By Patricia H. Kushlis
Early on in my 27 plus years in the Foreign Service I learned that an officer’s corridor reputation and the same person’s promotion record did not necessarily correspond. I figured that the reasons for this discrepancy had mostly to do with the idiosyncrasies of promotion board precepts and personal prejudices of individual board members towards one kind of assignment or country of assignment or another that sometimes crept into the deliberative process. This then combined with the all too well known fact that certain officers were far more adept at promoting themselves personally than others whether they were, or were not, either more competent or more qualified.
I also understood that very few FSOs came across as either super stars or as total duds particularly after the first few years. Rather, the records of the vast majority were pretty indistinguishable one from the other so the rank ordering demanded of the selection boards was, in fact, often more arbitrary than those on the outside would care to believe.
Although I had heard years ago of one officer’s name being vindictively removed from a State Department promotion list for reasons that I will not go into here, I thought that this had been an aberration not the norm.
But maybe it’s not. I recently learned of another similar case that happened just a few years earlier so the problem may be more widespread and longer-lived than I had previously – perhaps naively – believed.
Or maybe the situation’s just gotten worse in recent years.
I don’t know. Whatever. I do know, however, that this outmoded cutthroat, rank-in-person system that has been in place since well before I joined the service in 1970 was made worse under the Carter Administration when it instituted a new super grade Senior Foreign Service comparable to the Senior Executive Service - supposedly to instill greater accountability in government service overall. I have no doubt it was done with the best of intentions, but the Foreign Service – unlike the Civil Service where no one has to retire until death-do-us-part - always included a variety of accountability checks and ways to separate people from the service – for good and bad reasons - at all ranks.
As far as I can tell, the primary consequences of the current two tiered system hurt not only too many individuals personally but over time has also worked to the detriment of the quality of the Foreign Service as well.
First, the strictures have been used to force out too many officers near the peaks of their careers to make room for cheaper and hence less experienced employees. Sometimes this also served to reduce the size of the peanut-sized service even further leading to – you guessed it – additional contracting out of the government’s work under the ruse that contractors come cheaper.
And second, the new personnel system created an even greater discrepancy in terms of pay (especially via a “performance” pay system for the senior ranks but no one else) and benefits between the “chosen-few” senior officers and everyone else. This is kind of like the widening and troubling chasm that has emerged between the rich and poor in US society today.
Penny-Wise, Pound Foolish
The shortcomings of this system turned into a calamity in the 1990s when downsizing hit full force. At the time, the individuals most adversely affected were those who had taken time during their careers to learn tough languages. As Ambassador Monteagle Stearns warned in his 1996 book Talking to Strangers these were the very people that the Foreign Service had spent the most money to train but then turned around and got rid of well before the taxpayers received the expected payback from the considerable investment in the development of their human capital.
It’s no wonder then that the State Department had only six – or was it five - Arabic speakers capable of being interviewed in Arabic on television after 9/11. According to more recent General Accountability Office studies the number has not increased all that much in the eight years since.
No surprises, there . . .
As a wise linguist once told me, it takes twenty years to grow a tree and it takes about the same length of time to develop high level fluency in a difficult language. Even in October 1997, the Foreign Service Journal ran a then provocative, but prescient article entitled “Where Have All the Arabists Gone?” The one sentence answer: they’d been forced to retire well before their time because of a screwed up promotion and retention system that didn’t value their expertise.
Yet the Shenanigans Continue Unabated: More Byzantine than the Byzantines
Last spring I wrote three separate posts about serious ongoing Foreign Service Human Resources problems at the State Department. The most recent was entitled “Shenanigans” in which I focused on the problem of rampant cronyism in the Division of Human Resources and the distortions this has introduced into what resembles Byzantium at its worst. Since then, I’ve learned that the problems are likely more troubling than I reported at the time.
Allegations abound ranging from HR’s tampering with senior officer performance pay board decisions – names surreptitiously disappearing from lists and others miraculously springing up in their places like mushrooms after the rain – to the fiddling with promotion and assignments boards deliberations and decisions in ways that not only need stopping but are illegal to boot.
I’ve learned, for instance, of someone who went to the OIG late last year with explicit evidence of HR’s tampering with promotion boards. Despite a request to investigate the allegations by one of Chairman Waxman’s investigative staff, State’s delayed OIG’s response was to consult with the accused employees in HR and then to attempt to intimidate the individual in question by accusing the person of “being seen as crazy” if he or she continued to object to what seems to me to have now turned into blatant harassment based on questionable evidence.
An Outside Impartial Investigation Needed, Please
For starters, then, there needs to be an outside, impartial investigation of State Department Foreign Service personnel operations and practices. I have reason to believe that the case I refer to above is not isolated. There is no better time than the present – with a new administration and a new Secretary of State who has the tremendous good will of the career service behind her.
Given State’s current and past recent performance in this regard, the special investigation should come from the Hill, not from within the Department or even elsewhere in the administration. Any malefactors should be turned over to the Justice Department. Everyone needs to remember that 18 USC 1001 makes it a crime to tamper with an official U.S. government process or to alter official US government documents.
An opaque system that has become even more opaque
Unfortunately, the system has become more opaque than it was when I was in the service. This may be a piece of the problem in and of itself. It was never all that transparent but at the very least in the old days, basic promotion information – lists of the precepts or criteria used for promotion, numbers and percentages of those promoted per specialty, average promotion rates from one grade to another, names of selection board members and names of those promoted or recommended for various awards publicly appeared in the monthly State Department Magazine.
After the Magazine was dumbed-down and turned into a self-aggrandizing, color photo-op, infotainment rag written at the third grade reader level or below, serious personnel data disappeared. The only place I’ve seen such relevant information in the years since was for public diplomacy cone officers in a special report by the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy last June. The picture it painted was not very pretty and I’ll bet, therefore, it wasn’t easy for even the Commission to dig those figures out of HR.
HR’s penchant for secrecy for the sake of secrecy – not for the sake of national security – has become all too blatant. It’s counterproductive and is hurting the Department and the Foreign Service.
I had assumed that the once open personnel data previously published in State Magazine was been being circulated to current employees over State’s Intranet to which I, of course, do not have access. But I have been assured that this is not the case.
It seems to me that these allegations of personnel problems stemming from within HR are too serious to be left up to the Division to investigate itself. That’s inappropriate and sort of like allowing the fox to inspect the hen house.
Further, given the problems with State’s OIG (remember the infamous Howard “Cookie” Krongard, State’s last OIG who resigned under Congressional oversight committee pressure and was never replaced) – something that State’s OIG should not be allowed to investigate either.
Akin to the deregulation of American’s financial institutions, the antiquated, opaque, and overly hierarchical system which governs this country’s diplomatic corps has more than run its course. The problems are now widespread. The U.S. deserves better. An impartial outside investigation is where to start. The time is now.
Previous WV related posts:
"Cleaning Up the Shenanigans and Reinstituting the Golden Rule," June 20, 2008.
"Favoritism in the Ranks Saga Continues at State," May 27, 2008.
A Few Thoughts on Maundy Thursday Night's Massacre at Foggy Bottom," Friday, 21 March 2008. (re "Cookie" Krongard and State's IG).
"Why the AFSA Survey Is Right: Favoritism Charge is Real," Feb. 26, 2008.
"Where Have All the Public Diplomacy Specialists Gone?" June 27, 2008