Paper - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the U.S. Ambassador Corps

  • Abigail Horgan
  • Nicholas Sung
| July 07, 2021

Executive Summary

The U.S. Department of State does not advance and protect U.S. national interests to its full potential without a diverse, equitable, and inclusive ambassador corps. Additionally, the State Department has legal and moral imperatives to substantively address the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion within its ranks. This report will specifically focus on policy recommendations for improving diversity, equity, and inclusion within the U.S. Department of State’s ambassador corps.

Of note, diversity, equity, and inclusion are interrelated but distinct priorities. For this report, diversity means that the ambassador corps is fully representative of the U.S. population; equity and inclusion mean that the Department fairly considers and appoints a diverse ambassador corps across regions, bureaus, and posts of varying geopolitical significance. Diversity, equity, and inclusion ensure that everyone has a seat and an equitable say at the table.

This report’s recommendations are based on 33 interviews with current and former Foreign Service Officers, former ambassadors, a variety of U.S. government officials, and academic researchers in addition to an extensive literature review of academic studies, news articles, social media, and reports on reforming the Department. Although the U.S. ambassador corps consists of both political appointees and career diplomats, this report’s recommendations will largely focus on reforming the nomination and selection process for career appointees. This is for two reasons: career appointees traditionally comprise the majority of ambassadors (around 70%), and there are more opportunities in the career process for policy and change.

The report’s major findings focused on keys to success for improving diversity, equity, and inclusion in institutions: focusing on diversity, equity, and inclusion; ensuring leadership commitment; building accountability; improving transparency and data accessibility; maintaining grassroots support and involvement; and reimagining the ‘ideal’ worker and leader.

Based on these findings, the authors propose the policy reforms listed below to improve diversity, equity, and inclusion in the U.S. ambassador corps. The recommendations are ordered by level of importance and urgency as well as ease of implementation:

  1. Data Collection and Transparency: The Department should collect and publicize disaggregated data by race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, religion, veteran status, age, geographic background, and educational attainment in correlation with bureaus, postings, and rank.
  2. Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer: The Department should endow the newly established Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer with explicit roles and responsibilities related to formal authority on the D Committee, the ability to reform performance reviews, control over rewards to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, and a quarterly report on diversity, equity, and inclusion at State.
  3. Deputy Secretaries Committee: The Deputy Secretaries Committee should release demographic data about ambassadorial candidates, the new Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer should be a voting member of the committee, and the Secretary and Deputy Secretaries should institutionalize which leaders sit on the committee.
  4. Reimagining the Ideal Ambassador: Department leadership should communicate a renewed focus on ambassadors’ roles in promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, and the Department should develop a comprehensive and consistent overarching job description for ambassadors.
  5. Training Reforms: The Department should train all employees on reporting Equal Employment Opportunity complaints and violations and all supervisors on research-backed best managerial practices. The Department should also advocate for funding and staff in targeted sectors to ensure a training float.
  6. Promotions and Rewards: The Department should publicly recognize and offer monetary rewards for individuals who actively champion diversity, equity, and inclusion within their workspace.
  7. Mentorship and Sponsorship: The Department should remodel its formal mentor program into a platform that informally connects employees - from entry- level to senior-level ranks - willing to assist colleagues on specific career-related challenges.

In addition to organizational reform at the Department, the authors also researched best practices to advocate for these changes. The strategies are listed below in order of importance:

  1. Data Collection: In the current absence of comprehensive data collection and publication from the State Department, Inclusive America should continue its efforts to collect, analyze, and publish data about the diversity of the ambassador corps.
  2. Maintaining External Pressure and Attention: Inclusive America should continue working with members of the media and Congress to employ public pressure, which can play a powerful role in pushing the Department forward and holding the White House accountable, particularly when it comes to political appointees.
  3. Coalition Building and Message Consistency: Where possible, Inclusive America should work in coalition with other advocacy groups to amplify policy reform ideas.
  4. Qualified Candidates: Inclusive America should renew efforts to Develop a bank of qualified candidates to share with policymakers can help promote these individuals and sharing their success stories while in office can help prove the business case.
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Horgan, Abigail and Nicholas Sung. “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the U.S. Ambassador Corps.” Paper, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, July 7, 2021.

The Authors

Abigail Horgan

Nicholas Sung