A top candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020 is proposing a massive overhaul to the State Department and the management of its employees, calling for a doubling of the size of the foreign service and new tools to recruit and retain career diplomats.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., accused President Trump of decimating State’s workforce through a “toxic combination of malice and neglect” in suggesting a slew of reforms she would institute if elected president. The presidential hopeful said in order to dramatically boost the number of foreign service officers, she would create a “diplomatic equivalent” of the Reserve Officer Training Corps at universities across the country. She also vowed to boost diversity and make improvements to the pay structure at the department.
Warren said that while Trump accelerated the problems at State, he did not start them.
“Years of hiring freezes and spending cuts have caused many talented diplomats to head for the doors,” the senator said. “To take a meaningful leadership position in the world, to protect American interests, and to avoid conflicts around the globe, we need to reverse this trend.”
Many career civil servants and foreign service officers have been “pushed out” or otherwise resigned under Trump, Warren said, adding to the existing high vacancy rate of foreign service officers at State. To combat the resulting burnout and low morale, she promised to double the size of the foreign service and open new posts where State currently has no presence. She also suggested doubling the size of the Peace Corps to create a “direct employment pipeline to future government service.”
Jerry Feierstein, who served as a career foreign service officer for 41 years, including most recently as a principal deputy assistant secretary until he retired in 2016, agreed there was an urgent need for expanding the number of FSOs. He suggested, however, that any administration should first take stock of existing pipeline-development programs before creating new ones.
“There are existing instruments for doing that and before we jump into a new structure we need to take a look at what’s already available,” Feierstein said.
Under Warren’s plan, FSOs who leave the department could return with fast-tracked reentry if they came back within five years. She proposed reforming the pay and hiring authorities for mid-career workers to better recruit employees who began working outside government. She would also expand parental leave and preferential postings for new parents, as well as other policies to make it easier for families in which both parents work as FSOs.
Feierstein said State has “come a long way” in improving options for foreign service families, but praised any effort to expand leave and other perks that would make the career path more attractive. He noted several potential barriers to expanding preferential postings, such as nepotism rules that prevent one spouse from supervising another and the frustration that single FSOs can feel when they become non-competitive for jobs that are given to foreign service families.
Warren vowed to boost recruiting at historically black colleges and universities, as well as women’s and community colleges, to diversify State’s workforce. She would also double the number of fellowships designed to recruit minority and low-income individuals into the foreign service.
The senator said as president she would not reward high-dollar political donors with ambassadorships, a practice with a deeply entrenched, bipartisan history. She said she would make more top positions career roles, such as at least one deputy secretary, and promised to institutionalize a process for career civil servants and FSOs to advise the secretary on issues such as talent acquisition and retention. Warren singled out Trump’s first secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, and his failed initiative to reorganize the department.
“No more Tillerson redesign that wastes money on fancy consultants to tell us what our civil servants and diplomats already know,” Warren said.
Feierstein was cautious about demonizing all political appointees—noting that some of the country’s most successful ambassadors were non-career officials—or to herald all career workers as “god-like,” but overall agreed with Warren’s intentions.
“Unqualified individuals should not be given ambassador positions as a reward,” he said.