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Time to Rethink the CLO Position

Jul 30, 2013


For over 30 years, the Community Liaison Office (CLO) Program has provided key family services support to Foreign Service Officers and their families abroad. The program is now present in over 200 embassies and consulates, including unaccompanied hardship posts such as Baghdad, Kabul, and Islamabad.

Within these missions, the CLO Program is overseen by Community Liaison Office Coordinators. The CLO Coordinator is somewhat unique in that the position is designated for “a U.S. citizen spouse … of a direct-hire employee assigned to post.” This provides a valuable opportunity for spouses to find meaningful employment within the embassy.

The CLO Coordinator serves as a chief advocate for employees and family members within the mission. CLO Coordinators are also tasked with providing the mission with “effective programming, information, resources, and referrals” for on-post and off-post activities and services.

Unfortunately, it is hard to understand how CLO Coordinators can effectively liaise with the local community to provide “programming, information, resources, and referrals” about off-post activities and on-the-economy services when they are not required to be fluent in the local language.

U.S. Department of State, Creative Commons

This is a major problem that the State Department needs to address. The organization needs to acknowledge that there are two types of CLO Coordinators currently serving in our diplomatic missions abroad. One set can liaise with the local community because they speak the local language and the other cannot.

For those that cannot, this obviously impacts the quality of family services provided to employees and their families at their post. But, it also undermines our public diplomacy objectives abroad.

Often times, the American diplomatic community’s footprint weighs heavy on local communities precisely because a disproportionate number of our accompanying family members do not speak the local language. Having a CLO Coordinator that doesn’t either only exacerbates this problem and makes it more difficult to integrate our missions with the local communities.

To address this problem, the State Department needs to prioritize language fluency for all CLO Coordinators.

One approach would be to recognize: 1) CLO Coordinators are critical to the operations of our diplomatic missions abroad; 2) CLO Coordinators must be fluent in the local language to successfully carry out their duties. This would enable Human Resources to limit their solicitations to those applicants who are already fluent in the host country language(s).

A less radical alternative would be to fill this gap with training. If the recruitment of CLO Coordinators could start long before applicants arrived at post, they could receive the foreign language training required for the job before they ever arrived on post. Assuming that their background investigation and Top Secret Security clearance adjudication was ongoing, it could even continue once the spouse arrived on post until they were able to pass a language fluency test.

If we are serious about fulfilling our diplomatic objectives abroad, we must prioritize minimizing the social impact of our embassies, consulates, and military bases on the local community. Clearly, this means that we need to refrain from activities that reinforce negative stereotypes and neo-colonialist discourses. This does not mean just devoting more resources to public diplomacy. We also need to invest more in the people who serve as one of the primary interfaces between our diplomatic community and their hosts.


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American diplomatic

American diplomatic famililies overseas represent the United States--its culture, values, and interests--around the world. It takes a special type of person to represent America abroad to advance diplomatic initiatives. When one chooses the foreign service (including FSOs and Americans serving other USG agencies) they choose it for themselves, and if applicable, their spouses, and their children... It's not rocket science, when serving at an overseas post, Americans will need to interact with their host country.

CLOs--who serve our American families overseas--are an excellent resource and we all benefit from this program of connecting American citizens abroad. To emphasize the comments already made, yes, one of the key roles for the CLO is to "build community spirit and enhancing morale at post..." In the eight areas of responsibility, they need to coordinate and implement social, educational, and recreational programs within the American community but this ALSO includes engaging with the host country. It is ignorant to think that Americans can exist in a bubble or that their needs only extend as far out as to the rest of the American community overseas. It is naive to think that our CLO officers will not need to interact with our host community or that they can soley rely on their LES to do their legwork.

But let's get back to the crux of Mr. Walsh's commentary. As the world continues to become more and more anti-American, let's recognize the importance of the CLO position and the impact it has on connecting our American communities. The CLO is a high-profile role that links the American community to their host country.

We need to understand the importance and the value of all Americans and their families (serving U.S. embassies and consulates) around the world. We represent the United States by showing the host country that when interacting with an American, when Americans are supporting the local economy, or when Americans are engaging in host country activities that it all promotes a positive image. We are all the unofficials ambassadors for the United States.

In my opinion, the author

In my opinion, the author does not understand well the responsibilities of the CLO position, nor the complications surrounding the hiring process and language training for spouses(and FSOs for that matter). I've held the job three times now, each time with some language ability, but only once with the benefit of prior language training. Many FSS are not trained in the local language either. Does this mean that they and all the spouses without training reflect negatively upon America? I don't think so.

Heidi - Yes, it does reflect

Heidi - Yes, it does reflect negatively upon America if you can't speak the native language when you are representing the United States in the local community. Locals have no idea what the difference is between a spouse hire (EFM) and a full fledged diplomat when you reach out on behalf of the embassy. With all due respect, the fact that you were a CLO three times and don't understand the negative impressions that creates just underscores the problems with the USG approach to staffing this position. Of course, this is not to say that a CLO who speaks only English can't create positive impressions as well. You just can't be as effective as someone who speaks the language - which is a disservice to diplomatic families who need information that can only be obtained from local contacts who don't speak English. IMHO, that's why previous language training (not fluency but conversational ability) should be a prerequisite. Pointing that out should not be viewed as a slight to current/past CLOs but rather an objective assessment of reality.

Liz, respectfully, I disagree

Liz, respectfully, I disagree with your conclusions as do the overwhelming majority of the spouses and officers who have commented about this article on another forum. Mr. Garland hits the nail on the head above with his points about the most important requirement of the job - empathy. I've worked with several other CLOs in the past, some of whom had extensive language ability, and some who didn't. Some who had the least language skills were the most effective liaisons, both as "representatives," and also within the Embassy community. CLOs who need linguistic support have a number of options - many offices have locally hired admin assistants or are able to request help from the management section local staff and/or post language instructors.

One doesn't need to have

One doesn't need to have fluency to avoid being the Ugly American - just make an honest effort and have a positive attitude. I visited France - you know, that country where they supposedly hate Americans because we don't speak their language?- and everyone was super-friendly and patient within the one semester of language ability that I'd the point that my Belgian friend, who'd been studying French all his life, told me I should do all the talking because I was getting such a positive response. Americans get a bad reputation not because of lack of knowledge, but because so many tourists have a bad attitude.

Also, PD and CLO are nothing like the same thing and should not be compared or equated in any way - PD is a diplomacy position to represent the US to a foreign government and people; CLO exists to help the Americans at post adapt to DOS, embassy/consulate life, and the local scene. The comparisons the writer is making are not in any way founded on the actual purposes of the jobs.

We can't even get CLOs who

We can't even get CLOs who are competent in English sometimes. We get EFMs and sometimes they are good, and sometimes they aren't. Having an excellent bilingual LES in the CLO is the real key to ongoing success.

Who needs the internet when

Who needs the internet when you have a good ol' black-and-white TV set, eh?! This thread, with all due respect to the commenters who have served the USG, is a testament to how abysmally antiquated the thinking is in the Foreign Service. Having lived in a number of foreign capitals, I know well the high walls and gated communities of diplomats. In this day and age, to think that not being able to speak the local language is somehow acceptable in a CLO is-- to borrow a phrase-- uniquely American. It's not that hard to become conversational in a language. Ask our European friends. Shame on us. We should hold ourselves to a much higher standard. And yes, this includes EFMs. We are the United States of America. Scoffing at a "the cost" of better, more effective diplomacy, or somehow equating "empathy" to "ability" are the last gasps of a bygone approach to diplomacy. It is time to move forwards, evolve, and become much better global citizens.

I strongly support equal

I strongly support equal access to language training for EFMs, but the importance of "fluency" differs from post to post. In Latin America, Spanish skills are extremely important. But does a CLO in Riyadh need a 3/3 in Arabic, or just excellent local staff? Does a CLO in the Netherlands truly need to speak fluent Dutch, when most in the community speak English? And Miles, don't forget that we move from country to country every 2-3 years. For an EFM, taking (unpaid) time away from work and/or family to study a new language for 6-24 months may not be possible each time. Intensive language programs for EFMs at post are also extremely important and a way to address this problem without requiring "fluency" from the start.


CLO's are not diplomats and they don't conduct diplomacy unless you expand the definition of diplomats and diplomacy to every American who steps outside the U.S.
Before accusing those who "Scoff at the cost", perhaps you should understand the effects of sequestration. We are currently hiring 1 EFM for every 2 who depart. I hardly think this is a time when paying EFM's to attend language training will be accepted by Congress or the American people.
My counterparts in the British, German and Australian embassies are not fluent in the local language either. Are they "Uniquely American" too?

A possible way to finance

A possible way to finance language training for CLOs: Request "heavy donor" political appointees to ambassadorial positions overseas to contribute to a special CLO language-learning fund. Such CLOs would then be in a position to assist the ambassador's (and, of course, other employees') family members to cope while abroad.



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