175. Action Memorandum From the Acting Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Personnel (Rawls) to the Under Secretary of State for Management (Read)1


  • Foreign Service Structure: Modification of the FSO Cone System


We have previously discussed in general terms the need to establish a more structured approach to professional development for the various categories of Department employees. With the introduction in Congress of the proposed Foreign Service Act of 1979, we believe the time has come to move forward on a proposal on professional development for FSOs which would link training and assignments at mid-career to a more explicit and rigorous Threshold to the select and highly-qualified Senior Foreign Service envisioned in the draft bill. Since the proposal would change assignment and counseling procedures, it requires consultation with AFSA. It would not, however, require greater authority for PER than we now have, as recently confirmed by the Secretary,2 to make assignment decisions which balance longer-term development interests with immediate Service needs and individual preferences. This memorandum therefore describes modifications of the cone system for assignment, training and counseling (and possibly promotion) for FSOs and requests your approval to raise the proposal with AFSA. Our implementation goals would be to announce our intentions and develop officer awareness during the 1980 assignment cycle, to draw on the improved analysis of functional needs provided by the skill code project in mid-1980, and to proceed with dual-cone designations and assignments in the 1980 assignment cycle.


In our earlier papers on professional development,3 we alluded to the idea of a pattern for FSO careers which would include acquisition [Page 697] of a plurality of skills and experience. This idea grew out of our study of the present cone system,4 which concluded that, while the present system has served us tolerably well in terms of staffing those broad functional areas, it is no longer adequate to meet either newer and more specialized Service needs or the growing requirements for managerial talent at senior levels.

For example, the emphasis on single-function assignment and promotion competition has tended to discourage officers from entering new fields, such as narcotics affairs or humanitarian affairs, or smaller fields, such as science and technology or labor affairs. Further, in light of the McBer study and our own studies of career development,5 it seems clear that no single cone provides officers with the full range of skills and knowledge needed in senior executive positions. The consular and administrative cones have traditionally provided opportunities for officers to develop managerial and inter-personal skills, while the economic/commercial and political fields have emphasized analytical and reporting skills plus substantive knowledge of foreign affairs. All these skills are, of course, important at the top.

Finally, the proposed structural reforms, particularly the Senior Foreign Service, underline the importance and urgency of taking steps to improve career development. In order to establish a Threshold for the select and highly-qualified SFS envisioned in the bill, we need to have a systematic and reasonably accessible program under which officers will be aware of the Threshold requirements and have opportunities to meet them. (Realistically, the Threshold requirements will probably have to be applied in stages over several years, in order to avoid inequitable treatment of mid-grade officers, particularly at the FSO–3 level, whose assignment patterns reflect the current emphasis on cones.) As part of our larger effort on implementation of the new Foreign Service structure, we are currently working on proposed criteria for the senior threshold. These would certainly have to include the requirement for a wider range of skills and experience than is normally provided by the present system and might also include requirements with respect to language qualification, service in hardship posts and a reasonable distribution of geographic experience in addition, of course, to superior performance.


What we suggest is modification of the present cone system to permit and encourage a plural approach to career development for FSOs. As each officer completes the Junior Officer Program and enters [Page 698] the mid-career stage, he or she, in consultation with PER, would decide on the main lines of career development thereafter. In the normal case, this would mean continued progression within the tentative cone of entry, supplemented by training and assignments in other cones or subfunctions. (In this process, PER would factor in Service needs as reflected in skill/resource projections and current assignment lags, so that officers would be guided toward areas with reasonable assignment prospects. Our workforce planning would have to keep track of the acquisition of secondary skills, but hiring and promotion up to the Threshold could still be based largely on primary cone designations.) In certain other cases, the decision could call for concentration solely within one cone, in the clear understanding that career prospects would be defined generally by the opportunities within that field. Other cases might involve applications to change the original cone, subject to a needs test. But in all cases, once the basic career direction was established, PER would proceed with training and assignments with such focus up to the Threshold. We will need to know more than we presently know about the number and combination of skills which might be acquired in this process. As a start—to find out how we presently stand—we are pursuing a project to systematically inventory the skills and experience each FSO possesses and the skills and experience required for each FSO position. Future work force planning can then take account of current Service needs at any point based on a more reliable inventory. The system will be operational next spring.6

In parallel with our efforts to reform structure in a way which increases the compatibility between the Foreign Service and Civil Service systems within the Department, we also intend to look at the whole question of professional development for senior GS employees. In this regard, we need to determine what combinations of skills and experience are needed for the Senior Executive Service and the kind of counseling and training which should be provided to that end.

Implementation of this proposal for the Foreign Service—once agreed and approved by AFSA and the Department—could begin with the newly-tenured FSO–6 and current O–5 officers during the 1981 assignment cycle. A goodly number of FSO–4 officers could also be included in a later phase. But it may be that many FSO–4s and most FSO–3 are past the point in their careers when development of new functional expertise is possible or desirable. However, such officers could be given a certain degree of protection through the phasing-in of Senior Threshold requirements, and the limitations of their career [Page 699] patterns would not make them any more difficult to handle under this approach than under the current system.


Properly implemented, a plural career development system should give the Department greater control over the flow of officers into different functions while permitting individuals to have a greater variety of experience than at present. A political officer who serves as a GSO or management analyst would acquire a better understanding of the management of people and resources, while a consular officer who gets involved in fishery affairs will get better exposure to policymaking and the conduct of bilateral and multilateral relations. Admin officers should find that the analytical and drafting opportunities in INR were very advantageous, and economic officers could find new challenges in budget work in a regional executive office.

But it is important to note that multi-functional training and assignments would require a strong and effective central PER role in personnel decisions, both to help officers move into appropriate jobs after training in a new function and to insure that posts and offices receive qualified replacements. It would probably be necessary for FSI to add or modify training in certain functions, to provide appropriate bridges for new entrants to those fields.

Two other caveats regarding implementation should be noted. First, in thinking about career development, we have to be aware of the apparent conflict between the need for top flight specialists in a world of increasingly specialized diplomacy, and the evident need to give our prospective senior executives a broader range of experience. To the extent that an officer prefers a specialized career pattern, knowing that it will probably not lead to a senior managerial position, well and good. But for officers aiming to develop a number of specialties in preparation for senior executive jobs, we suggest that the twig be bent fairly early, say at the current Class 4 level, with the second cone experience already obtained normally at Class 5. This would leave the later stages of mid-career service for focus on the primary cone, at a rank level which calls for solid credentials to succeed in the bureaucratic arena in Washington.

Second, to provide additional support for the two-track approach, we should also modify the system of awarding mid-grade promotions. Under the present cone-based system, many people believe that out-of-cone experience is penalized. We should make sure that officers gaining new skills via training, details or other out-of-cone work are given suitable consideration, perhaps via a reasonably large multi-functional promotion pool. (This change seems desirable in any event, but is not required to implement the other changes in the cone system.) [Page 700] To further increase our flexibility and provide suitable inducement for acquiring peripheral skills where we need them, we also want to take a close look at the constraints inherent in the zone merit promotion system and determine whether the advantages in that system are still sufficiently evident to justify its retention.7

Finally, the proposed system would facilitate development of rigorous Senior Threshold criteria. The requirement for dual-development should be a criterion for the more managerial generalist component of the SFS, for instance. Its voluntary nature is likewise consistent with our approach to the SFS and with the reality that we could not practically cross-train all officers and the related fact that not all officers aim for senior executive status. Like the effort to improve the skill code system, modification of the cone system increases the body of public wisdom about what is needed to succeed in this business, improves our capacity to counsel and assign personnel and also supports the general thrust of the structural reforms. It is worth noting at this point, however, that counseling will have to be both more “intrusive” and more continuous, i.e., it can no longer focus exclusively on people and jobs coming up during the immediate assignment cycle. It will also become, even more than at present, a two-way dialogue with a fair measure of continuing self-appraisal by the officer.

It also seems clear that a more directed assignments procedure will be necessary as greater priority on development will be perceived in some cases as inconsistent with bureau and officer preferences in particular cases. However, this would be quite compatible with the Secretary’s recent affirmation of the role and authority of PER.

[Omitted here is the implementation schedule.]


That you approve modification of the cone system to permit and encourage FSOs to develop professional competence in additional functional fields, with implementation based on the schedule noted above.

Approve _______8

Disapprove _______

Discuss _______

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of the Deputy Secretary of State, 1977–1980, Box 21, Memos From WC to P, E, T, M, C, 1979. No classification marking. Drafted on July 31 by Michael Durkee (PER/FCA/JO); cleared by Ronald Palmer (PER/FCA), Ruth Schimel (FSI), Jackson (PER/MEG/HRM), Anthon Kern (PER/ER), Barnes, and Bourbon. In the upper right-hand corner, Warren Christopher wrote on December 10, “Ben—This reform will help functional bureaus do their jobs, and should be pushed. Chris.”
  2. Not found.
  3. Not further identified.
  4. Not found.
  5. Neither found.
  6. This linkage is illustrated in the implementation schedule presented on pp. 6–7. [Footnote is in the original.]
  7. An unknown hand wrote “Good!” in the margin adjacent to this sentence.
  8. Read signed the “Approve” line on August 29.