Kiyoshi Tanno /

Hiring and Retention Are Key to Modernizing the State Department, Experts Testify

The secretary of State has said he is committed to “recruiting, retaining, promoting officers with the skills to contend with 21st century challenges and who look like the country we represent.”

The State Department must improve hiring and retention to promote diversity as a way to modernize the department, experts and former officials stressed on Tuesday. 

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., kicked off a hearing on State Department modernization by quoting then-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign website that said he would “rebuild a modern, agile U.S. Department of State—investing in and re-empowering the finest diplomatic corps in the world and leveraging the full talent and richness of America’s diversity.” There was a broad census among the witnesses and lawmakers at the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, International Operations and Bilateral International Development hearing that one of the ways the department can modernize is through  improving diversity.

Marcie Ries, U.S. ambassador to Bulgaria under President Obama and U.S. ambassador to Albania under President George W. Bush, commended the appointment of a new chief diversity officer at the State Department under the Biden administration, but said “much more needs to be done at every level, including recruitment, retention, assignments and promotion.” 

The Government Accountability Office reported last year there has been “uneven progress” in the department diversity’s efforts from 2002 to 2018. The total proportion of racial and ethnic minorities in full-time, permanent positions increased from 28% in fiscal 2002 to 32% in fiscal 2018, with variations among specific races and ethnicities. Over the same interval, the number of women at the agency decreased slightly from 44% in 2002 to 43% in 2018. Additionally, with a few exceptions, white employees and men had the highest promotion rates and held the majority of leadership positions among the career service and foreign service. None of the hearing witnesses referenced specific data points, but this report has been cited widely in talking about diversity and inclusion issues at the department.

Stephen Biegun, deputy secretary of State from December 2019 to January 2021 and U.S. special representative for North Korea from August 2018 to January 2021, suggested a “high-level” commission look at all aspects of the department, including recruitment and retention methods, barriers to increasing diversity and inclusion, the department’s organizational structure and the main laws governing the department (the State Department Basic Authorities Act, and the 1980 Foreign Service Act).

He said that during his tenure, he found the department was doing a better job at recruiting diverse talent, but “we are definitely having a problem at the mid-career level” because “there is something happening in the State Department career cycle that’s affecting our employees, in particular our people of color because the numbers start to shift when you get to about 10 years at the department.” 

Biegun said he thinks this is due to issues with the training, development and the promotion process, which need “very close scrutiny.” To show people there is a future for them at the department, training to advance them “is the best way,” he said. “The State Department has to offer a better value proposition for every employee 10 years in or we’ll lose them to the private sector or NGOS or non-profits or they’ll simply choose to stay home with their families where they may make a better work-life balance than they get in the department.” 

Last week, Amb. Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, State’s chief diversity and inclusion officer, said during a panel moderated by Government Executive the department is looking for better “data and disaggregated data” because “we have to know where we are in order to measure our progress and right now, we don’t have a clear understanding of where we are.” When it comes to retention and promotions, different groups hit different roadblocks, she said. 

Ries, whose recommendations during the hearing were based on a November 2020 report from Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs that she co-authored, said in order to improve retention there needs to be accountability for leaders at all levels. “This means inculcating in our managers from their first time supervising the notion that part of their responsibility is recruiting, carefully managing, mentoring, and preparing for higher levels of responsibility a diverse work force and that in appraising their performance, their success will be measured,” she said. 

She also said that “more priority should be put on family needs, including spousal and partner employment,” in staffing assignments overseas. 

Like the other witnesses, Anne-Marie Slaughter, CEO of the New America think tank and director of policy planning at the State Department during the Obama administration, said the department’s biggest asset is its people and it needs to do more to attract and keep the best of them. 

She suggested overhauling the Foreign Service to create a new Global Service that would expand who can represent and serve the United States abroad. 

“Members of the Global Service could have backgrounds in business, technology, civic organizations, education, science, sports, arts and religion,” Slaughter said. “Such a service would be far more likely actually to represent the actual population of the United States than the Foreign Service” because it would allow the department to recruit individuals from a variety of fields. 

When looking at modernizing the department overall, all the witnesses and many lawmakers noted that the last major reforms happened 41 years ago with the 1980 Foreign Service Act. Due to technology advances, the changing global landscape and other new challenges, an update is needed, they said. 

During his confirmation hearing on January 20, now-Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was “committed to advancing our security and prosperity by building a diplomatic corps that fully represents America in all its talent and in all its diversity: recruiting, retaining, promoting officers with the skills to contend with 21st century challenges and who look like the country we represent; sparing no effort to ensure their safety and well-being; demanding accountability.” 

Blinken said last week in the coming weeks the department would be unveiling its first-ever data strategy “to help us use data more effectively and more creatively for diplomacy.” It is unclear so far if this will involve personnel management. 

During the last administration there was momentum early on to reorganize the department. 

Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initiated a reorganization at the department in response to an executive order from then-President Trump. The plan received some backlash for being too vague and formulaic and then was thrown into question when Tillerson was fired in March 2018. It did not happen ultimately.