State Dept’s top HR official outlines vision to rebuild diplomatic workforce

The State Department is looking to transform the way it carries out its diplomatic mission, starting with its workforce.

The State Department is looking to transform the way it carries out its diplomatic mission, starting with its workforce.

The department is looking to develop a more STEM-literate workforce to stay ahead of emerging challenges, and is giving its Civil Service and Foreign Service more opportunities to continuously train throughout their careers.

It’s also looking at what telework opportunities exist for a hybrid workforce in the long-term, as well as how the department can reverse a decades-long challenge of hiring and retaining a diverse next generation of State Department employees.

Amb. Marcia Bernicat, the director general of the Foreign Service and the director of the Global Talent Management Bureau, said her office is “constantly in recruiting mode,” and looking to rebuild the department’s workforce under Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s plan to modernize American diplomacy.

“This is a really exciting time to be able to be modernizing both the Civil and the Foreign Service here at the Department of State, as well as our local staff,” Bernicat said in her first interview since her Senate confirmation in May. “The top goal is not new. It’s how do we take care of our people, while carrying out the mission for the American people.”

‘Diplomacy remains a contact sport’

Bernicat said the COVID-19 pandemic expedited the need for the department to create a “hybrid workforce that makes us more agile” and more mobile to respond to modern challenges.

“If a job can be done primarily through telework, then we don’t need to have the position based overseas. We want our folks who are overseas to be actively engaged and present in the workplace. Not that they too can’t take advantage of telework, but where I think our mobility tools will be really helpful for them is to help get our folks back out in the field, so that they’re not just spending a majority of their time in their city of assignment,” Bernicat said.

A rethinking of the future of diplomatic work has been in the works since at least the start of the pandemic. Bernicat said she participated in an exercise started under the Trump administration to reimagine the way the department does business, based on lessons learned from COVID-19.

That work includes assigning employees laptops instead of desktop computers, updating workspaces to include more common areas for collaboration, and preparing its offices for a workforce that teleworks more often.

“Diplomacy remains a contact sport, so there are things that can’t be done or cannot be done effectively remotely,” Bernicat said. “But the idea is how do we mix those two imperatives, being able to work remotely, but then also being present — not only in the moment, but to build the kind of rapport that allows us to then go to our interlocutors, whether they’re here in the U.S. or overseas, when it’s time for the hard asks, or the need to really collaborate in a creative way.”

Bernicat said more telework allows the department to make “better use of all of our workforce.” For example, the department is seeing an increasing number of domestic employees teleworking overseas (DETOs).

“These are great opportunities for a couple of different reasons. People who are working in the department in our Civil Service capacity, if they’re accompanying a family member overseas, [they] may be able to continue the same work, but as a DETO. So we don’t lose continuity, we don’t lose their expertise while they’re overseas, and they continue to be a productive, active employee,” she said.

Developing a ‘training float’ for the workforce

The department is also looking at ways to reinvest in training for its employees. Efforts include career mapping for civil service employees and zeroing in on training gaps and critically needed skill sets.

The department, for the first time in a decade and a half, is once again hiring above its rate of attrition. Bernicat said that workforce capacity gives the department ability to stand up a dedicated “training float,” a concept former Secretary of State Colin Powell envisioned for diplomats.

In practice, the training float will ensure a set number of employees undergo professional training at any given time, without sacrificing readiness at their posts.

“We know in today’s world, we’re going to have to be more STEM-literate, among other things. If we’re going to talk about health and climate and artificial intelligence, we have to have a better sense of what those issues are all about,” Bernicat said.

Some of this training and upskilling work will take place among the ranks of the Civil Service which includes subject matter experts and generalists who are often rooted in a social science background.

But Bernicat said the department is also looking at ways to bring in-demand IT and cybersecurity talent into government service for short tours of duty.

“Chances are, if you’re an expert in AI, you’re not looking for a career in the State Department. However, how can we attract that talent, either as a mid-level hire, somebody who’s been practicing in their field for a couple of years, who will want to come and spend some time with us, but are not looking for a career and are looking to take that policy expertise back out into the private sector or academia,” she said. “We’re looking at ways of how we can capture specific skill sets for something less than a career’s worth of time.”

Restoring top ranking on Best Places to Work results

Bernicat said one of her top goals is to “restore our ranking” as a top-rated large federal agency. The department placed 13th out of 17, in terms of employee satisfaction for large federal agencies in the Partnership of Public Service’s  2022 Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.

“We know our employees were drawn here by the mission. They’re most proud of the mission and that’s what motivates them,” she said.

The department previously ranked second among large agencies, with only NASA scoring higher on employee satisfaction.

Department officials still point to some bright spots in the 2022 data, including a higher level of employee trust in senior leadership, and high marks on senior leadership’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Imagine the challenges of managing COVID across a workforce that literally is spread out in the entire world, as well as the entire United States. The fact that our employees appreciated and trusted the messaging, as well as the efforts we were making, is just a real testament to the legions of people who are working on that,” Bernicat said.

Several bureaus, including the Global Talent Management Bureau, ranked among the top 100 offices across the federal government. But Bernicat said “we have a lot more work to do” to improve the overall rankings.

“We use the results to help drive the kinds of changes we want to make. There’s nothing like that not only department-specific feedback, but the ability to look across our sister agencies, but also across the federal government in general, and be able to say, ‘Here’s where we want to be, and to drive that very tough competition for resources, towards being able to address the issues that [the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey] flags for us,” she said.

Making DEIA ‘part of our DNA’

Bernicat said the department’s DEIA priorities reflect a longstanding goal for the U.S. diplomatic corps to fully reflect the demographics of the country. Bernicat said tapping into the diversity of the U.S. population gives the department a “unique comparative advantage in the world.”

“When you put a group of people around the table, who essentially share exactly the same characteristics, including background, you tend to get groupthink. Add people to the table, and not only let them speak, but take into account their perspective, and you’re likely to catch the blind spot that would otherwise be missed,” she said.

As part of that effort, Bernicat said eligible employees can now apply for open deputy assistant secretary positions, rather than have assistant secretaries just appoint individuals to these positions.

“It makes sure we’re capturing a bigger range of people who are eligible for that position. But more importantly, when the decision is made, it must be and should be on merit. You have a broader set of people who possess the merit, or it can demonstrate the merit that you’re looking for as you’re choosing among those candidates,” she said.

The department is also making interview panels a best practice for hiring and promotion decisions, rather than leaving the decision up to a single individual.

The State Department recently announced it will launch two new fellowships in September, focused on recruiting the next generation of the Civil Service and the Diplomatic Security Service.

The department expects to make all of its student internships are paid by 2023. Its first cohort of paid interns will start in September. Over 2,000 students applied for its first wave of fall 2022 paid internships and 200 were chosen.

Bernicat said the department’s internship program is part of efforts to improve the diversity of its workforce, and encourage individuals from traditionally underrepresented groups to pursue career opportunities.

“That will open these critical jobs, where people get to look at us, but we also get to look at potential recruits, to the entire country,” Bernicat said.

Bernicat said her goal is to make these changes to hiring, recruiting and promotions an enduring part of the department’s culture change.

“This isn’t the first administration to have embraced these [DEIA] goals. But we’ve been episodic as the government in how much emphasis we put on these goals. I would like to see DEIA become literally a part of our DNA, where the things we do on a day-to-day basis … those processes are able to incorporate our DEIA principles in such a way that they become a habit – that they aren’t something we think about as a separate, standalone goal,” she said.

Implementing HAVANA Act

The State Department is also continuing to provide support for current and former personnel affected by Anomalous Health Incidents that have affected at least dozens of diplomats since 2016.

Congress last October passed the HAVANA Act, granting compensation to State Department and Central Intelligence Agency employees experiencing Anomalous Health Incidents.

Bernicat said the department has worked closely with the National Security Council staff at the White House, as well as other federal agencies to draft a proposed rule to implement the law. The final rule went into effect on Aug. 15.

“After the rule is finalized in mid-August, we’re going to begin to review requests for the HAVANA Act-authorized benefit payments to individuals who sustained qualifying injuries,” she said. “We’re doing everything possible to ensure that our employees and our family members who have reported an anomalous health incident receive immediate and appropriate attention and care, whether or not they meet the criteria for a HAVANA Act payment.”

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