Training the diplomats of the future

The pandemic pushed much of the department's training online and the Foreign Service Institute is looking to adapt some of the lessons of virtual education for the future.

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The State Department is reviewing how changes forced because of the coronavirus pandemic might affect its workforce, particularly how the department approaches training.

The Foreign Service Institute, which trains consular personnel in things like language, leadership, IT and security, shifted 94% of its classes online due to COVID-19, said Joan Polaschik, FSI's deputy director, at a Nov. 2 hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's Subcommittee on State Department and USAID Management, International Operations and Bilateral International Development.

Employees have been passing exams at higher rates and earning higher scores under the virtual regime, Polaschik said, telling lawmakers that "one of the great lessons learned from COVID is that we don't need to fly people back to Washington to do training effectively."

Being able to offer online courses would reduce the time and cost investment required to train people who are already in the field.

Now, FSI leaders are assessing lessons-learned to identify what should stay virtual, she said, continuing on to say that she thinks that FSI is leaning "towards a mix" of in person and virtual instruction.

Polachik said that FSI would be launching a "cyber diplomacy tradecraft" course, in support of the department's coming launch of a new cyber bureau and separately working with the department CIO to develop "classrooms of the future" and working to upgrade the technology behind student registration and personnel databases.

Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said in an Oct. 27 speech that the department is "institutionalizing" flexibilities like telework. He also promised to fulfill an idea of expanding the capacity at the department, or a number of personnel above what's required so that employees can take time for additional training.

"Secretary [Colin] Powell had a vision for what the military calls a training float – a set number of employees who are getting professional training at any given time, without sacrificing our readiness. Now, we will make that happen. We're working to add more positions to the training float in the current budget, and we'll push to increase those numbers even more in the coming years," he said.

The department requested 500 additional people in the coming year, including he first ever 100-person civil service float in the department, said Polaschik. The idea is that the float would be built incrementally over time, first filling in currently understaffed positions.

Other witnesses from outside the department supported that request.

Joshua Marcuse, former executive director of the Defense Innovation Board and co-founder and chairman of Globally, an NGO, also encouraged the department to consider how this initiative is affected by online learning opportunities.

"I do worry that this training float is being used as an excuse," he said. "I think the training float is really important for solving certain kinds of crunches, when you do need it to be residential and you are dealing with a very complex assignment system, and I appreciate that, but there's so much opportunity to do meaningful educational experiences that could be done in spite of the float."

David Miller, president of the U.S. Diplomatic Studies Foundation, told the panel that while he supported increased funding for FSI and a training float he was concerned about the rigor of training offered members of the Foreign Service and how such training plays into promotion.

"I have never seen an institution work so hard to select people and do so little to train them once they're on board," Miller said. "At the heart of the issue is changing the current State Department culture... The State Department does not incentivize or reward officers for spending time in training." The department's traditional approach has centered on mentorship and informal, on-the-job training once employees are in place, he said.