164. Memorandum From the Director of the Office of UN Political Affairs (Bridges) to the Under Secretary of State for Management (Read) and the Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Personnel (Barnes)1


  • Proposed Personnel System Changes

I venture to offer you the following reactions to the proposed changes in the Foreign Service personnel system.2

As a one-time worker in Personnel, I can appreciate how much work has gone into the proposals. But I am very sorry that no attempt was made, in circulating the proposals on January 43 to Assistant Secretaries, Executive Directors, and Office Heads, to explain why management thinks these changes desirable, other than a brief chart. It seems to me that any comprehensive set of proposals like this should be closely accompanied by the rationale for them. I have heard it said that the overall management rationale for making so many changes is that if we do not make them, others will. But I cannot conceive of outsiders succeeding in any such attempt in opposition to the Board of the Foreign Service and the Department’s management.

There are, of course, good reasons for us to make some changes. I see three main reasons:

(A) We need to correct the mistake made over a decade ago when it was decided to work toward abolition of the Civil Service personnel system in the Department. The FAS system which resulted was attractive to individuals, because it offered them more attractive retirement provisions and, for many, a pay raise on conversion. But the changes in no way improved our personnel system, and they distorted the concepts of the Service laid down in the Act of 1946.

(B) We need to provide a simpler and more rational system for our specialist, secretarial and communications employees. We need to combine into one their separate Reserve and Staff pay scales. We need to provide them better opportunities for upward and lateral mobility. [Page 638] And we need to reconsider the unwise extension of the Foreign Service promotion system to all specialist categories.

(C) Most importantly—from the point of view of our national interest—we need to put our core group of diplomatic and consular officers on a sounder footing. There are several reasons for loss of Service pride, but one main reason is that the corps of Foreign Service officers has lost its sense of identity. And some of the reasons for this loss are the following: (1) too many specialized officers and their positions were converted years ago to FSO; (2) too many barriers were erected within the corps by the cone system and false demands for specialization; (3) natural inclusion in the Foreign Service of officers of AID, USIA, and ACTION at the same time that those agencies’ management split off from ours, has made it even more difficult for diplomatic and consular officers to define their own career; (4) diplomatic appointments in the United States remain more politicized than in any other major country, hurting both our pride and our development; and (5) the Executive Orders which enabled the unionization of the Service4 have prevented senior officers of the Service from playing any part in the management of their own professional organization. (It is difficult to realize that a quarter-century ago Chip Bohlen5 could be at once a Career Minister, Counselor of the Department, and President of AFSA.) What profession can stay healthy and happy when it is deliberately crippled like that?

I fear that some of the new proposals would only cripple the Service further—certainly not heal it. The proposal for a single new pay scale would only damage further the spirit of our central officer corps, while it does too little to meet the need I have outlined under (B) above for a better system for our specialists, secretaries and communicators. The conversion of six present officer grades (class 3–8) into nine would only increase the amount of trauma in rank-in-person officers who, unlike Civil Service colleagues, await each annual list with great trepidation. There is good reason to argue that the Service was better off before the then six numbered grades were increased to eight in 1956. We do not need so many gradations; the Canadians do nicely with just three.

But the most serious mistakes, I believe, are found in the proposals relating to the senior threshold and a “Senior Foreign Service”. I fully sympathize with the need for a more rigorous threshold process for entrance into senior ranks; it is critically important to have a better [Page 639] way to get rid of dead wood in the senior ranks. But one must be leery about a proposed new system which seems mainly an attempt to emulate the new Senior Executive Service in the Civil Service system.

Although this new senior service proposal is intended to ensure that only the best make it to senior ranks, it appears that the intention is to continue the traditional system of promotion on the basis of selection board action on the basis of performance files. Yet one of the basic reasons for lack of a good senior threshold is that an officer’s file tends to become increasingly laudatory as he or she rises in rank. The main need then is for a better way to evaluate upper middle-grade officers. I would not in any way suggest doing away with traditional efficiency reports, but I would urge a careful look at the possibility of building into the senior threshold system the kind of assessment techniques which are now being used for the first time to assess candidates for entrance into the Service.

I would also question the need for new legislation aimed at getting rid of unneeded officers when at this point management remains unwilling to rescind the extremely unwise lengthening of senior time-in-grade maximums put into effect under Larry Eagleburger in 1976.

As regards the suggestion that creation of a Senior Foreign Service would facilitate exchanges of our senior officers with other agencies, I can only say that I doubt it. Only a strong, central assignment authority—which was not created by Congress in legislating the Senior Executive Service, and which is not contemplated anywhere in the proposals at hand—could produce the kind of interagency swapping of officers that has been so often talked about. Such exchanges require close attention by management-level officials in this Department in order to succeed; our experiences in past years with Commerce, Defense, Treasury, NSC, and USIA demonstrate that formal agreements for interagency exchange of officers may come to little without proper high-level attention.

Among other proposals which concern me I would particularly mention the proposal to end the existing statutory ban on more than eight years’ consecutive service in the U.S. for Foreign Service personnel. My impression is that it is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain the Service discipline which is required to ensure that officers do not spin out Washington tours indefinitely. This is because more and more wives are going to work in Washington, and because conditions of service overseas are often not what they used to be. In this situation I think that it is important to maintain the eight-year rule—not abolish it—even though exceptions will, of course, continue to be made.

I do not mean to suggest in the above that there is no good in the proposals. I strongly support some of their aims, particularly simplification, rationalization, improvement of performance, and cutting away [Page 640] dead wood. But all in all the proposals strike me as more a mechanistic than a humane set, and they do not supply a good answer to our problems as I see them, outlined under (A) to (C) above.

One final point. Our Service is not as well organized and not as good as it might be. The Murphy Commission6 made this point in exhaustive fashion, and OMB and others do not tire of calls for improvement. But those who make a profession of criticizing us too often ignore the fact that we have the best civilian service in our Government, and one of the best in the world. Service reform should not mean discarding the good we possess, but preserving and building on it.

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of the Under Secretary for Management (M), 1978–1979, Box 6, Chron January 21–25, 1979. No classification marking. Copies were sent to Maynes (IO) and Bacchus (M/DGP).
  2. The proposals were not found.
  3. Not found.
  4. Reference to E.O. 11491 (see footnote 5, Document 153) and E.O. 11636, “Employee-Management Relations in the Foreign Service of the United States,” signed on December 17, 1971.
  5. Reference to Charles Bohlen, a U.S. diplomat from 1929 until 1969.
  6. See footnote 3, Document 135. For a summary of all the Commission’s recommendations, see Foreign Relations, 1969–1976, vol. XXXVIII, Part 2, Organization and Management of Foreign Policy; Public Diplomacy, 1973–1976, Document 147.