Warren’s Plan to Rebuild the State Department Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Adding 8,000 foreign service officers won’t solve America’s diplomatic problems. State needs to prioritize data science, expand strategic planning, and encourage mid-career training, too.

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at the Environmental Justice Presidential Candidate Forum at South Carolina State University on November 8, 2019 in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks at the Environmental Justice Presidential Candidate Forum at South Carolina State University on November 8, 2019 in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s plan to “rebuild the State Department,” released on June 28, is the boldest commitment to diplomacy by any U.S. presidential candidate so far. With the nation enthralled by the spectacle of career diplomats bravely standing up against corruption, Warren’s proposal to end the practice of appointing campaign donors to ambassadorships and double the size of the foreign service should be lauded. The current size of the foreign service is just shy of 8,000 people (excluding specialists such as diplomatic security and IT staff, who add an extra 6,000). The department estimates that each additional overseas staff position costs $400,000. This could work out to about $3.2 billion per year—a sizable investment in U.S. diplomacy.

But Warren’s bold plan also raises a big question. How will 8,000 new diplomats improve U.S. foreign policy? The foreign service has generally been relegated to a subordinate role within the bureaucracy behind an ever larger National Security Council and the outsized influence of the Defense Department. Few career diplomats make it to the top echelons of policymaking, crowded out by political appointees selected more for loyalty than experience. Doubling the number of bureaucrats drafting cables, issuing demarches, and holding the door for political appointees will do little to empower U.S. diplomacy if their hard-earned expertise is not seen as valuable in the policy process.

Instead, new ideas are required to rebuild what the distinguished former Ambassador William Burns termed the “institutional wreckage” of the State Department following years of mismanagement. There are three ways new diplomats should be utilized: Warren should invest in training, widely adopt state-of-the-art policymaking techniques, and reserve the majority of leadership positions for career diplomats.

First, the department must send more staff to training. Though training takes talented officers out of the field in the short term, it is a necessary investment. Over a 30-year career, a diplomat must find time to study language, history, and culture; the latest technology; management skills; and so much more.

This time away from one’s desk needs to be built into staffing patterns. The Pentagon plans and budgets for a 15 percent surplus of officers above required staffing in order to allow staff the time and opportunity to pursue additional training. State, by contrast, often pressures its officers to avoid training due to staffing shortages. If the foreign service grew to twice its size (reaching 16,000 officers), the department should also institutionalize a 15 percent float, putting 2,400 officers into training at any given time.

Training has never been incentivized for foreign service officers. It is a sure way to get passed over for promotion, which is perilous in an “up-or-out” personnel system designed to automatically retire officers who lag behind. Officers receive no performance evaluations while in training, which blinds promotion panels from evaluating newly acquired skills.

For example, when I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in international relations, the State Department required me to take leave without pay. If I returned, I would be forbidden from bringing up my new skills in future promotion deliberations and would return to the department at the same rank as when I left. Such rules disincentivize many officers from pursuing advanced education. That is counterproductive. The department must reward training and find creative ways to utilize new skills.

Second, the department must widely adopt state-of-the-art policymaking techniques. The reality is that U.S. foreign-policy institutions rely on outmoded decision-making processes that are based too much on personality and opinion. The methods used to gather and evaluate the evidence on which policies rest are far too ad hoc and subjective. Policy should be based on data and evidence, not the whims and preferences of senior staff.

Three areas are ripe for investment: data science, strategic planning, and monitoring and evaluation (M&E). Warren emphasizes the need for data science. This is an important place to start and is a point that has surfaced in previous department rebuilding efforts. Unfortunately, past efforts to emphasize data at the department have failed. A small data science office staffed by outsiders will have little effect on policy. Instead, data science and analytics need to be integrated into the information-gathering and decision-making process of every bureau, embassy, and office.

For example, a more concerted effort to collect and analyze data on emerging immigration patterns may have helped policymakers predict the sources of political instability across today’s Europe and preemptively address those causes rather than the symptoms. The foreign service must vault itself into the 21st century by requiring data competency in all new hires.

Strategic planning is a staff-intensive activity. Given limited staff, the vast majority of time at the State Department is spent responding and reacting to outside events, and little time is spent planning for future challenges. That equation must be flipped. A centralized Policy Planning office is useful for geopolitical challenges but does not have the expertise to dive deep into the affairs of specific countries.

Interdisciplinary teams in each bureau and embassy should be tasked with identifying likely challenges and threats, engaging with contingency plans, detecting blind spots, and conducting crisis simulations. Such approaches are virtually nonexistent at the State Department, which seriously inhibits the ability of a bureau to quickly and effectively respond to new challenges.

A throng of new M&E officers will greatly increase accountability at State. Too many policy ideas look great on paper, but careful assessment of their implementation and impact is rare. A tendency to avoid evaluation is exacerbated by the short-term focus born from the high turnover rate of political appointees and the regular rotation of foreign service officers through jobs.

M&E specialists help outline and track measurable goals of success at each stage of a policy process, from design to implementation. For instance, if the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan is investing in education, one should track the number of new schools built, the number of students educated, and the employment rate of graduates. M&E officers would continually gather information about each of those objectives in order to measure the success of the policy, change course when goals are not being met, and feed the learning about what works back into the process.

Third, State must commit to reserving the majority of senior positions and ambassadorships for career officers. The brightest foreign-policy thinkers must know that the path to influence lies within a career in the foreign service rather than partisan politics. This is especially critical following scores of high-profile resignations and a drastic reduction in the number of new applicants to the foreign service.

Warren’s proposal admits that “opportunities for career professionals are severely limited.” Even excluding ambassadorial positions, the State Department still has one of the highest percentage of political appointees of any major agency. Today, only four of the 60 most important positions in the department (assistant secretaries and above) are permanently filled by career officers. Hundreds of additional assignments would be made available to foreign and civil service officers if all deputy assistant secretary, special assistant, and senior advisor seats occupied by political appointees were vacated.

Warren’s plan calls for “some” of the senior-most positions at State to be filled by career foreign service officers. This may be necessary in the near-term, but U.S. foreign policy will fall short of its potential if the majority of leadership positions are indefinitely filled by “in-and-outers.” The scandalous tenure of the hotel magnate Gordon Sondland as President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the European Union is just the latest example of the peril in appointing amateurs to high-profile diplomatic positions.

Warren’s promise not to appoint wealthy donors to ambassadorships is welcome, yet she stops short of committing to fill the jobs with career officers. Instead, she promises to find “the most qualified person for the job.” Her position exposes a hard truth that advocates of diplomacy often fail to confront: The foreign service has failed to convince a generation of presidents that they are the best qualified for high-level jobs.

This must change. These proposals will reinvigorate the skills and influence of the professional diplomatic corps to demonstrate to future presidents the necessity of relying on the permanent bureaucracy rather than partisan operators. Merely adding 8,000 new staff into a stale bureaucracy is insufficient. Instead, an influx of new staff must transform the State Department into a 21st-century organization capable of meeting the complex challenges of a rapidly changing world.

Dan Spokojny is a former U.S. foreign service officer and served as a legislative aide in Congress. He is currently a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, where he studies the U.S. State Department and the role of expertise in foreign policy. Twitter: @DanSpoko

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