See "Favoritism in the Ranks Saga Continues at State" May 27, 2008 for update to this post.
Last week, I reviewed the results of the American Foreign Service Association’s fall 2007 survey of active duty Foreign Service employees for a talk I was giving here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As I reread the survey’s summary of responses on AFSA’s website, it came even clearer to me than previously that the major issue affecting Foreign Service members was the perception – at least - of undue favoritism in the State Department that benefited far too few individuals. Such charges can be part and parcel of any organization – but when they are believed by so many people on the inside they need additional investigation to help separate fact from fiction. So I thought I’d dig around a little this past week to see whether or not the perception of favoritism at the State Department was real.
Maybe this is simply the sign of the times in these United States – the widening division between the haves and the have nots. Maybe it is the result of an excessively hierarchical system worsened by, in my view, an unnecessary division into two classes of professional US Foreign Service employees: the Senior Foreign Service and the regular services, a divided and unnecessarily divisive system that since it’s inception almost 30 years ago has over-compensated a few at the expense of too many. This is one reason why today the Foreign Service lacks enough qualified officers trained in Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Russian and other difficult languages.
Whatever the reason, the AFSA survey hit - with its very high response rate - a raw nerve among State Department higher ups and resulted in denials by several. Those who most vociferously objected to the survey’s veracity, of course, were a few of the very people who have also most benefited from the system the way it is.
Survey results mischaracterized in too much of the MSM
Meanwhile, the AFSA survey results were mischaracterized. misconstrued and often twisted in too much of the US main stream media. Although there were a very few exceptions, the vast majority of stories stressed the Iraq policy and forced assignments issue as the most important. Wrong. In reality, Iraq policy was not the major issue for respondents although, in fact, many disapproved. The top issues had primarily to do with problems of favoritism. Reporters, evidently, took too little time to read the three page AFSA survey including reviewing its graphs. Perhaps the reporting was so poor because most reporters failed to understand the Byzantine Foreign Service system. If that was the case, however, they could, and should, have asked.
From what I’ve discovered through my own research, albeit only the years 2006-8, the impressions recorded in the AFSA Survey were dead right on the perception of excessive favoritism. In fact, the survey results appear to have correctly identified two key issues that should demand the Department’s attention now, not later. Unlike the quagmire that is Iraq, these inequities can, and should, be easily resolved.
They are as follows:
1) Senior Foreign Service Officers as well as all other US government employees assigned overseas by other departments except the FBI are able to keep their Washington, DC locality pay boost when assigned abroad – a salary increase now over 20%. The Foreign Service generalists and specialists, however, cannot: this means they need to serve at 20% hardship (or greater) differential posts just to make up for what they lose leaving Washington to serve overseas. These are the very people who are paid less to begin with. There are far more of them. These professional staffers make US Embassies and Consulates abroad tick.
2) The second issue is the perception of abject favoritism in State’s assignments, promotions and special awards system. I reviewed the biographic information on the appointments of career U.S. Ambassadorial assignments for the years 2006-8. This information is readily available through the Internet. The data I used comes from the Ambassadorial biographies found on the State Department, White House and/or Senate Foreign Relations Committee websites. It didn’t take long to discover that what smelled like favoritism and walked like favoritism also talked like the favoritism highlighted in the AFSA survey.
Here’s what I found: too high a percentage of Senior Foreign Service Officers who held or hold positions in Human Resources were or are being nominated for Ambassadorial positions than should have been nominated if there had been a level playing field for Ambassadorial nominations among all those eligible to be considered for them. What is even more striking is that none of those nominated for Ambassadorships between 2006-8 from positions in Human Resources had served in Iraq since the invasion in 2003 – or for that matter had ever served in Iraq. Period.
I focused on the 2006-8 period because of the ever increasing pressure on Foreign Service Officers and specialists to serve in Iraq as the years have gone by since the invasion in 2003. It would, however, also be useful to know whether the trend for senior Human Resources staff to be assigned to Embassies without having served in Iraq extends back to 2003. Perhaps AFSA or the Congress should ask that question.
What is particularly troubling is that these are the same people who are encouraging, dangling enticements – or putting the screws on – their colleagues to serve in Iraq when 1) they have not done so themselves; and 2) they are then rewarded with Ambassadorial posts.
Yes, a number of Iraq Senior Foreign Service alumni did become Ambassadors after their service in the Iraq war zone – about 14 percent of the total career Ambassadorial assignments versus approximately 11 percent from Human Resources. But there were far more Senior Foreign Service Officers who served in Iraq during the same time frame than in Human Resources so there should have been a significantly greater number of Senior Foreign Service Officers who had served in Iraq awarded Ambassadorships than those in Human Resources. This was not the case. Perhaps the Department and/or AFSA should be asking why.
Maybe the stress and strain of a seemingly never ending Iraq commitment that calls for more and more Foreign Service personnel every year to serve in an ever expanding Embassy and on increasing PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) and a career service and a Department that is severely understaffed are parts of the problem.
I also think, however, the current divisive system itself has far outlived whatever utility it may once have had. It does not, and has not for some time, served the requirements of the U.S. diplomatic service well. There needs to be top-to-bottom restructuring and rethinking of the Foreign Service personnel system for this 21st century global information age in which cultural understanding and foreign language expertise have never been more important. At minimum, playing by threadbare-teachers’ pet rules needs to stop.