Class Divide in the Foreign Service

Note: This article appeared in the September 2003 Foreign Service Journal.



A Touch of Class:

The World of Foreign Service Specialists


By Bob Guldin


“We enjoy the work, we love seeing the world, we’re proud to serve our country -- but we hate getting treated like second-class citizens.” That’s the strong, consistent message that the Foreign Service Journal  heard from FS specialists who responded to our call for input from specialists in the field.


But before delving into the joys and sorrows of the work-life of the Foreign Service specialist, let's get an overview of where specialists work and what they do.


Foreign Service specialists work in U.S. government posts around the world. There are almost 4,500 specialists in the employ of the Department of State, as well as much smaller numbers in USAID and the Department of Agriculture. Specialists do a great variety of jobs – some highly professional (like doctors and psychiatrists), others more technical and administrative (like the many who keep the department’s computers and information technology running). See the table on page xxx for a full count of State’s specialist categories and numbers. By far the largest categories of State Department specialists are Diplomatic Security, Information Management, and Office Management Specialists.


Specialists in other agencies include veterinarians in USDA, as well as economists, contracting officers, lawyers and many other categories in AID.


Making up for hiring shortfalls in the 1990s—and thanks to the clout of Secretary Colin Powell with the administration and Congress—the ranks of FS specialists have grown recently. Since the beginning of fiscal 2001, the number of specialists has increased by around 600.


Foreign Service Rules


Specialists are in most cases subject to the same practices that govern FSOs. Specialists have rank in person, and worldwide availability. They are subject to “up or out” rules. Each specialization functions more or less as its own “cone.” After 20 years of service, specialists age 50 or older may leave. “You can cash in and take your annuity,” says Gloria Junge of State’s HR Bureau, the career development chief for entry-level specialists. Time in class and time in service rules also apply, though Junge says the TIC period is longer for specialists than for FSOs. Many specialists stay with State for 25 or 30 years, or even longer. Specialists may join the service from ages 21 to 59, and must retire at 65 (or 57 for DS agents).


While most specialists join and stay within a given specialization throughout their career, the service also provides several ways in which specialists can change career paths. One is the Functional Specialist Program, which permits specialists within certain areas to achieve upward mobility within the specialist ranks. In this sought-after program, office management specialists, information management specialists and diplomatic couriers train for one year and then move into a new specialization such as Human Resources or Financial Management.


In addition, specialists may do excursion tours overseas in hard-to-fill FSO skill groups, which can be a step toward specialist-to-generalist conversion. Moreover, the Mustang program since the early 1970s has permitted specialists to compete for appointments as junior FSO career candidates. Plus, as the director general of the FS tells the Journal, many specialists have taken the Foreign Service Exam “and are now serving as successful Foreign Service officers at all grade levels and in all cones.”


Promotion possibilities for specialists vary a great deal from one specialization to the next. Office management specialists (OMSs) usually enter at grade FS-06, while financial management officers (FMOs) enter at FS-03. Twelve of the 20 specialist groups have the possibility of promotion to the Senior Foreign Service.


The FS grades of specialists have been steadily increased over the years. One IMS recalls that in 1990, IMSs generally entered the service at FS-08 or 09; now they enter at the 05 level, “a vast difference.” Susan Struble, the director of the assignments division at HR, says that HR’s analysis of the job content “determines the maximum grade for a given skill code.”


Interestingly, a number of specialists who spoke with or wrote to the Foreign Service Journal for this article were certain that they were in the Administrative and Technical (or A&T) Staff within the Foreign Service. Similarly, an OMS wrote the Journal, “the Department refuses to delink the FS office managers from the Civil Service clerical field, which is the excuse they give us on why we cannot move up the promotion ladder.” But Career Development officers at State assured us that no such categories exist – an indication of how the specialists’ view from the field often differs radically from the department’s official perspective.


Over the past three years, the retention rates for both specialists and generalists have averaged 95-96 percent. The voluntary retirement rates averaged 2.9 percent for specialists and 2.1 percent for generalists.


Candidates seeking to join the Foreign Service as specialists do not take a standardized written exam. Rather, their qualifications are scored by an evaluation panel, and acceptable candidates are brought in for an oral examination geared to the particular specialization.


As part of State’s Diplomatic Readiness Initiative, the department for the past two years has emphasized recruiting above attrition levels. In earlier years, the department often suffered from shortfalls in key personnel categories, but that’s no longer true. Director General Ruth Davis, who declined to be interviewed but responded via e-mail to questions from the Journal, said the department “had basically completed our specialist hiring for fiscal year 2003 by May, five months before the year ended.”


One information management specialist (IMS) who has been at State since 1990 says that IT hiring has drastically improved, partially because of “very dynamic” leadership of the IT sector at State. “This is the first time the IMS group is fully staffed,” he says. In the accounting field, the downturn in corporate America has helped State hire highly qualified and experienced FMOs.


Proud to Serve


While FS specialists have plenty of gripes, many also feel very pleased with aspects of the job. Craig Cloud, a security engineering officer, says, “The Foreign Service has provided me with great experiences and an amazing extended family.” A number say they welcome the opportunity to serve their country.


Many specialists also love living in other countries. Others mentioned the extensive benefits of the Foreign Service: no housing costs when overseas; college loans repaid; generous leave (including home leave); and, of course, a good retirement system.


Lisa Harshbarger, a regional English language officer in Tashkent, says, “Overall, this position is ideally suited to my background. (She’s taught abroad for years.) “I’m having a great time, and look forward to working all over the world in this type of job.”


Other specialists write that their work can be very meaningful to them at times. David McCrane, a first-tour IMS based in Ho Chi Minh City, recently helped a team discover the remains of two U.S. airmen shot down during the Vietnam War. “It’s hard to imagine that after all these years, a soldier will finally make it home and family will have closure. It was a great experience,” he tells the Journal.


Joe Cole, an information programs officer based in Istanbul, just put together a radio system for the guards in Zakuma National Park in southern Chad, with assistance from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The goal: to help stop the poaching of elephants. Cole traveled through the desert and set up a solar power system so that trackers, when they discover poachers, can call for armed help. Cole says he’s “very proud of the project.”



Foreign Service Worries


Whether specialist or generalist, members of the Foreign Service share a number of burdens and worries. One specialist writes that he spends too much time away from his family, and that the insecure international environment “weighs heavy on the minds of families.”


The hours can be very long, and specialists report that their supervisors discourage them  from filing for overtime pay, even when they are legally entitled to it. (This applies to FSNs and other employees as well.) “I don’t even want to waste my time figuring out how much time I’m giving away,” writes one specialist.


In addition, the bureaucratic nature of State gets some specialists down. “The State Department is bureaucratic, hierarchical and compartmentalized,” one FMO tells the Journal.  “In the private sector, there’s a fusion between accounting and IT. But State forces a division. It needs to start thinking in 21st century terms.”


Specialists also seem to have mostly – but not entirely --  positive reactions to the changes Secretary Powell has brought to the department. Says Nanette Krieger, a 28-year veteran with DS, “He’s gotten us resources, upgraded the technology. It needed to be done.”  But some specialists noted that under Powell many military veterans have joined the service – and those are people who are used to following orders, not asking questions. One FMO, whose job includes asking pointed questions about money matters, fears that the influx of ex-military may lead to a more compliant service.


Respect? Just a Little Bit


As mentioned above, the complaint specialists voice most prominently and emphatically about their situation is a pervasive lack of respect – both from individual FSOs and from the department as an organization. The phrase “second-class citizen” crops up time and again. While specialists were glad to acknowledge that some FSOs relate to specialists as equals, many more felt that that was the exception.


One IMS tells of joining State after serving as a major in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. There, he says, “I was proud of the title ‘communicator,’ which the military considers a distinguished profession. ... It quickly became obvious during my first tour that this was not the case in the State Department, where the title is viewed as somewhere equivalent to ‘janitorial staff.’”  Another IMS writes to the Journal, “Until the ambassador/DCM/MGT change their perspectives (stop referring to us as knuckle-dragging communicators) nothing will change.”


An FMO, who is also a CPA, remarks about FSO perceptions, “They see you as clerks. It’s bizarre, like the 19th century.”


These were not the only e-mails the Journal received which evinced real bitterness about the treatment of specialists.



According to specialists’ accounts, these attitudes are displayed both professionally and socially. One IMS – who, by the way, said he has had great experiences in the Foreign Service -- describes an incident at his first post. He was on line at the commissary, and was speaking with an FSO, who asked him what he did.


He said, “I’m an IMS.”


“Oh, a specialist,” she replied.


“And then she wouldn’t talk to me anymore,” the IMS says. Like most of the specialists who spoke or wrote to the Journal, this person spoke on condition of anonymity.


Another IMS tells the Journal, “I was never even formally introduced to our ambassador, although I have had conversations with him, obviously. No courtesy for me or my role.”


An Unspoken Class Divide


The more one listens to specialists’ complaints, the clearer it becomes that the underlying issue is class. Unfortunately, that’s a topic most Americans are still very uncomfortable discussing. We have learned how to talk about race and gender and even sexual orientation, but class remains an extraordinarily difficult topic – most likely because it appears to contradict American ideals of democracy and equality.


This contradiction is especially sharp in the world of diplomacy, which until the mid-20th century was dominated by upper-class diplomats, and which still retains traces of that social milieu. In the diplomatic receptions of yore, one did not invite the coachmen and couriers to attend. But how does that play out in the 21st century, when the modern-day messengers have master’s degrees and expect to be treated equally?  It’s very difficult even to discuss.


An example of how hard it is to talk about this topic appeared in the director general’s response to an FSJ question. We asked what the service could do about  “perceptions of unequal treatment” by specialists, or about specialists’ sense of being second-class citizens.


Director General Davis responded by e-mail: “I cannot accept the premise of your questions.  How many visas could we issue if our computer systems were down?  How many démarches could we make if there were not adequate security at our embassies?  Each of us, specialists no less than generalists, has a vital role to play in the development and execution of U.S. foreign policy.  We are all interdependent.  We are all members of the Secretary's ‘One Team; One Mission.’”


Nanette Krieger – who’s about to retire after 28 years as a DS specialist and who therefore is quite willing to speak her mind – laughed when asked whether there was a class system in the Foreign Service. “Of course there is,” she said. “Political and econ officers are the top class, then consular and admin, then specialists, then FSNs, then your household help at the bottom.”


The difference between the two responses – Davis’s and Krieger’s – is instructive. One is forced to ask how the State Department can work on remedying a problem if it is not willing to acknowledge its existence.


One indication of how pervasive the bias is is that even feminist activists – people working to change long-standing and unfair State Department practices – forgot the specialists. In 1994, Krieger recalls, the Women’s Action Group filed a class action suit over what were perceived to be sexist State Department practices. They won their case, but the class action relief pertained only to FSOs.


Krieger asked one of the women who had initiated the suit why the complaint had not covered female specialists too. “We never thought of you,” the FSO responded.


The problem of lack of respect is not felt uniformly across the specialist ranks. OMSs and IMSs seem to feel the problem deeply, especially when outdated terms like “secretaries” and “communicators” are used. First-tour IMS David McCrane writes, “The term ‘communicators’ conjures up images of ‘bag draggers’ and telegraph operators.”


Perceptions of specialists also change as conditions change. One IMS says that during “the great Y2K scare of 1999 ... suddenly IRM personnel were invited to high-level meetings.”  And long-time RSO Krieger points out the attitudes toward DS have changed substantially since Sept. 11, 2001. “Since 9/11, nobody calls me paranoid. People tend to come to us now.”


In addition, there are specialists who feel little or no gap between specialists and generalists. Gloria Junge of HR emphasizes that Secretary Powell feels strongly that all State Department employees are worthy of respect. She told the Journal about a recent incident in which the secretary was scheduled to swear in a new cohort of specialists but ran late, so a lesser official performed the ceremony. When Powell did arrive, he insisted on swearing in the group a second time, with him officiating, as a way to show the value he placed on the new specialists.


AFSA and Specialists


AFSA of course is the designated collective bargaining agent for all Foreign Service employees, both specialists and generalists. How well does AFSA do in representing specialists?


The association certainly makes an effort. More than 30 percent of AFSA members are specialists, but only one person on AFSA’s 23-member Board of Governors is a specialist. This may be a result of low specialist interest, or a perception that AFSA is interested mostly in FSO issues. Several specialists sent the Journal comments to that effect.


It should be noted that AFSA makes an effort to recognize specialists’ accomplishments and act on their behalf. Every June AFSA’s Awards Committee designates one or more specialists to receive its Tex Harris Award, and the Delavan Award recognizes extraordinary performance by an office management specialist. Both awards recognize exemplary contributions to effectiveness, professionalism and morale.


In 2002, AFSA adopted as a goal expanding promotion opportunities for FS specialists. It also lobbied Secretary Powell successfully to use his influence so that specialists are now eligible to join the United Services Automotive Association, which provides banking, insurance and other services.



A Bill of Particulars


While a sense of being regarded as less-than-equal is common among specialists, it is far from universal. Two small specializations – information resource officers (IROs) and regional English language officers (RELOs)—seem to feel that they are well respected. That may well be because specialists in those two fields have an unusual degree of autonomy and have their own professional credentials. IROs are generally trained librarians with master of library science degrees, and RELOs are highly skilled teachers.


On the other end of the scale, OMSs who contacted the Journal described real dissatisfactions with low-graded positions and limited promotion opportunities. The DG, however, pointed out that a number of  OMS positions, including those for career development officers and FSI instructors, have recently been upgraded from FS-04 to FS-03.


Specialists who spoke with this FSJ reporter or wrote to the Journal cited numerous work practices that made them feel that they were perceived as second class members of the Foreign Service. Among those particulars:


·        Exclusion from the DIPLIST for most specialists at most overseas posts. Among the consequences of this lack of diplomatic status: less clout in dealing with host country officials; no diplomatic immunity in case of legal problems; having to pay host country taxes (like VAT in the EU); inability to bring in a (more affordable) nanny from a third country; inability to bring in a second car; greater restrictions in importing and exporting consumer goods. Exclusion from economic benefits weighs heavily on lower-paid specialists and their families.


One specialist who had to curtail early from a post for family reasons got sued for breach of contract by his landlord for $250,000. His embassy told him they couldn’t help him with his legal problem, but “if you were an FSO we could help you.” Back in Washington, State’s Office of Legal Affairs told him the same thing.


What’s more, some IMSs note, even though they are not on the DIPLIST, IMSs typically are considered essential personnel and among the last to leave a post during an emergency.


·        FSOs have a commission from the president which is confirmed by the Senate – specialists do not. One HR official told the Journal, “It’s a piece of paper you can hang on your wall,” but some specialists resent not having one.


·        Exclusion from the country team. While this varies from post to post,  it is rare for people from Information Resources Management (IRM) to be on the team. With heightened security awareness, RSOs are almost always on the country team these days.


·        Lack of professional status at post. A very experienced FMO may be officially under the supervision of a junior FSO, and may have a lesser title (attaché vs. second secretary). Veteran IMSs observe that they are never called upon to serve as acting MGT officer, even if they’re well qualified to do so.


·        Training opportunities vary enormously – some specialists are very pleased with the training they’ve received at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center and elsewhere, but others tell a very different story. One long-time FMO says, “I’ve never had any language training, ever,” while noting that language skills can be very useful for FMOs who need to check invoices and other host-country documents.


Another FMO new to the service and going to his first post (Sanaa, Yemen) had to fight fiercely to get even “ the short seven-week course in survival Arabic. And you really need Arabic here.”


One small compensation for specialists is that they can receive language pay if they achieve a 2/2 score in a foreign language, while FSOs must score 3/3.


·        Specialists’ physical workspace and equipment is often sub-standard, especially when compared with that of FSOs. This is especially irksome to IMSs, who sometimes have to share desks and even computers. One IMS reports that his post is building a new consulate building, providing an individual office to each FSO, including extra rooms for expansion. Meanwhile, he reports, “there will be two desks for four full-time direct-hire Americans” in “two small offices.”


·        Ambassadors and other senior managers often hold meetings at post for junior officers. Such  meetings are seldom if ever held for specialists.


·        Specialists are seldom invited to post functions and receptions (though as a couple of our respondents noted, specialists who ask to attend usually are permitted to do so).



·        Cash awards for outstanding performance are given less frequently to specialists than to officers. When they are given, amounts are smaller.


·        Limited promotion opportunities. A highly competent specialist can hit the “glass ceiling” for his or her job skill, and may be stuck at FS-02 for 15 years.


·        Certain specialists may be disliked for doing their jobs. Until 9/11, DS agents and RSOs were often resented for enforcing unwieldy security measures. And FMOs, many of whom are CPAs with a strong sense of professional responsibility, are resented for carefully scrutinizing post finances – which is what they are paid to do. As one experienced FMO says, “Any FMO who leaves a mess behind is never ‘dinged’ professionally – he still gets a glowing evaluation. Conversely, cleaning up a mess will annoy post management.”



Equal Rights for Specialists?


Despite the impressive list of grievances, slights and complaints, most Foreign Service specialists do enjoy their work and value their careers and the accompanying benefits.


As one OMS wrote, “Where else but the Foreign Service will computer and office management skills take you around the world?” In addition, specialists say that they have encountered  many supportive and respectful DCMs and admin officers who have been a pleasure to work with. The camaraderie that develops among specialists is another important plus for the job.


Regarding the question of status and respect, a number of specialists, including several  in Information Resources Management, have come to the conclusion that it’s up to the specialists to raise their voices and demand better treatment. That means asking to come to events you want to attend.


It may also mean education --  to help FSOs and others understand better exactly what the specialists at their post do. As one IMS put it, FSOs “adopt a standoffish approach to us because they really and truly don’t know why we’re here.” This person suggests that “from A-100 to the Senior Seminar, specialist issues and activities should be discussed in fine detail so everyone has a clear understanding of the contributions being made by all personnel at post.”



One experienced IMS says that he tells those new to the service, “Don’t let your dignity ever be disparaged. You cannot take a back seat – you have to move forward.” Or, as another IMS says, “Treat me as an equal player on the team, because what I have to offer is of value.”




Types of FS Specialists


Specialist Skill Group    Total

Financial Management Officer      170

Human Resources Officer   84

General Services Officer     221

Information Management Specialist        791

Information Management Technical Specialist   170

Information Technology Managers         245

Diplomatic Courier  94

Psychiatrist   15

Diplomatic Security Special Agent    1,215

Security Engineering Officer         189

Security Technical Specialist         54

Construction Engineer       59

Facilities Maintenance Specialist    158

English Language Officer   22

Information Resource Officer       28

Medical Officer        37

Medical Technologist         9

Health Practitioner   64

Printing Specialist    7

Office Management Specialist       816

Miscellaneous          25

Total  4,473


The State Department employs 20 categories of specialists, listed above. It only recruits for 19, though, because information technology managers are promoted from within the department. USAID and the Foreign Agricultural Service also employ Foreign Service specialists.