For those of you who are not Dipnote devotees, several recent Dipnote posts by high level State Department officials are well worth reading. So too are the comments that follow them. The controversial topic? This year’s annual survey (or “survey” according Dipnote blogger and Department Spokesperson Sean McCormack) of Foreign Service employees conducted by and published on the American Foreign Service Association’s website.
These Dipnote kiss-up-to-Condi posts by McCormack, along with Tom Shannon and Richard Boucher, two other State Department career senior officers, demonstrate – in my view - not only an all too transparent attempt to ingratiate themselves to Ms. Rice and her entourage upon whom their present and possibly next assignments depend, but they simultaneously, unfortunately and unnecessarily, also demean the integrity of a large number of their Foreign Service colleagues and the professional and labor organization which represents their interests. (For the record: As a retiree, I am also a member of AFSA.)
As 'Robert in Virginia' observed in Dipnote’s comments section:
”Folks, I can't address the substance of this dispute, but I would like you to know that putting the word survey in quotation marks does not strike me as very convincing. Instead, it strikes me as reflecting elitist arrogance and is inappropriate and potentially ineffective, especially when writing about an organization which represents employees.
I am prepared to believe that there has been way too much whining and second guessing on the part of Foreign Service worker bees, but it may well be that the public will draw the necessary conclusions from AFSA's own words. The Department does not serve it own interests by acting in an officious and condescending manner.”
Meanwhile, I thank my lucky stars that I don’t have to work for people who refuse to recognize that a near 40 percent return rate on a professional union’s questionnaire sent to all active duty members and completed by representatives of all ranks and specialties including employees serving in Iraq and Afghanistan should be taken seriously. In contrast, the “spin” from these three Dipnote spin-meisters at State – two of whom having spent considerable time as spin-meisters in the Bureau of Public Affairs and elsewhere as opposed to serving overseas in garden spots like Kabul, Baghdad or on a provincial reconstruction team - trivialize and denigrate the survey results.
Extreme hierarchy is outdated - and that's part of State's problem
I think the outdated hierarchical Foreign Service system which over-rewards a small caste of high-flying senior officers to the detriment of the rank-and-file should have been abolished years ago and replaced with a system that better fits today’s highly educated knowledge workers. If extreme hierarchy is still necessary in the 21st century in any information-based organization, then something is wrong with that organization.
Corporate America discovered this years ago as it went head-to-head with the then Japanese economic “threat” and made necessary adjustments to survive. Flattened hierarchies and team based management are part of the answer; treating colleagues and their concerns with respect is also.
State’s promotion and assignments system has been outdated for years. Not only too many cushy jobs (about 35% of all Ambassadorships under the W administration) are awarded to mostly unqualified political appointees who bought their posts for $100,000 a crack according to the FT in 2005, but too many of the relatively few professionals who made it to the very top of State's angels' head pinsized pinnacle did it by managing upward while ignoring, or worse, those who worked for them. Many also did it by staying in Washington and as close to the Seventh Floor and the Secretary's Office as possible rather than through overseas service in difficult places at difficult times which is what I think the Foreign Service should be all about.
These deficiencies, I’m told, have worsened under the Rice State Department. To make matters worse, Condi’s favorites are rarely even asked to “volunteer” for Iraq, Afghanistan or other hardship assignments – or so I’m told.
Please note that the closest Messrs McCormack, Shannon and Boucher, for instance, have come to serving in the troubled Middle East was Sean McCormack’s lone first tour in the Consular Section at the US Embassy in Ankara and another one in Algiers. He has not served overseas since.
Why should State Department higher-ups or anyone else then be surprised, dismayed or otherwise taken off guard when a significant number of AFSA survey respondents complained about “teacher’s pet” favoritism that, I’m told, runs rife in the department today? Only if they are behaving like the “Lowells who spoke only to Cabots and Cabots who spoke only to God” and as a consequence, don’t know what is being said in the corridors or heaven forbid, in the cafeteria lines.
As I understand it, this was not the case when Colin Powell was Secretary of State. The “troops” loved him, he engaged them and they respected what he did for the Department.
Instead of sneering, then, the people involved in Foggy Bottom leadership today should be taking Foreign Service employee criticisms to heart and trying to make things better, not worse. This includes acting upon the suggestion by employees who have already served in Iraq to reduce, not increase the size of the Foreign Service in that war zone. It means dealing with a huge pay disparity that requires Congressional action to change and it also means increasing the department's staff to meet the workload being demanded. When the military has more musicians than there are US Foreign Service Officers something is wrong with this picture.
That the Foreign Service attrition rate apparently remains low (around four percent according to McCormack) does not necessarily mean – as the Dipnote trio suggests – that all’s right in the Department. More likely it means that most people are careerists with families to support and, as professional diplomats, don’t have a lot of other employment options.
It’s not like being able to change companies mid-stream. The US has only one diplomatic service. It would be rare for a former American diplomat to get taken on by – let’s say – someone else’s Foreign Ministry. Then there is that quaint idea of loyalty to one's country after all.
A change in culture needed
The basic problem at State, however, is the difficulty of changing the organization’s entrenched culture – but that’s what the department needs to do if it is to represent America’s interests abroad effectively and take care of employee needs. These are intertwined. Powell understood the importance of "protecting the troops" - but he wasn’t there long enough to effect the needed long term organizational cultural change. Rice hasn’t a clue – but then neither did Powell’s predecessors.
Today, State is so short-staffed (between 1,000 and 2,000 position deficit depending on who’s counting) that it announced it will leave ten percent of its positions vacant next summer, and thus far it has not even given its employees bound for Iraq more than one week training overall including paramilitary. During the Vietnam era, the combined language, area studies and paramilitary training for Foreign Service employees being sent to Vietnam lasted six to eight months.
To make things worse, the salary gap between senior Foreign Service members and those in the rank-and-file has never been greater and the current quirks in the law worsen the discrepancy between the two for those rank-and-file members going over overseas. It’s no surprise that the AFSA survey results reflected this unfairness, among other issues that currently stalk the candy-colored halls of Foggy Bottom.
Is it any wonder then that a substantial number of nearly 40 percent of the entire US Foreign Service says that Ms. Rice has failed to look out for the interests of America’s diplomatic corps? I'm just surprised the number's not higher.
Why of concern to Americans?
Why this latest uncharacteristically public fracas should concern Americans is that it demonstrates serious problems of a stewardship gone wrong that negatively affects the formulation and implementation of US foreign policy. Congress - in its oversight capacity - not just Condi and her minions also have a role to play in improving the situation.
These problems are not going to disappear overnight and certainly not under Condi's "leadership." Yet, in the short run, it would help if the department’s higher-ups – whose views Messrs Boucher, McCormack and Shannon represent in their Dipnote posts – could demonstrate a little more understanding of and compassion for colleagues who have not benefited from as cushy assignments, quick promotions or healthy salaries as they have. Not only is the elitist behavior exemplified in their posts unbecoming and decidedly undiplomatic but – as Marie Antoinette’s head found out to its chagrin during the French Revolution – it can also be dangerous in the long run.