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US Foreign Service: The salary system (?)



I consider myself very lucky. Jobs I did not get: At a young age, I nearly went to Toronto as department head, but a Dante specialist objected violently on the grounds that I had once given a talk criticizing Dante; I still maintain that Dante was quite un-Christian. I might have spent by winters freezing instead of enjoying California earthquakes. I have been lucky in my defeats, as when I resigned as director of Latin American Studies at Stanford. A defeat at the time, but now, as I study the present crisis in that program, I realize that I escaped from the horrors of academic intrigue into the warm fraternity of WAIS. I once thought of going into the foreign service, but I am glad that I did not on reading this account by Paul Simon. I gave too simplified an account of the State Department's structure. He clarifies:

"Actually; our bidding system is even more byzantine. Junior Officers (first two tours) get special rules about how many bids they must submit, in what areas of specialization ("cones"--public diplomacy, political, economic, consular, or administrative)and in what regions. After tenure, mid-level officers must submit a minimum of SIX bids, but may submit more. There are all sorts of exceptions (the overriding ones being "needs of the service" and "worldwide availability"), but generally US diplomats must occasionally bid on hardship posts under "fair share rules". Generally one must also bid "in-cone" and "at rank" in the six core bids. We all have ranks, just like military officers. NOTHING guarantees promotion; promotion boards consider many factors, and each officer is competing against ALL his in-cone colleagues at that rank. We likewise compete for bids. Does this make us hyper-competitive? You bet!

Every officer comes up with some sort of heuristic "bid strategy" that he hopes will result in the desired assignments while fulfilling all the rules. My opinion is that none of them work. Popular posts have a lot of competition. My junior officer just discovered that he had over 100 competitors for his bid on Sydney! On the other hand, there have been NO other bidders for my last 3 jobs (Shenyang, Chengdu, and a job at Main State).

Do ambassadors have to pay "representational expenses" out of their own pockets: you bet! It does not matter whether they are career ambassadors or political appointees--the budget never has enough money. Other officers are also usually out of pocket, especially in gift-giving cultures (like China) and cultures where one does NOT "go Dutch" (like China). On modest Federal wages, that's quite a hit to most of us. Wealthy political appointees handle such costs a lot better than career public servants!

US diplomats generally do strenuous office and field work for about 10-12 hours a day, THEN go to all the social and representational events on their own time!! It ends up being a 24/7 job for most of us; we regard it as a lifestyle more than a career. The stereotype that diplomats just go to meetings with foreign officials and nibble canapes is so wrong it is unbelievable".

My consoling words: We believe you, Paul!

Ronald Hilton - 11/30/01


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