State Department Memories

It has been (almost) six months since I semi-voluntarily left the State Department.  Since then, I’ve been on sabbatical, figuring out what to do next.  I’ve done some traveling to Italy, Greece, Montenegro and Albania (and want to do more), and spent a lot of time thinking about my five years in service to my country.

I promised some folks that once I was out, I would explain in more detail why I left, but as I have time and this forum, I plan to expand that over the next months to a more generic discussion of the role of the State Department, and if I get really full of myself, the role of the U.S. in the world.

As I wrote in my application to join the Foreign Service, I am a child of the Kennedy generation who were called to public service.  It took me decades to answer, but I saw my late in life decision to join the Foreign Service as service.  Moreover, I felt I had something beyond many people to offer.  As I was unable to write in any EER, I brought 30+ years of experience in journalism, broadcasting, software, management and politics that I wanted to integrate into my new job.  It is with this assumption that I chose a political track within the Foreign Service.  Unfortunately, it was not to be.

Despite regular reassurances during our initial training, the bottom line is that the State Department has no idea what to do with second and third career officers and what they bring from their earlier careers.  In fact, the system is set up to be hostile to the use of their experience.  No company in the private sector would bring in a new employee with 20 years experience and treat them the same way as a new hire right out of college, but that’s the policy of the State Department.  No company in the private sector would bring in a specialist in one area and require them to spend two years on the equivalent of “working in the mail room”, but that’s what the State Department does with new FSOs, sending them to the visa window for a tour or two.  Whatever motivation and enthusiasm they might have brought to the job is ground down doing something they didn’t apply to do, or expect to spend the rest of their career doing.  If a 20 something FSO has 25 or 30 years of a career ahead of them, it might be seen as a short excursion, but if you only have a few tours before hitting the mandatory retirement age, it is a big chunk of your remaining work life, and the public service you signed up for.

With the experience of a lifetime, in the private sector, one can usually find a way to supplement or work around such limits of the bureaucracy.  Indeed, I had spent the previous 20 years or so always inventing my next job and selling it to my superiors.  There is no opportunity for such outside of the box thinking in the State Department, because I think there is no advantage for anyone up the line who has gotten ahead by getting along to take the “risk” of coloring outside the lines.

The  bottom line was, a third career I had entered thinking it was a perfect match, having been a “generalist” throughout my career, mostly in careers which valued specialists, ended up being anything but.  There are careers for those who value rules and structure, and ones for those of us cultural creatives who need to constantly push the boundaries to do the bigger job.  I just couldn’t spend any more time in the box.

I’ll talk some more about specifics in depth in later posts, but I wanted to get started.  This post, and the ones which follow, are not a criticism of the people I met in the Foreign Service, who for the most part are smart, friendly and dedicated.  It is the system which is broken, at least for some of us.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “State Department Memories

  1. prj

    It sound like state and federal government are about the same – broken.

  2. Carlo

    I’ve enjoyed your blog posts, but I’m curious – since you knew when entering the Foreign Service that you would have to fulfill the Consular tour requirement like everyone else, regardless of experience level, was that really the career deal-breaker for you? The system is the only way the Department is able to staff the overseas consular function, given the current personnel and budget levels, and the majority of first and second tour officers regardless of age and job experience don’t like it – but that’s the deal. Also, why go the FS route at all if avoiding Consular service and directly applying your past job experience was so important to you? Civil Service positions are structured quite differently and do take into account past experience.

    • rkolker

      Carlo – In the private sector, I have been able to expand and replace my responsibilities by seeking out business needs and preparing myself to meet them, then convincing management to let them add those responsibilities to my base job, and eventually to replace my base job. I thought I would be able to do the same in the State Department, adding political responsibilities to my consular duties, particularly in a small post like my first one. I found the State Department culture is totally resistant to such expansion. I don’t doubt there are individuals in the Department who are more open to outside the box efforts, but they are far and away the exception. I didn’t realize that going in.

      • Carlo

        Sorry you had a bad experience in that regard. The small posts can either be quite flexible or quite rigid, depending on the leadership and personality factors. Sounds like you encountered the latter sort.

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