10 Questions with Nancy Powell, Director General of the Foreign Service

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officiates the oath-taking of the 152nd foreign service officer orientation class at the State Department headquarters in Washington, D.C. Photo by: U.S. State Department

EDITOR’S NOTE: According to Nancy Powell, the State Department hired nearly 1,400 foreign service employees in 2009 and expects to hire the same number in 2010. The department’s director general of human resources and foreign service explains where the demand for foreign service officers has grown in an interview with Jordan Smith of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition.

The USGLC recently sat down with Nancy Powell, the Director General of the Foreign Service, to discuss the State Department’s progress and challenges in meeting the demand for not only more diplomats, but a new generation of diplomats.

Ms. Powell outlined that the Obama Administration’s aiming to increase the Foreign Service–comprised of both Foreign Service Officers and Foreign Service Specialists–by 24% by 2015. As well, the administration hopes to increase the Civil Service by 14% by 2015. Given the demand for FSOs in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq—over 1,000 positions need to be filled—and the growth of State and USAID as they work to handle new global issues and increase their presence in other parts of the world, hiring has jumped three-fold, according to Ms. Powell.

This personnel expansion represents the expansion of the State Department’s responsibility to include wartime stabilization, nation building, environmental policy, women’s rights, food security, and counterterrorism to a greater extent than ever before.

Continue reading for the full interview and offer your reactions in the comments section.

Under the banner of “Diplomacy 3.0,” the Foreign Service is also working to ensure that its officers are prepared to meet the tasks and challenges of the 21st century. Language skills—particularly with critical languages like Arabic and Mandarin—“will continue to be key,” and both State and USAID believe it is “vital” to recruit entrepreneurial personalities who will look for innovative and interdisciplinary solutions.

In recognition that they work on many over lapping issues, the Foreign Service is training officers to better coordinate their work with their military, nonprofit, and public and private sector partners to eliminate inefficiency and confusion. Ms. Powell pointed out that this is widely evident throughout Afghanistan, where Provincial Reconstruction Teams comprised of diplomats, soldiers, and development personnel play a central role in rebuilding the local infrastructure and promoting “security and local governance.”

She emphasized that through this “Diplomacy 3.0” initiative, President Obama and Secretary Clinton have made it a major priority to modernize the United States’ diplomacy and development infrastructure and to ensure that the country is meeting the challenges of today and tomorrow as effectively and efficiently as possible.

The Interview

USGLC: As President Obama has pledged to increase the number of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) by 2013, can you give us an update on how it’s going?

Nancy Powell: The President and Secretary Clinton recognize the critical role that diplomacy plays in our national security. With Congressional support, we have already begun significant hiring increases and, with continued funding, expect to reach our targets. Our goal is to increase the size of the State Foreign Service by 24% by 2015. USAID, which has a much smaller workforce, is attempting to double the size of its Foreign Service workforce. 

In 2009, we hired almost 1,400 FS employees—triple the number in previous years—and increased Civil Service hires by 20%. But I’d note that it’s not just about reaching a numbers target – we need to make sure we continue to recruit aggressively the most talented candidates from a diverse range of backgrounds and experiences. I’m very pleased with our efforts on that score.

Our increased hiring has enabled us to increase the size of our training complement so that we no longer face the choice of either staffing positions or training employees in a needed foreign language because we were unable to do both. We also will be able to fill nearly 1000 positions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, and over 500 new positions will be created and filled to meet the changing needs of the Department.

USGLC: What are your priorities right now for your employees and the Department?

NP: These are challenging, exciting times for us. The world is changing quickly and it is important for us as a Department to keep pace. The Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) that the Secretary launched in 2009 and will be completed later this year is a chance to take stock and, as needed, redirect or reform our efforts.

We know we still need the diplomatic skills the Department has always looked for and honed. But, as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, as well as other front-line States have demonstrated, we need new skills. Our work has expanded to include reconstruction, stabilization, governance, and development. Our employees have embraced these new challenges and despite hardships, from family separation to extreme living conditions, they remain willing—even eager—to serve, to make a difference.

And we are making a difference, taking creative approaches to a lengthening list of global issues—food security, global health, the role of women. With Secretary Clinton’s guidance, we are rebuilding the tools of diplomacy and development, which stand beside defense as the three pillars of our nation’s foreign policy.

USGLC: What qualities make up the ideal Foreign Service officer today?

NP: We are looking for innovative, adaptable leaders with superb analytical and interpersonal skills, the ability to work effectively in foreign languages and cultures, communications and outreach skills, and a commitment to service.  Most of our new employees come to us with prior work experience – from the Peace Corps to private industry or the military, and everything between – which is a boon to the Department and our efforts to expand our partnerships within the interagency community and with NGOs and the private sector.

I would also add that many of our most successful employees exhibit a strong sense of curiosity and enjoyment of learning.

USGLC: How are you doing with recruitment right now?

NP: Our recruitment efforts have been extremely successful. As I mentioned earlier, in 2009, we hired almost 1,400 FS employees—triple the number in previous years—and increased Civil Service hires by 20%. We expect a similar result in 2010.

We have been very aggressive in our recruitment efforts and as a result have seen applications for the Foreign Service Officer Test increase over 300% from 2007 to 2009. Our outreach, including through our Diplomats in Residence at universities across the country, social media like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and targeted advertising, is paying off. We are pleased to have received accolades in the last year as a best employer from organizations like the Black Collegian. We will continue to work hard to encourage talented candidates, especially those from communities that are historically underrepresented, to apply for service at State.

USGLC: What are your greatest successes so far in building up the number of Foreign Service officers?

NP: I think it’s the combination of the quantity and quality of our applicants. Our staffing gaps, as well as gaps in training and foreign language skills, will gradually begin to close as our new hires gain in experience and move up in the ranks.

USGLC: Are there any challenges you are facing in building the Foreign Service?

NP: Certainly. Even with this large influx, it will be several years before we are able to close the gap at the midlevels that resulted from restricted hiring in the 1990’s. Like any other large institution, the FS will need time to acculturate employees, build their skills, and mentor and season them to take on the full array of challenges and responsibilities.

And, like our military colleagues, an increasing number of our employees are being asked to serve in places where it is impossible for their families to join. Separated tours, together with difficult and dangerous assignments, stress employees and families alike. We are working to ensure that they have the support they need.

Yet another challenge is to bring our HR processes into the 21st century so that they are capable of meeting the increased demands associated with the expansion of our workforce.

USGLC: What kind of training is needed for today’s Foreign Service officers in meeting the global challenges we face?

NP: Our hiring initiative, Diplomacy 3.0, centers around preparing the State Department to meet the demands of the future, and our training must reflect that. While language and diplomatic skills will continue to be key, crisis, program and general management skills, communications, and entrepreneurial skills will also be vital.

While we build new skills in specific issue areas in line with the President’s priorities, such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, women’s rights, and food security, we are also developing broader interagency and leadership skills to contribute to whole-of-government solutions –Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) being a prime example. The Congress and OMB are very interested in better training for supervisors and managers and that is another area where we, too, are focusing our attention.

USGLC: How are Foreign Service Officers interacting with military and development professionals in the field?

NP: Coordination between FSOs and other interagency partners is a necessity and a reality at most, if not all, of our posts around the globe.  In Iraq and Afghanistan, in particular, FSOs are working together with military and development personnel on PRTs to help rebuild and stabilize these countries, and promote security and local governance. FSOs are also working more and more with their Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) counterparts to meet the needs of the countries where they serve.  A growing number of FSOs are serving as POLADs, political advisers to military commanders, both in the field and at headquarters. With the hiring surge, we hope to broaden the opportunities for our personnel to do details at other agencies to facilitate the kind of partnerships that today’s diplomacy requires.

USGLC: In addition to traditional State-to-State diplomacy, how do Foreign Services Officers engage in public diplomacy to broader populations?

NP: Each FSO acts as an individual ambassador for America. FSOs are often the face of America, particularly to those who aren’t regularly exposed to American government or culture. As such, they can have a powerful impact through their work and personal interactions.

Let me share an example. Not too long ago, I read an account by a young FSO named Rachna Korhonen about her decision to volunteer for duty in Kirkuk, Iraq. She is an Indian-American woman with a strong mastery of Hindi, Punjabi, and Urdu. Many Iraqis mistook her for an Indian, Pakistani, or even Iraqi official. Their surprise at learning she was an American opened the way for her to talk about diversity in the United States and how it can unite rather than divide countrymen.

USGLC: How has the typical Foreign Service career changed since the end of the Cold War?

Our presence around the world has changed – and will continue to change – to meet new challenges and that has had a significant impact on career experiences in the Foreign Service. While maintaining a strong presence in Europe remains vital to our interests, more of our officers are serving in places like China and India, in Africa and Latin America, and in conflict zones like Iraq and Afghanistan. Our FSOs continue to build our relationships in capitals, but they also are out in the field working with host nation actors – often with partners from the interagency, private and non-profit sectors – to develop and execute assistance projects. And they are harnessing new technologies and platforms to communicate with communities beyond our physical reach.

Beyond facilitating relationships and messaging in countries around the world, the availability and speed of communications has had a significant impact on the way we operate. When I did my first Foreign Service tour in Nepal, we had no phones and no television. Our Embassy cables were THE source of information for Washington on what was happening overseas.  With real-time news now immediately available via outlets like CNN and the internet, there is less reliance on our Embassies for reporting of events and an increased need for Embassy analysis. Communications improvements also mean that our officers serving abroad are less isolated than they were thirty years ago – they have so many means available now to keep in touch with family and friends back at home and around the world.

As I look back, another thing that strikes me is how the role of women at the State Department has changed. Just a few years before I joined the Foreign Service, women were forced to resign when they married. There were few women in the Service at all, much less serving at senior levels.  Now women are represented throughout the Department at all levels including, of course, the most senior level of Secretary of State. While we can never become complacent, it’s gratifying to see how far we’ve come.

Re-published with permission by the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition. Visit the original article.

About the author

  • Jordan Smith

    Jordan Smith is a communications associate at the United States Global Leadership Coalition.