Majority of Senior Leadership in State Dept. are now Political Appointees instead of Career Foreign Service

Monday, April 06, 2015
(graphic: Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Traditionally, the way to reach a senior State Department position has been to take and pass the notoriously difficult Foreign Service exam, be selected for the Foreign Service and spend years in diplomatic backwaters and toiling in obscure offices in Washington. Now, more people are taking a shortcut by means of political friendships.


In 1975, according to a report (pdf) by the American Academy of Diplomacy, 60% of State Department personnel with the rank of assistant secretary or higher were career Foreign Service personnel with only 37% of them political appointees. In 2014, the percentages were nearly reversed: only 30% of senior leadership at State were active Foreign Service officers while 51% were political appointees.


The report said of appointing political figures to diplomatic posts: “The practice of calling on such individuals should not justify sending abroad ambassadors so lacking in evident qualifications as to make themselves a laughing stock at home and abroad. The sale of office is contrary to law. That it appears to be happening is an embarrassment to the country and adds nothing to either the prestige or the quality of American diplomacy.”


The Academy report points out that career diplomats offer expertise that political appointees do not. Foreign Service Officers have language skills and extensive knowledge of the regions in which they serve. They also have spent time at the State Department in Washington gaining knowledge on how the system works.


In addition, the increased employment of political appointees means there are fewer opportunities for advancement of career employees. That hurts morale, and ultimately the effectiveness of the State Department as frustrated Foreign Service officers leave for the private sector.


There’s also the question of getting an objective look at a diplomatic situation. “Who will speak truth to the powerful and state what policies ought to be rather than simply cheerleading?” the report asked.


The report recommends that career diplomats be included in the highest levels of decision making and that at least one of the two deputy secretary positions and the undersecretary for political affairs position be reserved for career employees.

-Steve Straehley


To Learn More:

American Diplomacy at Risk (American Academy of Diplomacy) (pdf)

Foreign Service Officers Fear State Dept. Wants to Define Them Away (by Joe Davidson, Washington Post)

Obama Outdoes Previous Presidents in Appointing Campaign Donors to Ambassadorships (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)

Obama Appoints More Friends and Donors to Ambassadorships than Did Bush, Clinton and Even Reagan (by Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


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