Analysis | Crisis at the State Department
A new report published by ISD finds that more than 30% of Foreign Service Officers are looking for the exits — and no, it’s not just because of Trump.
The State Department is facing an impending retention crisis: an estimated 31 percent of current Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are seriously considering leaving the Foreign Service and are actively exploring their options. Of these officers, about a third plan to leave within the next year, and over half plan to leave within the next five years. This points to an impending spike in attrition well above the Department’s historical averages — and ought to give State Department leadership serious pause.
These were the top findings of a new study conducted by a group of graduate students at the Harvard Kennedy School. Rangel Fellows Constanza Castro Zúñiga, Mojib Ghaznawi, and Caroline Kim surveyed 2,853 Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) and Foreign Service Specialists (FSSs) as a part of a Policy Analysis Exercise for their Master in Public Policy (MPP), in collaboration with the American Foreign Service Association. They compiled their findings and recommendations in a report titled “The Crisis in the State Department: We are losing our best and need to ask why,” which the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy released last week.
Read the report: Retention Crisis at the State Department - ISD
In a new report published by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, Constanza Castro Zúñiga, Mojib Ghaznawi, and…
While attrition rates have increased across the board since 2015, the increase has been particularly steep among racial and ethnic minorities and women, the report found. In 2018, the attrition rate for racial and ethnic minorities was 15% higher than the 15-year average (compared to a 3% increase for white officers). In addition, the attrition rate for women was 6% higher than the 15-year average (compared to a 6% decrease in attrition for men).
It isn’t news that the State Department has struggled with attrition in recent years: since 2017, the Department has lost nearly a quarter of the Senior Foreign Service. Between 2017 and 2019, they lost 3% of their total workforce, across both the Foreign and Civil Service. Outlet after outlet has run stories on how the Trump administration’s abrasive foreign policy and ill-advised hiring freeze hollowed out the State Department.
But this report reveals there is much more to this trend than principled resignations after a change in administration. While survey respondents did list leadership as a factor affecting attrition, it was not the top concern. Furthermore, these surveys were administered after the 2020 election, when a change in administration was imminent. Yet, nearly a third of respondents said they were planning to quit. Clearly, the State Department’s retention problem is much bigger than Trump.
The survey found that family concerns, frustrations with the assignment process, sluggish promotion, problems with leadership, and bias were the main drivers of attrition. Concerns about bias were particularly high among African American and American Indian respondents, although all racial categories cited bias as a top concern. Data from a 2020 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report also found that certain racial minorities in the Civil Service were 29% less likely to be promoted than their white counterparts when controlling for education, occupation or years of service. The same GAO report highlighted evidence of smaller but significant discrepancies in promotion rates within the Foreign Service as well.
Beyond bias, the “Crisis at the State Department” report found that officers’ grievances mostly centered around the assignment and promotion processes and around the toll a career in the Foreign Service can take on officials’ families. One focus group participant in the report likened the assignment process to “the wild, wild west.” “It crushes morale and drives people out,” another respondent said. “Doing good work every day is not enough to get you a good assignment. You have to hustle, and even if you play the game, you may end up empty-handed.”
“It crushes morale and drives people out,” another respondent said. “Doing good work every day is not enough to get you a good assignment. You have to hustle, and even if you play the game, you may end up empty-handed.”
Family considerations appeared to have a particularly strong impact on female FSOs. “I believe the single most detrimental factor for advancement of women in the Foreign Service is the employment issue for our spouses,” one female focus group participant said. “Most of us tend to marry professionals who are less interested in a stay-at-home spouse role. The Department was created for a different sort of family.” Respondents seemed to think the State Department could do a lot more to create a flexible work environment by expanding opportunities for remote work and increasing Leave Without Pay (LWOP) to allow officers to adapt their careers to fit their families’ needs.
These concerns were mirrored in the respondents’ proposed solutions. When asked what the State Department should do to promote retention, more than half said they should reform the assignment process to make it fairer and more transparent; 35% said they should focus on the needs of Foreign Service family members; 31% said they should accelerate the rate of promotions; and 31% said they should reduce or eliminate implicit and explicit bias.
Drawing on these findings, the “Crisis at the State Department” report made the following recommendations:
1. Make the Foreign Service more family-friendly, by expanding LWOP, increasing telework options, and providing more support to officers with spouses.
2. Reform the assignments process, by implementing a centralized preference matching system to streamline and standardize assignments and ensure transparency and fairness in the assignments preclusion process.
3. Accelerate the pace of promotions and implement a fair and transparent Employee Evaluation Review process.
4. Empower institutional structures to better address bias, by adequately equipping the Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, and conducting an annual organizational climate survey.
The report has already generated a lot of conversation within the diplomatic community (including an article in Foreign Policy last week). Jim Seevers, director of studies at ISD and a seasoned former FSO, described the report as “important” and “constructive.”
“The authors gathered a large amount of data, analyzed it rigorously, and their research shows that many of those serving in the highly talented U.S. Foreign Service have significant concerns related to families, assignments, promotions and bias,” Seevers said. “The encouraging news is that the report offers concrete, constructive recommendations about how to make practical changes that deal with these issues. Addressing the concerns outlined in the report will strengthen morale at the State Department and help ensure that it retains its people, the most important component of diplomacy.”
Emily Crane Linn is a research assistant for the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. She is in her second year of her Global Human Development master’s degree at Georgetown, with a Certificate in Refugees and Humanitarian Emergencies. Emily is one of ISD’s inaugural McHenry Fellows.
To hear from current and former Foreign Service members from diverse backgrounds about their experiences working in the State Department, check out ISD’s Diverse Diplomacy Series page for a calendar of upcoming events and recordings of past conversations: https://www.diversediplomacy.com/
Diverse Diplomacy Leaders Speaker Series - ISD
As part of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy's broader mandate to connect students with foreign policy…
Are you a current or former FSO/FSS with thoughts on retention at the State Department? We’d love to hear from you. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org