Foreign Affairs Officer, State Department

Government & Military

Foreign Affairs Officer, State Department

Date of Interview: March 5th, 2017


Q: Okay. Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you’ve graduated from college?

A: I’m a foreign affairs officer, I work at the Department of State, and I graduated from grad school in May of 2014.

Q: Great, and do you mind telling me when you graduated from undergrad?

A: That would be December of 2011.

Q: Perfect, okay. Can you please provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

A: That’s a good question. It kind of varies from day to day, but at the moment I’m the lead for my bureau on this intelligence sharing program that we have going on that involves partner countries from around the world. So a lot of that is making sure that when we invite a new country from my particular region to this program, that everybody in the Department is okay with it, and we kind of gather consensus from the US government that everyone else is okay with it as well. Then we manage that process from there, like deciding what they can and can’t be privy to while they’re a part of this program, like who can participate from the country, things like that. In addition to that, I also work on some other smaller counter-terrorism issues, and on the more boring end of things that I do, it’s managing my bureau’s role in this approval process for the use of new funding authorities. In this case, it’s like a new funding authority the DOD was given that the State Department has to– we have concurrence authority on, so they come to us with a plan about how to spend this money, and then we shop it around to the Department, again, making sure everybody’s on board with it.

Q: Okay, okay, alright, that makes sense. How frequently are you required to write, and if you could maybe estimate in an average week, what percentage of your job requires writing?

A: When you say writing, do you mean official documents, or– ?

Q: Actually anything from a casual email, or a text, all the way through to official documents.

A: I would say probably six out of eight hours every day are spent writing in some form. It’s usually, more often than not it’s emails, or infrequently it’s text messages over this program that we use called Microsoft Link, which is just like an instant messenger program that plugs into Microsoft Outlook. And then for my particular job, it’s rare that I’m rare that I’m writing official documents, but that does happen. When I say official documents, I mean like memos and things like that. It does happen, just not all that often for me.

Q: Okay, alright. So the bulk of it is email?

A: Yeah.

Q: Perfect. And this sort of leads to the next question – what forms or types of writing or kinds of documents do you most often complete? So email, very occasionally the sort of text communication there, and then you mentioned memos. Are there other kinds of genres or documents that you write?

A: The State Department has a number of different types of memos, like there are certain– they’re called action memos, that you send up to somebody higher-ranking to get them to make a decision on an issue. So it’s like literally framed as, “We recommend that you approve blah blah blah,” and then there’s even a little “approve/disapprove” thing for them to circle, like which one they want to do. But they’re all roughly the same, in that you are usually providing background on an issue, and then explaining your office’s or your bureau’s position on that issue and what you think should be done. But then there’s also stuff like responses to letters from members of Congress, inquiring about a particular issue. Sometimes writing back to NGOs that have written to the Department, although for me that’s very rare. Yeah, that’s all I can think of at the moment.

Q: Great, okay, excellent. Were you familiar with those genres when you were a student? And if so, how did this affect your approach to them in the workplace?

A: I was vaguely familiar with them when I was in grad school, but only because I had done an internship at the State Department prior to starting grad school.

Q: Okay. How did that familiarity affect your approach to them when you got into the job?

A: I don’t know if I actually retained any of that familiarity between my internship and when I started working there, other than knowing what they were. It took a bit to get accustomed to the Department of State’s writing style, which is, you know, they emphasis always using the active– staying away from passive sentences, and they place a strong emphasis on brevity, I guess. So it’s supposed to be short, declarative statements and now, it changes with the administration and who’s in charge, but they’ve started introducing new limits on what we can write. So if we’re sending something up to the Secretary of State, they’ve mandated that it not be longer than two pages, which is fairly normal, I guess. Everybody says nobody has time to read anything longer than that, so it’s kind of been unofficial policy to keep things shorter than that, but now it’s getting more officialness, or however you want to say it.

Q: Does that feel stressful? Or are there situations that you could conceive that would require more than two pages?

A: Yeah, just about any issue we deal with could easily take up ten pages so trying to cut it down to that is– it can be frustrating at times because, depending on the issue, there’s just no way that you can cover every single thing that you need to hit upon in a two page limit. The issues that we deal with are so complex and multifaceted that you can’t, it’s just impossible to get everything in a document that short. Luckily, you can supplement those documents with an in-person briefing, so you can go talk to the person and give them additional details.

Q: Okay, that’s really interesting, okay. Could you describe for me your writing process, including how writing tasks come to you, how you prepare if there’s any preparation, and any steps you take from the start to finish? And it might make sense to think about either one of the more complex emails or maybe one of the memos, like something on the formal side.

A: So for emails, I don’t really send out anything very formal, it’s usually just questions to colleagues or responding to questions from my colleagues, and that’s just a very informal style. It’s more like an email that you would write to your friend. But for writing memos– oh sorry, just to backtrack a little bit about the other things that we write – we also have these things called briefing checklists, so it’s for, say the head of my bureau is going to be meeting with a defense contractor, they will task us with writing this briefing checklist, where it’s basically like a rundown of the meeting. Like, “You are meeting with so and so, here’s the context, they want to talk about x, y, and z.” So then you give background on x, and then you have a couple bullet points under that that are written in the first person, but it’s supposed to be what the official should say to the person they’re meeting with. So you get the messages you want to convey, or that you think they should convey, that way. So briefing checklists are probably the main thing that my office does.

Q: Interesting. Okay. Let’s say that that is the thing that you are tasked with writing – I assume that the impetus for that is that this meeting is going to take place. But then as you start to tackle a writing project like this, how do you begin? Or does it come to you at a later stage to review?

A: So my office, we deal with regional issues, so we don’t have any one country that falls under us. So when writing things like this, a lot of it is deferring to the desk or the office that is responsible for that country. So a lot of the briefing checklists I write, they don’t deal with issues that I can directly write on without infringing on the country desks. So what I end up doing is just creating the basic outline for the checklist, and then sending it to them so they can fill in their appropriate sections. And the reason why it comes to my office to begin with is because it’ll deal with two countries, say Iraq and Libya, and those, with the way that my bureau is arranged, they’re not in the same offices, and that makes it a regional issue, so we end up being the coordinators for these papers.
Q: Okay, okay. And so you write the first version of it, to clarify, and then you send it out to fill in those gaps to the people who are more–

A: Yeah. Right.

Q: Got it. Okay, cool. If your documents go through revisions or multiple drafts, how do you approach those changes or how do you approach improving a draft from one stage to the next?

A: Anything that is written at the State Department does go through a process like that, we call it the clearance process. So you’ll have the initial draft, say the memo, and then you’ll send that to all the relevant stakeholders, so basically anybody in another bureau who also deals with your countries. The State Department’s divvied up into regional bureaus, which are the country desks, and then they have what are called functional bureaus, which are the policy-oriented places – so you’ll have the Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. And then that bureau is further divvied up to reflect the regional bureaus, so the Human Rights Bureau will have a Middle East team. So then you would then send that memo, if it has human rights content, you would send it to the person on the Middle East team in the Human Rights Bureau who deals with that country, and then they review it, and they either add things or delete things as they see fit. And then you do that with all of the relevant offices, so in the most extreme examples, it could be 15 different offices that you’re sending this to. Unfortunately the technology we have is very archaic, so we’re doing all of this through email, and attaching the Word docs to the email, so you’ll get all of these edits coming back to you that you then have to incorporate into a master document. It’s a very frustrating process. We don’t have anything like Google docs, where multiple people can edit a document simultaneously.

Q: Is that because of security or privacy issues that you don’t use Google docs?

A: Yeah, it’s security issues. I think for a lot of the work we do, Google docs just isn’t secure enough. We can’t be putting these documents on the wider internet. So we do have something called Microsoft Sharepoint – it’s ideally supposed to fill the same role that Google docs does, but it’s so unintuitive and hard to use that just nobody uses it, everybody does it through email.

Q: Interesting, interesting. And so all of those stakeholders who take a look at it, they look at it at the same time? Like they look at the same version and then you incorporate those– ?

A: Right.

Q: Okay, I see. That does sound cumbersome, yeah.

A: Occasionally you’ll get people who are editing on top of other office’s edits, so it does cut down on the work somewhat, but that doesn’t always happen.

Q: Okay. It would seem to me in that process that there might be conflicting edits at some point?

A: Yeah.

Q: How do you respond to something like that?

A: If you’re the one who originally sent the document out, you do have the final approval over what goes in there, so you get to choose. But usually you have to talk to the people who have the conflicting edits and see if they can reach some kind of compromise.

  1. I see, okay, interesting. And the edits and revisions that are coming back to you in those documents from those stakeholders – I would assume that they’re content-edits, not really to style at all?

A: Sometimes it is style, but yeah, most of the time it’s content-edits.

Q: Most of the time, gotcha. Okay, great. How long do you have to write a typical project?

A: For some of those briefing checklists that I mentioned, it’s only a matter of days, and that’s to write it and then send it out for clearance. Things like responses to congressional inquiries can last longer. And then we get reports that are mandated by law that can be due anywhere from 30 to 60 or even 90 days out, so it really varies depending on what the paper is. There’s also voluntary papers that nobody has tasked us with that we just– like we have these things called information memos, which is basically just giving background on a certain issue, or flagging it for the higher-ups so they know that this might be a thing that you’ll see in the news soon or something. And those are just done at, you know, however quick they need to be.

Q: I see, okay. And do they go through any sort of review process?

A: For information memos, the idea behind those is that they are supposed to be from your bureau and your bureau only, so even if they do touch upon another bureau’s equities, you generally don’t clear it with them. Ideally the information memo is supposed to be a direct line between the head of your bureau and the Secretary of State.

Q: I see, okay, interesting. This is a big question, but what is at stake in your writing? It seems to me that the answer could look a lot of different ways depending on the kind of writing, but could you talk a little bit about that?

A: Yeah, again, it would depend on the document type, but it could be something like getting the higher-ups to fall one way or the other on a given issue, or rule on an issue in your bureau’s favor – and I realize that’s very vague and doesn’t really get into specifics. But in other cases, if it’s like a congressional inquiry, it could shape how Congress, if they’re thinking about enacting a law, it could change how it’s implemented, or the exact text of the law, or it could delay or provoke action on Congress’s part.

Q: Right, okay. Who oversees your writing? And I guess what I mean by that is, while you have all these different stakeholders that you talked about, is there a person above you who also has to sort of consistently look at your writing?

A: Yeah, so for my office it’s the deputy director and then the director.

Q: Okay, great. How would you say those two people judge the success or quality of your writing?

A: That’s a good question because by the time it reaches them, it’s gone through so many revisions. The deputy director often just looks at it to make sure that it fits within the Department’s style guide, and then our director – and this varies office to office, this isn’t necessarily how it’ll work everywhere – but then our director does a policy review to make sure that any question that might arise is covered in the text of it.

Q: Okay. Have you had any writing training or education since graduating from undergrad? And so what was your graduate degree in?

A: Arab studies.

Q: Okay, alright. So, yeah, have you had any writing training or education specific to the work that you’re doing now?

A: No.

Q: Okay. What challenges do you remember facing when you entered the workplace as a writer, and what practical steps did you take to overcome those challenges?

A: I think the biggest hurdle, as I kind of mentioned before, was adapting to the department’s writing style. I think I wrote fairly colloquially before, and that would just, like you don’t get in trouble for these things, but it’s never fun getting a document back from your supervisor and seeing all these edits that they’ve made to it and how they’ve reworded your sentences. But in terms of adapting to that or how I’ve gone about that, it just kind of arises naturally after you’ve been doing it for a bit. It wasn’t so much a conscious effort, but I do sometimes have to remind myself not to use contractions. Now I’m more vigilant for using the passive voice.

Q: Okay, so passive voice is something that you’re conscious of, but the rest of it you think it sort of evolved naturally?

A: Yeah. And I guess when I reread the stuff that I’ve written, I’m always thinking about if I can make a given sentence shorter or more concise.

Q: Great, great. Are you able to – you’ve half answered this – but are you able to identify a change in your writing between college and now, and if so, what do you attribute this shift to?

A: Yeah, it’s much drier now [laughter]. This has more to do with content, but when I was out at the embassy in Jordan, writing cables on a given issue, I initially tried to approach it as I would a research paper in grad school, in that you try to bring in all of these outside sources and establish the context before you start getting into the meat of the issue. But the State Department doesn’t want that. Again, cables don’t really have a lot of the– they definitely don’t have the length restrictions that the documents we write back in Washington do, but shorter is still better, so they– everybody kind of recognizes that the people back in Washington don’t have enough time to read say, an eight-page cable about a given subject, so you want it to cover all the bases but also be as short as possible. So there’s no room for establishing the context, you just have to kind of assume that people know what it is. And in some cases, the lengthy background of a given issue doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s more what’s happening, what the proximate events are.
Q: Can you just describe a little bit more about the writing genre of a cable? I think of it as a sort of a memo or a report, but I don’t really much about it.

A: They kind of vary, depending on what the subject is. So sometimes cables, if it’s about a developing issue, like a hot button issue, it can be essentially just a summary of events. So while I was out in Jordan, this controversial Christian writer was shot dead on the steps of the Palace of Justice, and that was a big deal for us, because it had the potential to incite sectarian tensions in Jordan or interreligious conflict. So that was something that we recognized Washington was going to be very concerned about, so as it was happening, we were already writing the cable for it. So in that case, it was a summary of what happened, how people in Jordan are responding, how the Jordanian government’s responding, but that was a very – I can’t think of the term for it – but it was essentially just almost like a news report. But then there’s other cables that are more like think pieces, like, “This is where we think the government of Jordan is going to be in x number of years,” or, “These are the problems that they currently face and here’s how they might address them or what will happen if they fail to address them in the coming years.” Or there’s some that are kind of more like research papers, but you’re not bringing in– it’s more like you’re out there conducting interviews with people and getting the opinions of elites rather than pulling out a book or something and actually citing page x.

Q: Right, you know, I was going to ask you, when you’re giving this sort of overview of the response of people in the area, is that sort of man on the street, are you out there talking to people? Or does it come from the news more?

A: No, the Embassy definitely doesn’t have the capability to do the man on the street stuff, in any way that would be reflective of the actual public opinion. So we do have to rely on polls and things like that. I mean, there’s nothing to stop us from going out there and just talking to a random person on the street, but what you get back isn’t necessarily going to be a reflection of what the broader population thinks. So we mostly relied on people from think tanks, or government officials, or media reports – when I say that I mean summaries of what the media’s talking about. Actually if you’re Arabic was good enough, you could just watch the news and say, “This is what I saw.” But yeah, there’s dedicated people at the Embassy will monitor the media and kind of give summaries about what the salient issues are.

Q: I see, okay, okay. Thank you. In what ways do you think your academic background prepared you to write in the workplace?

A: With the style of writing that we do here, it really didn’t. My grad program, even though it was part of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, they didn’t emphasize practical skills that you might use in the workplace, it was much more academically oriented. It was kind of like a prep course for getting a PhD.

Q: Oh, okay, okay. And when you think back to your undergraduate years, were there things that you learned or strategies that you built as an undergraduate that have applied in the workplace?
A: No, not anything that I can think of, other than just honing your base writing skills.

Q: When you say base writing skills, what are you referring to?

A: Just improving your style or sentence structure and composition, things like that.

Q: Okay, great. You’ve spoken to this in a number of ways, but what are the ways in which you were unprepared as a writer as you entered the workforce?

A: Naturally I am a slow writer, I like to revise every sentence that I write after I write it, like I agonize over things, or I probably spend way too much time doing that. So the pace of writing is what gets to me. Sometimes you have to do a very quick turnaround on a memo or a cable or something, so that’s, I guess it can be nerve-racking at times, but you kind of get used to it.

Q: Okay. And two more questions: first, would you say that you’re a successful workplace writer, and why or why not?

A: How would you define success?

Q: How would you define success [laughter]?

A: I mean, people tell me that what I’ve written is good, like some of the cables that I wrote while I was in Jordan were used in the president’s daily briefing, although I attribute that more to having written about an interesting topic, rather than anything I wrote personally. I think anybody could have written about those things and they would have been used in that briefing. So I suppose I’m a success? And that my papers get accepted usually without being completely rewritten, so that’s about as successful as you can get.

Q: Great, okay. And the last question – what skills would you say are most central to writing in your specific role?

A: What do you mean? Like what kind of skills are you talking about?

Q: I guess I mean, anything, any variety of skills, but when you think about the sort of skills that you had to work to develop, and that might be sentence-level things, like concision, or it might be more conceptual, high-level thinking. Sort of at either of those.

A: For writing cables, I guess kind of improving your style– so when you write cables, and you’re recounting what this government official said, and then what the head of this think tank said, if your style isn’t that great, it’s going to get very boring and repetitive, because it’s just going to be, “This guy said ‘dah dah dah’, and then this person said, ‘blah blah blah’,” – you’ll just be using the same words over and over again. So knowing how to mix it up, I guess. Like knowing all the synonyms for the word “said” [laughter] is very valuable. And this is specific to cables, because all of these other memos and official papers that I’ve talked about are very cut and dry, like nobody remembers a good briefing checklist, it’s just not something that goes down in the hall of fame. But knowing how to write in an interesting way, and frame things– sorry, just to backtrack a little bit – a lot of cables, they’re weird because they’re not written in a narrative or sometimes even in chronological order, so they want the most important things up front, I guess kind of like a newspaper article. So what the Department defines as most important would usually be like– I guess you could rank the order of importance based on the position of the people in government that are being quoted. So in Jordan, if the ambassador met with the king, then that’s what you’d lead off with, even if it occurred a week after another interview that you’re also writing about in that cable. So adapting to that is difficult because you naturally want to write it in a logical order, but yeah, it’s just something you have to work around. So developing and remembering to employ that is critical.

Q: That makes a lot of sense. It is always clear what the priority in that document is, or is that part of the challenge as well? Like remembering to lead with x is part of the challenge, but is it fair to say that you have to be able to prioritize those events, yourself as well?

A: Yeah, and I think, I mean, I’ve only ever worked at one embassy, so I can’t say this for certain, but based on what I’ve heard from other people who’ve worked in multiple places, every ambassador is going to have their own preferences as to how it should be ordered or what it should take, because the ambassador in most cases is the final approver of every cable that goes out. So you’re writing for two audiences: one is the ambassador, and the other is the people back in Washington who are going to read this. So you have to figure out how to please both people, I guess.

Q: Okay, that makes a lot of sense. Great. Thank you!

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