an anti-Semitic blog, it needs a mechanism to remove them based on sustained and objective measures, not gossip. The service should start collecting objective performance data and logs of verified incidents and complaints and make assignment and curtailment decisions on this basis.

Corridor reputation is just one part of the subjective nature of the bidding process. The opaque bidding process is frustrating and stressful and consumes weeks of productivity. Although there is nominally an objective system in place, Foreign Service officers seeking to secure a desirable post can do an end run around the official process by leveraging their networks to obtain an informal “handshake” offer. This emphasis on personal relationships pushes out better-qualified officers who lack the same connections. Frequently, officers with no expertise in the position’s subject matter but with a personal connection to the hiring manager will get the assignment over an officer with graduate experience in that area.

The subjectivity in the assignment process is compounded over Foreign Service officers’ career trajectories because assignments are the single largest determination of promotion and future assignments. Officers who fail to get good assignments feel, often justifiably, that their accomplishments were passed over by those in the in-group who came to the bidding game with a stacked deck.

The Foreign Service needs to scrap the tarnished legacy of the bidding process and replace it with a transparent, fair, and equitable assignment-matching system that is centrally controlled by human resources (a recommendation also made by the American Foreign Service Association in the latest edition of its journal). The system should match officers’ skills to the position requirements and equitably match officers’ preferences and special requirements. Not only will the Foreign Service benefit from a more transparent system and more optimal talent-matching but removing the stress and time investment from the lobbying process will be universally appreciated. Reforming the assignments process will have an important tertiary effect: By altering the assignment mechanism away from networking in favor of talent-matching, officers will be incentivized to divert the energy previously spent on lobbying toward working on accomplishments and building skills.

Incentives Favor the Status Quo

On my second day at the US consulate in Shanghai, my first post, my training officer stressed the importance of “C.Y.A.” — in that context, taking notes and making adjudication decisions not for accuracy, but so as to leave no legal or personal vulnerabilities. It didn’t take long to realize that this mentality is embedded up and down the department’s organizational structure. Actions taken by individuals, offices, and bureaus are designed to deflect culpability, in defiance of accuracy or mission. Besides creating unnecessary bureaucracy which drags down efficiency, this approach encourages an institution-wide aversion to risk, fostering an addiction to the status quo. It also incentivizes the shirking of responsibility. Unless a problem is explicitly defined as a certain party’s responsibility, it is in that party’s interest to pass it on to a different party, who in turn passes it on or ignores the request, creating a vicious cycle of buck-passing. This is likely the cause, in part, of the slow processing of refugee and special immigrant visas that encumbered the Afghanistan withdrawal. Before the takeover of Kabul prompted high-level attention, each Afghan applicant was probably viewed primarily as a liability or at best a distraction from routine work. Any plans to carve out exceptions, such as for refugee visas, would have been stalled as they passed through an infinite loop of clearances.

The Foreign Service’s incentive structure feeds a cult of personality by rewarding compliance, deference to authority, entrenched interests, and self-promotion. The culture of compliance aided by the threat of corridor reputation suppresses critical evaluation. Innovation and critique are stifled as voices of dissent are drowned out by the cacophony of institutional back-patting.

Idealists who joined the Foreign Service eager to effect change often become disillusioned when they discover that taking principled stands and challenging assumptions are frequently penalized in the bureaucracy. These reformers are disproportionately those taking their talents to the private sector. Making the Foreign Service a safe place for risk-taking and honest appraisal will require loosening entrenched interests and making a cultural shift that starts from the top down. The Foreign Service should make a practice of giving policy predictions in terms of probabilities with degrees of confidence attached. When predictions are not realized, the reasons for the divergence should be studied: If the missed prediction is the result of failed assumptions or faulty data and not just stochasticity, then the models that produced them should be updated.

Likewise, the Foreign Service should acknowledge that needs are fluid and weigh the status quo equally with other options. Missed opportunities should be regarded as failures. The awards and promotions processes should give special consideration to smart risk-taking and delivering improvements. They should be decoupled from compliance: Merely satisfying predetermined requirement statements should not be grounds for special recognition. Finally, dissent should be encouraged throughout the organization, not just for the major policy issues that the arduous and political process of the dissent channel currently provides. Major policies and memos should include dissenting opinions as a matter of course. Information should be allowed to flow freely throughout the department: Colleagues should be allowed and encouraged to communicate with each other without supervisor clearance.

Flexibility

Foreign Service officers often feel they are treated as interchangeable by the bureaucracy. Their abilities are underemployed, and their individual circumstances go ignored by the assignment process.

Historically, diplomats were white men. The Foreign Service and its support structures are designed as if this were still the case, even as the service evolves from this traditional model in rhetoric and composition. It is assumed that a spouse will be present during the middle of workdays for logistical and housekeeping matters. Social events are structured around nuclear families. Professional spouses are given little support except for contingent opportunities for post-dependent, entry-level positions. Single parents are left to grapple with balancing childcare expenses and logistics each time they switch posts. Tandem couples (where both spouses are Foreign Service officers) find limited posts where they can serve together, almost always forcing one of them to sacrifice his or her career opportunities to make it work. Not enough effort is made in the assignments process to address concerns of LGBTQ officers who might be posted to countries with a history of homophobic violence. LGBTQ persons should be provided a choice to avoid these assignments, given that they would be incurring risk and hardship that their straight, cis-gendered colleagues do not face.

The Foreign Service currently takes a laissez-faire approach to officer development. The lack of strong institutional training and development means that Foreign Service officers’ career trajectories are largely dependent on their networking ability and luck. Building in additional training and feedback will not only help build a more capable diplomatic corps but will also contribute to a more equitable one.

When management doles out an undesirable assignment, it is fond of trotting out a particular phrase: Officers should be prepared to meet “the needs of the service.” It is not unreasonable to expect that Foreign Service officers be flexible in their expectations for where they work and what they do — this is, after all, the career they signed up for. However, it is unreasonable that the State Department should not show similar flexibility in creating accommodations for its workforce in the 21st century.

Evaluations

Employee Evaluation Reports are the ritual essay-writing contests that put a halt to US diplomatic ope-rations for a month every year. During the process, officers write narratives about their performance, supervisors add to them, and more senior reviewers provide a stamp of appr-oval. These eventually m-ake their way to the promotion panel, which reviews and ranks officers on their potential according to how well their combined narrative exemplifies the 31 subsections of the “promotion precepts.”

Although this is billed as a meritorious, performance-based process that promotes the officers best equipped to succeed, it features several notable aspects that make it perhaps the single largest driver of counterproductive workplace culture and discontent in the Foreign Service.

The first is its impact: All promotions, grade increases, tenure decisions, performance counseling, and/or terminations of Foreign Service officers happen on the basis of their last five evaluations. With no alternative avenue of proving one’s mettle, those unable to succeed in the system are trapped by it.

Second, the entire process is narrative-driven. The lack of data or any comparable performance metrics means that an officer’s success aligns solely with pleasing those higher in the command structure. It also means that officers spend days that could be spent pursuing US foreign policy goals instead composing and refining personal essays.

Third, the evaluation system is strictly hierarchical. Officers are evaluated only by their supervisor and a more senior “reviewer.” It should be no wonder that a lopsided incentive structure not only enables a culture of kissing up and kicking down but also discourages dissent and minimizes feedback from peers and subordinates.

Fourth, all parts of the evaluation reports are visible to all parties. As a result, managers withhold honest feedback, knowing that candid criticism would torpedo their subordinate’s career, heighten workplace tensions, and negatively impact their own corridor reputation. Officers often draft their supervisor’s and reviewing officer’s portions, an obvious conflict of interest that benefits most those who are already in in-groups. The visibility of the reports strips the evaluation process of honest feedback mechanisms and value as a meaningful development tool.

Fifth, as the evaluations’ use as a performance indicator loses value, the largest differentiators between individual officers are the responsibilities and projects they take on. This incentivizes officers to focus on promotion rather than mission success. Mor-eover, officers are pushed to compete for high-profile projects that their managers have prioritized rather than pursue projects they are best qualified for. This problem is aggravated by managers giving their favorite subordinates preferred, career-enhancing opportunities. The lack of meaningful evaluation metrics results in recognition being given to officers who obtaining high-priority projects instead of those who do high-quality work.

Sixth, promotion panel decisions rely on the subjective interpretation of the narratives by a panel that is staffed by peers with no expertise in personnel decisions. They have the unenviable task of sifting through hundreds of evaluations in search of subtle tone differences that hint at the reviewer’s praise while parsing out how well an officer matches vaguely defined promotion precepts. It is no wonder that their ability to predict an officer’s future performance is no better than a roll of the dice.

The frustration that Foreign Service officers feel toward an evaluation system that perpetuates real and perceived biases with no objective oversight and a lack of quantifiable measures should not be ignored. Neither can the misalignment such a system creates between individual interests and the mission goals of the Foreign Service.

The current system promotes compliance, in-grouping, and avoiding responsibility for necessary but unprioritized work.

To ensure that Foreign Service officers are promoted based on the merit of their work, the State Department should rebuild the evaluation system from the ground up. It should start by decoupling the evaluation function from the feedback and development functions. A modified version of the current narrative format may be appropriate for the latter functions, so long as it is no longer tied to promotion outcomes. The evaluation function is better served by metrics captured by improved data collection and analysis tools. The State Department should design comparable performance metrics that track officers’ performance and conduct. The performance metrics would be adjusted for each position to capture each officer’s contribution to the mission. These metrics, with short comments by the officer’s supervisor indicating any mitigating factors, would form the first part of the evaluation. The second part would be a 360-degree review system conducted through an annual survey sent to all officers that requires them to anonymously rate their direct supervisors and supervisees in addition to a random selection of their peers on a handful of metrics rated on a numerical scale. An algorithm can automatically normalize the scores to account for different positions and posts and consistently high or low graders. A 360-degree review system that keeps management accountable to its subordinates and peers accountable to each other will foster a healthier work environment.

Looking Ahead

The Foreign Service’s attrition crisis is real and is self-inflicted. It has institutional roots in the State Department’s culture of personality, risk-averse tendencies, and inflexibility. Uprooting the entrenched interests preventing the State Department from adapting to the 21st century will require a concerted effort to adapt data-driven methodologies and a complete revamp of assignment and evaluation processes.

America’s national security depends on the strength of its diplomatic institutions. A robust State Department is vital to projecting power around the world. The United States needs the Foreign Service at full force and in good morale to maintain a robust network of alliances, establish advantageous economic and people-to-people ties, facilitate travel to and from the United States, and elicit cooperation from other countries in achieving geopolitical objectives.

Foreign Service officers are incredibly talented, driven individuals working in a system seemingly designed to suppress their unique contributions. If the Foreign Service does not change its culture and personnel system to align the goals of its workforce with the goals of its mission, it will not deserve the talent it can no longer retain.

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