Archives for January 2014

New Requirement in the Oral Assessment

The State Department announced today that a three to four minute “Ambassador’s Debrief” will be added to the FSOT for each applicant right after the Oral Assessment’s discussion exercise.  The change will come into force March 3.

No great surprise and nothing to lose sleep over.  You will be doing a lot of this in your Foreign Service career, and probably do it now as a student or employee.

In short, immediately after the discussion section, you will be expected to brief two assessors, one of whom will act as ambassador, on the group’s decision and the rationale.  You can take notes during the discussion, but you won’t have access to the notes for your briefing.

I believe that since there’s only a little time to brief — four minutes — you’d be best served by first going over the facts — who, what, where, when.  After the decision, you should handle the “why.”  The rationale.  First, discuss how the group arrived at the decision, highlight the alternative options (a key piece of info for any boss in the Foreign Service), and describe any dissenting views.

A change in the Assessment, especially adding an exercise, is always something to take notice of.  But really you should be able to handle this easily, and it will give still another way for the assessors to see how well you brief, answer questions and think on your feet.

The Foreign Service says that you should practice your “oral briefing skills.”  Duh.  But honestly this is only a minor change.  You’ll sit through the whole discussion session and follow the formula — decision, rationale, dissenting (or interesting views) — and you won’t go wrong.  Give the facts, and when the “ambassador” asks you questions — did you agree with the decision, why the decision doesn’t seem sensible, etc — hit him or her with your opinions.

Consider this an extemporaneous portion of FSOT.

Good luck and crush it.















The Debriefing (a new component added effective March 3, 2014) 

The Ambassador’s debrief simulates a situation frequently experienced by FSOs. Following the conclusion of the group’s discussion, each candidate will have three to four minutes privately to brief two assessors on the results of the group’s deliberations. One of these assessors will play the role of the Ambassador and ask the candidate several follow-up questions, while the second assessor will escort the candidate from the group exercise room to the interview room. Both assessors remain in the room for the duration of the conversation. Since the dynamics of each group will vary, a candidate’s ability to prepare for the debrief will be limited. However, candidates may find it useful to practice oral briefing skills. It will also be critical that candidates fully understand the group’s final decision and the rationale that led to that decision. Although candidates may take notes during the presentation and discussion phases, these notes will not be available during the Ambassador’s debrief.

Consular Work

I wrote this response to someone who emailed me about the Consular Track.  I was a Consular officer during my career, I tried to give her an idea from what I experienced in the field.  

I joined the Foreign Service as a consular officer in 1988. I worked in consular sections in Guayaquil (Ecuador) and Lusaka (Zambia). As I hoped, they were very different experiences. Guayaquil had a huge visa volume in Nonimmigrant and Immigrant visas. In NIVs, a typical day involved interviewing 100 applicants. In IVs, there were fewer, maybe around 10, but they were also more complicated, and had it not been for the skilled and experienced locally employed staff, I would have been lost.

Guayaquil had about four or five consular officers, and we rotated as the chief of each section for 6-12 months. I particularly enjoyed the work in American Citizens Services, helping AmCits in various ways, from renewing their passports to visiting them in prison. It was a lot of fun and responsibility for a 20-something. Sometimes scary, too, wandering through the prison yard of a Third World country surrounded by thieves, drug dealers and murderers. Most of the American prisoners were in jail because they deserved to be in jail. If they hadn’t been locked up in Ecuador, they would have been locked up in the United States. Still, they were basically a good lot and I enjoyed getting out of the office to visit them.

I chose Lusaka for my second post because it was such a small consular section, but it could be something I controlled completely. It also got me a seat at the weekly country team meeting, chaired by the Ambassador. As the only FSO, helped again by able LES’s. I handled NIVs (10-20 a day), IVs (3-5 per week) and the myriad ACS cases, including the typical sort of crazy cases. In one, we heard about two elderly AmCit sisters — Madeline and Ruth — who had fallen sick in a faraway corner of Zambia. They had come to Africa to travel on their Social Security checks in part to see the continent, but also to “help the heathen.” Ruth had died quickly of an apparent case of cerebral malaria in Luapula Province.

Madeline was desperately sick and survived because of two Dutch volunteers who cared for her 24/7. She was admitted at a rural hospital whose heyday was probably in the 1950s. The windows were broken, the building was falling apart and it hadn’t been cleaned and painted for 10+ years. The pharmacy had aspirin but not much else. Somehow the Dutchies had scrounged up quinine and IV drips and kept her alive, and, slowly, miraculously, Madeline survived and got better.

We had brought a body bag and coffin from the Embassy to bury Ruth. Embassy workers strapped the coffin to the top of the Land Cruiser. My LES, Jacob, had warned me that we’d have trouble finding a driver. It was a typical African experience. A coffin on the roof was going to bring bad luck. In the end, only 1 driver out of 15 stepped forward, and he admitted later that he did it because they doubled the overtime rate to entice a driver. He too believed it was bad luck, but was a born-again Christian with four children who needed school uniforms.

En route to Luapula Province, we succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of scores of Zambians. In one gas station, everyone including the attendant fled when we pulled in. Emerson filled the tank and left the money on the pump. Finally, after at least 10 hours of driving — Zambia is a huge country — we arrived. I visited with the sister in the hospital and identified the sister in the “morgue,” which had seen better days. Bodies in the tropics don’t last long without refrigeration. Remember, I warned you. I understand they now take consular students to the Arlington morgue to get acclimated.  Ha, nice try…

We squared the death certificate with the hospital and police chief, and organized Ruth’s burial the following morning with an Anglican priest and gravediggers. We went out to look at the graveyard that had a huge new section, the mark of the HIV/AIDS epidemic that was killing thousands of Zambians every year. It was 1992 and tens of thousands more would die before ARVs became available. (That’s another story). , The following day, with Madeline’s permission, we buried Ruth in a small but dignified ceremony.

Madeline continued her recovery. The Dutch volunteers were saints and a couple of weeks later, Madeline flew down to Lusaka. We found her a room at the convent of a local order of Catholic sisters. She continued to grow stronger, and we finally helped her fly back to Kansas. She wrote to thank me six months later me. She said she had ruled out any more trips to Africa, but was interested in Mexico. No problem, I thought, she’s not in my consular district, a phrase you’ll use often as a consular officer overseas.

It’s true what they say — consular work can be dull at times — but it always gives you the best stories (and memories).

Back to your original question:

Consular Track officers usually are promoted quickly through the lower ranks, in part because consular work is mandatory for all new officers and consular officers start managing LES’s from their first tour and FSOs in their third or fourth tour.

— at the FS-03 level, you’re likely to be the NIV, IV or ACS unit chief at a medium-sized embassy. Or a deputy chief at a large embassy (Mexico City, Seoul, any of the PRC jobs, Colombia, etc). Or the lone officer at an isolated consular job, like Lusaka.

— at the FS-02 level, you’re the Consul General at a medium-sized embassies or the unit chief at a large embassy. Technically only an officer at the FS-01 level and higher should be referred to as Consul General, but it’s use is accepted in the Foreign Service.

— at the FS-01 level, you’re the CG at a larger post, but typically not the largest, which are typicallyreserved for Senior Foreign Service officers.

Remember, if you get tenure, you’re guaranteed a career of 20+ years and retirement at the FS-01 level, which is a pretty good deal.

Your overseas tours will be interspersed with stints in Washington, DC. Consular officers serve on country desks and regional or functional bureaus as well as in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, including offices handling visa, child protection, adoptions, passport and other ACS functions.

You’ll also need to put in time at the Foreign Service Institute for advanced consular and management/leadership training as well as language school.

I think there’s a multifunctional requirement now to be promoted into the Senior Foreign Service. Consular and Management officers are supposed to spend at least one tour in the more policy oriented tracks – Political, Economic or Public Diplomacy.

And occasionally, but not often enough, the Department nominates a SFS consular officer to be an Ambassador, usually at a small, fairly isolated place in South America or Africa.

So, I’ve given you both — the crazy, if sad, consular story and the path upward in the Consular Cone or Track. I hope it helps. You should also visit the and read about ACS and Visa issues. It won’t help you on the exam, but it will give you a better idea of the work you’ll do as a consular track officer.

My path was different, and yours will likely veer too. It all depends on what work you like. I enjoyed managing people as well as writing cables and analyzing politics, economics, social issues, etc.

As for me, I did back-to-back consular tours in Guayaquil and Lusaka, and then returned to Washington to work in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs focusing on African security issues.

Next, I went back overseas as the Political/Economic chief in Bamako. From Mali, I went to Hermosillo, a good-sized consular post in Mexico made even larger by the new Border Crossing Card program.

I left consular work again to serve as Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Lomé. After three years, I became DCM in Kampala. Following those tours, I returned as a Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) in the refugee bureau.

Three years later, the Assistant Secretary in African Affairs hired me to serve as DAS in the AF Bureau. After three years — a lifetime in Washington — I retired in 2012.

No one follows a predictable path in the Foreign Service. But that’s why it’s such a wonderful and exciting job. The world’s wide open, and if you don’t like your job you only have to wait a year or two to go to another.

Best of luck in taking the exams. Serving as an FSO is the best job in the Federal Government…