Diversity Fails at the State Department

New data shows the U.S. State Department was a more diverse workplace in 1986 than it is today. Despite recruiting a more diverse pool of diplomats over three decades, the Department has failed to promote them, and ultimately to retain them. Why?

The Politico article with this new data does a comprehensive job of describing how the agency that represents America does not look like America. The article, however, does a mediocre job of explaining the reasons behind the failure, and how they contribute to larger problems and group-think diplomatic failures.

State does indeed have a diversity problem. The problem is a lack of diversity of socio-economic class that can manifest itself as lack of racial diversity, hiding the real problem of a lack of diverse thinking. State also rarely imposes a quality standard on its work, meaning everyone’s job description is the same: make your boss happy. That preserves the class system, and empowers those who would harass and discriminate to make things worse.

As a white man I was sort of part of a diversity program when I joined the State Department in 1988. State, from Thomas Jefferson forward, followed a simple recruitment formula of “male, pale, and Yale.” In the late 1980s they decided male and pale (white) were good, but limiting recruitment to the Ivy League schools and their equivalents like Stanford and Georgetown was the problem. Someone found me and others like me at state schools and woosh, we were diversity-forward diplomats.

But from Day One, with little change through today, it was clear not all pigs were equal. State divides its diplomatic work force into five specialties, known as cones. Only one matters in terms of a realistic shot at senior policy making roles, the Political Cone. These people do what passes as traditional diplomacy. They and their work dominate the news and thus the Secretary of State’s world. The other cones fill in gaps and get hand-me-down senior promotions which are adequate in the Economic Cone, down to nearly non-existent for the proletarian Consular Cone that issues visas.

Like at Hogwarts, new diplomats are sorted on entry to a near-permanent cone (seriously, the change process is called a Snape-like “conal rectification.”) Ivy Leaguers can expect Political, kids from schools with good football teams Administration or Consular. All of this excludes political appointees, friends or big dollar donors to the president who get appointed to the highest jobs without any diplomatic experience at all. But that’s a whole ‘nother problem.

The Political Cone, a club within the club, has proved porous enough for properly educated women. The key criteria has always been socio-economic background anyway, not gender. A little climbing room for outsiders is provided by State-sponsored mid-career education, when a chosen few are sent off to Georgetown or the Kennedy School as midwestern losers to return an honorary blue blood. The system does its job; the Government Accounting Office found among junior diplomats Ivy League grads had a 23 percent higher chance of promotion than colleagues with only a standard undergrad degree.

To be fair, good old racism must still be in the game somewhere when 87 percent of senior State Department personnel are white. And of course the restrictive policies based on race, etc., at Ivy League schools means fewer “qualified” black people are produced for State to choose from, so the classic racism argument also applies indirectly. Just ask the Jews forbidden to attend Harvard who could not then get into the State Department back in the day.

What the successful diplomats in the Political Cone seem to already know from their education is what creates the full-spectrum lack of diversity. People call it The Code: Life is not fair, so best to have an advantage. Career success depends on the people above you and your relationships with them, and “trouble maker” is a bad one. Pleasing your betters is more effective then being right at a cost. There are rules, and if you do not know them you cannot follow them. And most of all, 99 percent of what matters is never written down. You are either trusted and welcomed into the circle or you are not.

Advantages start with the brand name professors you had at your brand-name college, all of whom have former students now in important positions for you to meet at State. State has an up-or-out promotion system, meaning almost all diplomatic new hires enter at the same bottom rung, and slowly advance upward. Somebody above you when you join is thus likely to stay above you for decades. Make someone angry in 1990 in Taiwan and they’ll still be there waiting for you in 2010 in London. There will not be any new blood flowing in. You will not skip any steps by closing the big deal and doubling the company stock price.

The people above you will write your performance reviews, judge your promotions, and decide your assignments, all with little accountability and near-zero transparency. The system was modeled after olde-timey academia but functions in practice more like The Crown. If you’re looking for the smoking gun of State’s diversity failure, for most of the past three decades the overall process was controlled by one man, Ambassador Pat Kennedy (white, male, Georgetown) who had the authority to make any personnel decision based only his assessment of the “needs of the service.”

State is a change-adverse bureaucracy that likes it that way. Change at State is externally driven and internally resisted. The attitude at the top (except for public relations purposes, like making sure a few black folks are in public-facing positions) thinks the system has no need to change, it got it mostly right the first time. The proof is they themselves were promoted. People who want to do things different, make changes, etc., are generally shunned as troublemakers. The lack of interest in change is enhanced by the fact State does little that can be objectively measured. No sales quotas, items sold or price changes to count toward promotion. Just exist for the most part, the details matter little except what your boss thinks.

Here’s how that works in practice. No one does anything substantive alone at State. Most everything is a collaborative effort controlled by the clearance process. Say you write a report on metallurgy in India. People above you, and depending on the subject that list can include people all the way up to the Secretary of State’s staff, then have to sign off, agree with you, “clear” your work. If one guy won’t clear, your work cannot pass go to the next person until he is happy.

If your report says basically the same thing as last year’s, that is safe and people clear it (one exception is if someone important in the chain wants to make a political move and then directs you to come to a different conclusion, say to justify a budget increase as “matters have gotten worse.” You’re still just doing what you are told.) If you try and write something different from what you are told to write (often told implicitly, it is a skill to figure out what’s wanted because no one will jot down “Cook the data to match last year. Hope some reporter doesn’t see this. LOL.) your boss can’t clear it. If she is also a troublemaker and does clear, your work will just get stopped at a higher level, and that means a more important person will think you’re a troublemaker.

Absent any real measure of your work, your professional success is thus controlled by what State calls “corridor reputation,” basically what the people above you think of you. Imagine high school at the DMV. Careers are made or lost by a senior diplomat telling a peer “He’s OK” or “I heard he didn’t work out in Beijing.”

People in the right socio-economic groups seem to understand this stuff intuitively and, helped by others who think the same, get promoted. Perhaps it is because such pseudo-hereditary systems are how they got their money, or into an Ivy, in the first place. People from the wrong side of the tracks no matter their color do not understand the code so readily, and often are full of energy seeking to “make difference.” They self-select themselves out of the club, labeled as trouble or worse… ambitious.

So State can recruit all the people of color they can only to watch them slowly slide down the ladder along with lots of clueless whites who no one really cares about statistically. That is why many of both groups quit, or suffer in bureaucratic place to wait out pensions, and why State recruits minorities but cannot retain them. The result is a lack of diversity that has plagued the State Department for decades, both in race, and in thinking.

Peter Van Buren is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan,and Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the 99 Percent.

Author of Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan and WE MEANT WELL: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts + Minds of the Iraqi People

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