The CPD Blog is intended to stimulate dialog among scholars and practitioners from around the world in the public diplomacy sphere. The opinions represented here are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect CPD's views. For blogger guidelines, click here.

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.


Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.

Thank you for this thoughtful

Thank you for this thoughtful and important article, which I hope will be widely read.

The CLO's primary duty is

The CLO's primary duty is inherent in the title, to serve as an in-house liaison with families of mission employees and overall morale. Depending on the mission, the job can take a number of forms, including facilitating activities outside the immediate diplomatic community that might otherwise not be readily accessible to most family members. But the most important function is to help strengthen community morale, and communicate any such concerns directly to the embassy leadership. No one has an ear closer to the heartbeat of the community than the CLO.

I appreciate your raising a possible PD dimension with respect to the CLO's role in organizing outside activities. In my experience, most CLOs rely on community volunteers, including local staff, to set these events up. CLO fluency in the local language can indeed help, as you point out, but are and should not be mandatory. If there are PD issues that intersect with the CLO, an experienced Deputy Chief of Mission (often the CLO’s supervisor) and Public Affairs Officer will be quick to the mark in Country Team, of which the CLO is member, or elsewhere. As a veteran PAO and former DCM, I have seen this system work well, though as in all things human and bureaucratic, flaws exist.

In any case, the central community morale duty of the position remains as important as ever. The single most important skill is empathy, the key to effective counseling, event planning, and advocacy. Empathy also can mean relating to those trying to adapt to a foreign country without speaking the language, as is usually the case with the large majority of Americans. It is vital, however, that the CLO be an Eligible Family Member (EFM), who by definition comes from the small U.S. diplomatic community at a post, and who has a demonstrated ability to empathize with American families and individuals undergoing the pressures of transition to life overseas..

I would just like to point

I would just like to point out that the CLO serves all American employees & their families, and not just the FSOs. A common error by those not well informed about the US Foreign Service including many FSOs.

In my opinion Mr. Garland's

In my opinion Mr. Garland's comments are spot on. In the 1990's my wife served twice as CLO, once in Central Asia, where she didn't speak the language and once in Brazil, where she did. She did an excellent job in both places, largely because of her empathy for family members and her proactive involvement in helping them to adjust successfully to life in the two countries. Because she was interacting primarily with American family members and could count on other Embassy resources whenever she needed their help, language-wise or otherwise, use of the language of each country was really not an important consideration for the two CLO positions. Also, in Central Asia, if she had needed to speak the two languages in use at the time, it would have taken at least a minimum of 3 years to reach a minimally acceptable level of competence to function in the two languages.

What about sequestration? The

What about sequestration? The USG is experiencing drastic budgets drastically cut around the world! It is hard to believe that embassies have local staff resources to provide CLOs whenever they need it. From my understanding, CLOs must provide advice "for on-post and off-post activities and services" to embassy staff and their families. If that’s true, I don't see why it is unreasonable to require CLOs to speak the local language. Am I missing something? If the diplomat can become proficient in the language prior to moving to their assignment, the spouse can as well. What we shouldn't have is double standards for embassy staff and embassy staff who happen to be spouses. The USG has limited resources and our government needs to expend them according to highest ROI. A private company certainly wouldn't hire someone to manage family services for expatriate employees who can’t speak the local language. So, why should the USG? More importantly, does the USG have the right metrics in place to evaluate morale? I imagine that diplomatic families (like any other expatriates) will be happiest living abroad if they localize as quickly as possible. Providing services that encourage them to live inside the embassy is not going to help post morale. And, as pointed out above, it does nothing to advance U.S. diplomacy. Diplomatic families are well compensated for living abroad. In exchange, they need to serve as the best possible citizen ambassadors for their country. This means that they need to become part of the local community. The CLO needs to set that example and show families how to do this. If the CLO doesn't speak the language, it sends the message to the rest of the embassy that speaking English abroad is OK. It isn't!

First, I'm not sure how

First, I'm not sure how someone would know about the CLO position unless they were a family member (or a federal employee assigned overseas) but it does raise an interesting point. Most CLOs I've seen have known the language since they joined their spouse/partner in language training. It is most useful while on field excursions or negotiating with vendors. However, I think rather than using more money on the CLOs to ensure language training, more money should be spent on the Foreign Service Specialists who are direct-hire, career professionals (and not temporary family member hires). Many times the Office Management Specialist who is committed to working anywhere overseas actually makes less than a CLO and the OMS quite often don’t get language training. All-in-all, the CLOs are indeed valuable morale boosters both for the American employees but even more for the spouses/partners and family members who must move from place-to-place and who are in an unfamiliar country.

I also agree with Mr. Garland

I also agree with Mr. Garland's comments. While it is always beneficial to speak the local language, and certainly helpful in the CLO position, it should not be mandatory. In addition to a misplaced focus on the outreach aspect of the CLO position, which is important but secondary to advocating for families at post, this article does not address a crucial financial point: how to afford the language training. FSO's get paid while they are in language training. While spouses from DOS (not other agencies) may have the opportunity to take classes at FSI on a space-permitting basis, they do not get paid to do so, even if they have already been hired for a job at post (for example, a 6 week Consular course to be a Consular Associate). In the current budget environment, I don't see this changing any time soon, unfortunately. Taking unpaid training may be feasible for shorter courses, but can often pose challenges for a 6 or 10 month language program, especially if the direct-hire employee is coming from Washington, for example, and is not on per diem, or due to child care and other considerations. Spouse employment is a huge morale issue at most posts, and I don't think that any steps should be taken that would result in limiting EFM employment opportunties. It is essential that the CLO him/herself should be a family member. While I applaud CLO's who make every attempt to learn the language, including weekly language classes that many embassies offer their staff, we cannot expect fluency. At my previous two posts, there was no local assistant in the CLO office, but that doesn't mean CLO's can't ask local staff in other parts of the embassy for assistance. The local staff are an amazing resource for information about the city and a good CLO will reach out and ask.

I also agree with Mr. Garland

I also agree with Mr. Garland and I must say I'm curious as to how the training will be provided. Will it be paid? Many EFMs are either working other jobs or have families to take care of during the day. Putting one child (or several)into daycare to spend anywhere from 6 months to a year is not a reasonable option, especially in the DC Metro area. Also important is that language training is available for EFMs IF space is available.

Moreover, what about an EFM who is accompanying an employee on a UT? The employee may not require language and minus a week of area studies, could feasibly go from one overseas post to the UT in a month or two. Is the EFM supposed to leave the previous post a year early to learn, say, Arabic at FSI on his or her own dime (while paying for separate housing)? Especially given the sequestration, I do not see that as feasible.

I am torn on this one. I

I am torn on this one. I think there are two issues here that are being conflated though. The first is the need for more EFM employment opportunities, especially meaningful employment for spouses with advanced degrees. Unfortunately, this remains an important (although seldom discussed) problem which almost certainly impacts morale. So, I would agree that there needs to be more EFM employment opportunities for those people. But, that shouldn't prevent State from taking a critical look at the CLO position every now and then. If the outreach aspect is "important," then it's one of the responsibilities necessary for the role and management should fill it with people who have the skills to serve that purpose. If it turns out to be a government employee or local staff instead of an EFM, then so be it. But, either way, it's the larger issue that should concern us. State really needs to take a critical look at how few qualified EFM positions are available for spouses with advanced degrees. The CLO is only one position. EFM or not, it doesn't fix that problem.

I disagree with the author

I disagree with the author for many of the reasons already mentioned in a much more elegant manner than I will do. A more appropriate title for this article might be "Time to Redefine the CLO and turn it into a FSO PD position".

The author seems to expect to hire an EFM - at 1/3rd the compensation an FSO receives - and place the requirements and expectations of an FSO on them.
I ask, how many FSO's are truly fluent? Not many from my experience. An FSI 3/3 certainly does not equate to fluency - ask the nearest LN if you don't believe that!

I am an EFM. With my qualifications and background I can find a job (and have had jobs) in WDC that pays well into six figures without difficulty. I have twice had to make the hard decision between taking language courses or having meaningful, career enhancing, well compensated employment while my wife takes FSI language courses. Our family can't afford to give up the opportunity for me to earn real money ($90,000 while she learned Spanish) and further my career while my spouse takes language.

If the author (or the Department of State) wants to use the CLO as an FSO, than they need to find a way to PAY the CLO as an FSO both on the job and in training - and I don't think that is going to happen.

Another alternative to minimize negative stereotypes would be to place real value on EFM employment. Doing so would greatly improve the morale of EFM's resulting in fewer having obvious negative opinions of their daily lives/situations in the host country. I suspect it would also decrease the number of FSO's who leave the service because of dissatisfied families.



Visit CPD's Online Library

Explore CPD's vast online database featuring the latest books, articles, speeches and information on international organizations dedicated to public diplomacy. 

Join the Conversation

Interested in contributing to the CPD Blog? We welcome your posts. Read our guidelines and find out how you can submit blogs and photo essays >