biden in front of podium and seal of the office of the president elect

What does a Biden administration mean for the Foreign Service?

Former Vice President Joe Biden is president-elect. The changing of the guard will bring a change in policy, management, vision, and action for the Department of State and the Foreign Service.

With everything still relatively early, let’s take a fun, and by no means official, look into what the future could entail.

Let me know what y’all think in the comments.

Department of State

First and foremost, new leadership. Mike Pompeo, the current Secretary of State, will leave office come January 20th. Who will be his replacement is a big question.

Earlier this week, the Biden-Harris agency review teams were published.

“Agency review teams are responsible for understanding the operations of each agency, ensuring a smooth transfer of power, and preparing for President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris and their cabinet to hit the ground running on Day One. These teams are composed of highly experienced and talented professionals with deep backgrounds in crucial policy areas across the federal government. The teams have been crafted to ensure they not only reflect the values and priorities of the incoming administration, but reflect the diversity of perspectives crucial for addressing America’s most urgent and complex challenges.”

The “team lead” is Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She works for Albright Stonebridge Group as a Sr. Vice President. Before joining the Group, she served 35 years with the Foreign Service, and along with many distinctions, served as ambassador.

List of the Biden-Harris Department of State transition team

I’ve only looked up a few of the names, but so far several served in the Foreign Service in one capacity or another.

As for who will take the top spot at the Department of State, there are a few contenders who have been listed by the media and other sites. They include (source):

SUSAN RICE: A former national security adviser, Ms. Rice was among the small group of women Mr. Biden considered for his running mate. Ms. Rice is a former assistant secretary of state and United Nations ambassador, and she is viewed as a leading expert on Africa.

CHRIS COONS: A leading member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Coons hails from Mr. Biden’s home state and is one of his closest friends. Mr. Coons would most likely be easily confirmed because of his collegial relations with Senate Republicans. One downside: Mr. Coons could be invaluable to Mr. Biden as a steward of his agenda on Capitol Hill.

WILLIAM J. BURNS: Mr. Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, is a retired foreign service officer and former ambassador to Russia and Jordan. A former deputy secretary of state and special assistant to Secretaries Warren Christopher and Madeleine Albright, he is also a contributing writer at The Atlantic.

ANTONY BLINKEN: Biden for President foreign policy advisor; Managing partner, WestExec Advisors; former deputy secretary of State; former deputy national security advisor.

If I had to make a bet, given these four, I’d say the choice will be Rice. But honestly, I don’t know. If we look at the “experts” of Reddit and PredictIt, they are also betting on Rice.

A couple more months to go.

Hiring new Foreign Service Officers

So what about the Foreign Service, and more niche, what about the hiring of new Foreign Service Officers?

We’ve already heard from Former President Obama that Biden is “gonna have to rebuild a State Department where some of the best people have been driven out systematically because they weren’t willing to tow Trump’s ideological agenda” (Pod Save America).

Additionally, having served multiple times as the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, I think it is a safe bet to say that Biden will strengthen U.S. diplomacy and the Department of State during his administration.

But how?

The Center for American Progress, “an independent, nonpartisan policy institute dedicated to improving the lives of all Americans, through bold, progressive ideas, as well as strong leadership and concerted action,” recently published an interactive database of nearly 250 recommendations for the Biden administration. It is titled “The First 100 Days: Toward a More Sustainable and Values-Based national Security Approach“.

Within the database, three State Department employment recommendations stand out.

Propose to fund 1,000 new State Department full-time equivalent (FTE) positions to rebuild U.S. diplomacy
The State Department has been gutted over the past decade, first due to austerity and budget sequestration and more recently as the Trump administration sought to cut the department’s budget and push out public servants en masse. 

The next administration should request an increase of 1,000 FTEs to grow America’s diplomatic presence overseas and begin rebuilding a more diverse State Department workforce, aligned to emerging or under-resourced threats as defined in the OPM human capital initiative, discussed above. 

Half of these slots should be reserved for climate-related positions, as discussed in the “Tackling Global Challenges” section of this report.

Launch an effort to immediately recruit high-quality State Department employees
Concurrently with the review of personnel, the secretary of state can direct some immediate changes to ensure a high-quality pipeline of talent to meet the talent acquisition priorities identified by the 100-day review. These immediate steps could include:

  • Leverage Section 308(a) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 or the OPM’s pending rule on promotion and internal placement to recall retired diplomats at the same rank they left with who were forced out in the past four years.
  • Fully utilize Schedule B47 hiring authority to increase the number of technical and scientific specialists in the State Department. This will be essential to ensuring that the department has the expertise it needs in a variety of technical areas such as cyber, climate, tech, AI, health, biosecurity, and economics and finance.
  • Task the Bureau of Global Talent Management to develop a proposal to establish a national diplomatic corps in high schools and colleges, modeled after the ROTC, to develop a reliable pipeline of skilled and diverse foreign service officers.

Launch a review of personnel to strengthen the State Department
The Trump administration’s efforts to gut the State Department have depleted its ranks. The next administration should launch a 100-day review to recommend immediate steps that the administration can take to strengthen the State Department. The review should be led by the undersecretary for management, who should be among the earliest appointees. The review should consider:

  • The department’s structure and policymaking processes, including the undersecretary positions and which bureaus report to them.
  • Key talent acquisition priorities for the department, including how to improve the ability of mid-career professionals to enter the State Department at ranks commensurate with their abilities; how to give State Department officers the ability to take long leaves of absence to obtain an advanced degree, gain private sector experience, or work for nonprofit organizations; and how best to make the foreign and civil services complementary pillars to promote U.S. foreign policy.
  • How State Department and USAID leadership coordinate on foreign assistance as well as how to deliver such assistance most efficiently.
  • How to refine and strengthen the role of the Global Engagement Center.

Basically, a hiring surge and improve the pathway into the field, both of which are very much needed, in my opinion.

If you took heed of my January recommendation to most definitely take the FSOT in 2020 if you believed Biden would win the presidency and have hopefully progressed past the Orals, then I think you are sitting pretty on the Register (even if you have a low score). If there is a hiring surge, potentially almost all on the lists could be picked up—a fun thought.

However, recommendation and reality are two intrinsic forces that tend to compete with one another.

First, there is the pandemic. A-100 and Oral Assessments have been delayed this year, which means there is much backup. Though an A-100 class did occur online and Orals have resumed for November, State is still behind.

Second, funding. A lack of travel due to the ‘Rona means a lack of income for the department through visa fees. Additionally, any money requests will have to go to Congress. Depending on the make-up of the Senate, how money is dedicated will be a crucial fight.

And third, the great unknown.

Closing thought

The Biden administration has made many promises. Because of that, I think we will see a renewed focus on increasing the number of hires, perhaps the hiring surge of 2010 numbers, and a continued focus on improving the diversity of its diplomatic corps.

If you are currently on the Register, and will not time out before June, then I think you have a good chance of moving forward.

Only time will tell. Let me know what y’all think.

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9 thoughts on “What does a Biden administration mean for the Foreign Service?”

  1. Excellent article Jack! I have similar thoughts about the (hopefully) positive outlook for State with the incoming administration. You mentioned the Bureau of Global Talent Management could possibly develop a proposal to establish a national diplomat Corp, similar to ROTC. That would be really great. I wonder what that would entail and if they were open to post grad students as well, or if it would be high school and undergrad. Any ideas?
    Unfortunately I didn’t pass the FSOT this year so If there is a hiring surge I hope it will continue for the future. Next year I need to make it my year to at least get to the next step.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this!

  2. Thank you, Jack, for this very informative piece. Although my fellowship at State is not over until June 2021, I have decided to continue as a civil service after graduation, for now. I recently got a new position at the PM bureau, so looking forward to that experience. But, if things look rosy after the transition, I will definitely reconsider the FSO path.

    I agree that Susan Rice is one of the most qualified people in Biden’s circle to take the S position, but I doubt she would get it. Given her previous positions in the Obama administration, I’d not be surprised if her nomination raised eyebrows within the party or confirmation scrutinized by the GOP–even if Dems won the majority in the senate. As you know, the S position is the most desired cabinet position. Unlike Obama, who was still a new sheriff in town when he was elected, Biden knows and has worked with many highly qualified candidates for the job. So we shall see. Warren and Klobousher’s names have also been mentioned in the building for S.

  3. A fun and engaging read, Jack! Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for the hiring surge, end of ‘Rona, and success with the State Department. Personally, I think we all stand to benefit from the new administration.

  4. Great article, I agree with the sentiment. I took the FSOT this October but I am still waiting to hear back from the QEP. I think the people who took it in July will be slightly better positioned but still seems like a relatively good time to be applying

    1. Most definitely. The backlog goes all the way to the Oct 2019 test, but they are starting to fill Orals. Anybody who gets on the Register in the coming months will have the best shot.

  5. Love your thoughts and the article. I just passed my FSOT and am waiting to hear on my personal narratives. We will see what happens. I got laid off with Covid so think I need to go ahead and get another job so that I can sustain myself for the interim. Thank you for your work!

    1. Great to hear about passing the FSOT! Not so great to hear about losing the job because of COVID. I hope you find something soon as the FSO process should always be “Plan B.”

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