Phoenix Rising

Foreign Service Director General Ruth Davis hopes to lift the diplomatic corps out of the doldrums.


mbassador Ruth Davis, the new director general of the Foreign Service, says the phoenix-"the bird that rose from its own ashes and was more beautiful and magnificent than ever"-inspired her to pursue a career in diplomacy.

Davis was born in Phoenix, where her father was stationed during World War II, and raised in Atlanta, a city whose symbol is the phoenix. "I was born under the sign of the phoenix. I grew up under the sign of the phoenix," says Davis. "I always believed that from ashes you could make beautiful things, from chaos you could make peace and from despair you could bring happiness."

In a 32-year career that has taken her from Foggy Bottom to Africa, Asia and Europe, Davis has had many successes, but she needs the phoenix to rise again. The Foreign Service, traditionally the most elite civilian employment corps in the federal government, is not in ashes, but it is sick and wounded, suffering from a decade of understaffing, outdated technology and concerns about security at overseas posts.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has used his personal prestige to convince Congress to begin increasing the State Department's budget. As the Foreign Service's top personnel officer, Davis must recruit a new generation of officers, provide them with the training they need and keep them from jumping to private business or other agencies. In August, the department announced that a new Diplomatic Readiness Task Force will lead an unprecedented effort to hire 1,400 men and women each year for the next three years for both Foreign Service and civil service positions-a task that has become all the more important since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The massive recruitment will include an effort to hire more minorities and former military personnel-the latter because many are already accustomed to an international lifestyle.

Expectations of Davis are high. Officials of the American Foreign Service Association, the union that represents 70 percent of the 9,000 career officers, often have criticized the service's directors general. But current AFSA President John Naland says his members are "thrilled" with Davis' appointment. Noting that Davis has served in the Foreign Service longer than most officers, Naland says she is viewed as both a dedicated leader who understands the needs of officers and as a player in Powell's innermost circle. Davis "eloquently and forcefully" supports the Bush administration's initiatives to rebuild the Foreign Service, Naland says.

Something Different

Davis could be the subject of a Foreign Service recruitment poster. Davis says she knew nothing about international diplomacy when she was growing up in Atlanta. "In my family, all the professional women were teachers," she says. Wanting to do something different, she majored in sociology at Atlanta's Spelman College and earned a master's degree in social work from the University of California at Berkeley. But at Spelman she spent 15 months as a Merrill Scholar studying and traveling in Europe and the Middle East. During her travels, she met a number of young Africans whose countries were just achieving independence and who planned to go home to help run the new nations. Davis decided, "I wanted to observe the whole process of nation-building."

She joined the Foreign Service in 1969 as a consular officer, an unusual start for an officer who has risen so far. The greatest prestige in the Foreign Service goes to political and economic officers in those jobs. Consular officers perform such duties as screening applications for visas, visiting Americans in jail abroad and trying to resolve kidnappings and child custody battles between Americans and foreign spouses. Their work is vital but it's harder for them to prove to promotion boards that they have developed the skills to deal with top foreign officials. But Davis is a strong defender of the consular service. The first job of a consular officer, she notes, is "the protection of Americans overseas"-adding that in this age of terrorism and other international threats, deciding who should get a visa to the United States-and who shouldn't-is important work.

Davis' first assignment was in Kinshasa, Zaire. It was followed by assignments in Nairobi, Kenya; Tokyo and Naples, Italy. She returned to the United States and, as a Pearson Fellow, was special adviser on international affairs for the Washington, D.C., government before becoming senior watch officer in the State Department's Operations Center and liaison in the Bureau of Personnel. In 1987, she became consul general in Barcelona, Spain, where she helped the city get ready for the 1992 Olympic Games. She later used her experience in Barcelona to help Atlanta in its successful bid for the 1996 Olympics. Davis became ambassador to the African nation of Benin in 1992 and principal deputy assistant secretary for consular affairs in 1995.

Immediately before becoming director general, she headed the Foreign Service Institute, the State Department training ground. The institute is best known for teaching 63 foreign languages and offering a seminar for first-time ambassadors. Davis created a School of Leadership and Management there and emphasized information technology courses and an overseas briefing center that teaches State Department families, including small children, to deal with threats to their personal security. At the institute, Davis acquired a reputation as a persuasive motivational speaker and a manager who was not afraid to delegate details and trust her staff's abilities.

Many Mentors

Davis speaks frequently of her many mentors in the Foreign Service and does not mention the bitterness that some African-American and other minority and women officers have expressed about making their way in a corps that used to be dominated by white men who graduated from Ivy League schools. Davis acknowledges that when a senior ambassador told her class of entering Foreign Service officers to look around because only one or two of them would become ambassadors, the men "looked around to see who they had to beat out to be ambassador. I looked around to see who would be ambassador."

Davis acknowledges that the lack of female role models at State made work life more difficult than it might have been otherwise. She notes that to this day, only 30 percent of Foreign Service officers are women. Davis is a great admirer of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. "I can't tell you what it did for my morale" to have Albright, a woman followed by Powell, an African-American, as Secretary, she says. Davis is the first to admit, however, that the Foreign Service has lost some of its allure since she joined it in 1969. The State Department, the Agency for International Development and the U.S. Information Agency (now State's public diplomacy unit) "were the only game in town" for people who wanted interesting diplomatic careers. You didn't mind waiting to get in," she recalls. As a 1999 McKinsey and Co. study for the State Department found, State now is in a "war for talent" with other federal agencies with overseas offices, with multinational banks and companies, with multilateral institutions such as the World Bank and with nongovernmental organizations.

In recent years, the State Department has been more worried about watching the budget than recruiting officers. Senior Foreign Service officers say the corps has been in deep trouble since the early 1990s when the Soviet Union fell apart and then-Secretary of State James Baker told Congress the United States could open embassies in the former Soviet republics without increasing staff. Key positions were cut at existing embassies to provide personnel for the new posts. During the same period, State fell behind in training and technology.

During the first Bush administration and the early Clinton years, senior State Department officials, including career Foreign Service officers, supported the White House line that the department could make do with whatever budget it had. Marc Grossman, director general during the Clinton administration and Davis' predecessor, took a "courageous" step, Davis says, by commissioning a study that found the Foreign Service needed an additional 1,158 positions around the world.

"We have been the shyest people I've ever seen in asking for resources," Davis says. "That day is over." Now, State has a three-year plan to hire 4,200 new workers, many of them Foreign Service officers.

Recruiting Campaign

Davis has gotten a green light to recruit 386 officers as well as to replace those who are retiring. She is planning what she calls a "major, major campaign" to urge people to take the Foreign Service written exam (the first step in the employment process) and plans to increase the frequency of the exam from once to twice a year. Davis is using the Internet as a hiring tool and held a recruiting reception for Washington interns this summer. In an effort to attract minorities, the State Department is working directly with such institutions as Howard University in Washington and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, which represents the 245 colleges and universities that enroll two-thirds of Hispanics in higher education. The department has expanded a pilot program to bring mid-career professionals, including federal employees, into the Foreign Service without taking the written exam. But getting people to take the exam is just the beginning of the department's recruiting problems, Davis says.

The 27 months it takes for someone who has taken the Foreign Service exam to enter the Foreign Service is a huge impediment. Even the Central Intelligence Agency hires people much faster, Davis notes, saying she believes the recruit ment period can be reduced to 12 months. In addition, Davis' priorities are training and workforce planning. U.S. embassies are notorious for being poorly managed because Foreign Service officers are often promoted from political and economic positions to be deputy heads of mission-without management training or experience. Davis wants to change that through courses at the Foreign Service Institute and class work at universities. But for such training to work, the State Department must plan ahead, much as the military services do to make sure they have sufficient staff to allow some senior officers to spend a year in training. Davis points out that Secretary Powell spent six of his 36 years in military service getting some kind of advanced training.

Some of the changes that are needed if State hopes to convince more employees to stay are out of Davis' hands. Younger Foreign Service officers increasingly complain that they spend too much time observing and sending memos back to Washington rather than interacting with foreigners to try to achieve U.S. foreign policy objectives. The State Department has altered its human resources strategy to address this problem. "We are no longer an organization whose main job is to observe and report. We are an organization that plans, develops and implements the program of an active foreign policy," the new guidance says, and it urges people to sign up to help address such new problems as the global environment, financial crises and AIDS.

But making Foreign Service work more meaningful will depend on the decisions of State Department officials and ambassadors. The AFSA's Naland says that as director general, Davis is in a powerful position to affect those decisions because "she can champion many of the new reforms," such as speeding up hiring and helping Foreign Service spouses find employment overseas.

Naland also points out that Davis is part of an unusually strong management team. Powell and Deputy Secretary Richard Armitage have both taken an unusual interest in State's management. Davis' immediate superior is Grant Green, a military officer Powell brought into the department. Grossman, Davis' predecessor, now is undersecretary for political affairs. Davis' deputy is Ruth Whiteside, another veteran officer who was her deputy at the Foreign Service Institute. Davis and Whiteside, known as "the two Ruths," are regarded as a team that can handle any job.

Davis is looking forward to an exciting era at State, but she also reminds visitors that her career has been very fulfilling already. In speeches to recruits, she says, "Short of being a multimillionaire, there is nothing I would rather have done with my career than be a Foreign Service officer."

Jerry Hagstrom is a contributing editor for National Journal.

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