Every so often I write a post on the internal workings or non-workings of the State Department. I haven’t done so for awhile – but I guess it’s that time again – especially since the Department is set to expand the number of Foreign Service Officers by 1,000 over the coming year. Let’s face it, State, the executive branch’s oldest department, has often attracted top talent – but its personnel system and the way it treats too many of its officers has been its weakest link. It remains so.
This, in a nut shell, means State continues to fail to make use of the talent it has so assiduously recruited nearly as well as it could. Or should. A Human Resources Bureau that has been allowed to run amok with little or no outside oversight over the past decade remains a major obstacle. This is most visible at the senior levels where financial and assignments stakes are highest, but the problems have also trickled down the ranks in deleterious and mysterious ways.
Here are a few of the most recent examples:
The bonus pay fiasco
Over the past several years, lists of senior officers eligible for bonus pay were secretly winnowed in size by employees in Human Resources. When a group of eligible FSOs stumbled upon this, the Director General wrote them a letter giving an explanation that was either deliberately false or the product of gross incompetence by HR staff. As a consequence, the Department has been ordered by the Foreign Service Grievance Board to reconvene several years of those boards to rectify what are at best irregularities -- if not cronyism or worse.
The performance pay system has for years regularly awarded financial bonuses to Senior Foreign Service officers who are based in Washington (often in HR) to the detriment of other high ranking officers who have served in hardship and danger posts abroad. Fortunately, the Foreign Service Grievance Board still has some teeth and integrity – because requests for investigation by State’s Inspector General into HR abuses (including several very recently involving both manipulation of promotion and bonus pay lists) have fallen on deaf ears for years.
An overhaul of the FS bonus pay system is badly needed -- and should bar the same person from getting an award two or three years on a row. Consideration should also be given to the distribution of these bonuses up and down the food chain -- from secretaries and junior specialists on up to the senior service.
This practice of HR arranging big cash awards for itself and its cronies has played out for years on the Civil Service side as well. While there are some 265 SES employees at State, the same handful of people in HR -- or their cronies -- has nabbed huge cash bonuses year after year. As with the Foreign Service, the Department should institute a rule that bonus awards cannot be granted for the same person multiple years in a row.
The assignments fiasco
These divisions of spoils by HR for itself and its friends is not restricted to financial benefits -- plum assignments are also regularly handed out to insiders. As I pointed out earlier, a senior level Foreign Service Officer was two-three times more likely to receive an Ambassadorship while serving in Human Resources than in Iraq – despite the Department’s stated goal of honoring the service of staff who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. In a particularly egregious case, a senior FSO sat for eight years in HR -- where he pushed people to serve in Iraq -- before waltzing off to an ambassadorship in Africa.
Promotion board corruption
There are shocking allegations that have come to me about Foreign Service promotion boards being corrupted – and not just at the senior levels. There are reports of HR senior management telling a promotion board member (on the QT naturally) to promote a particular individual or individuals whether the individuals stacked up favorably in this all important annual rank-in-person competition or not.
There are also allegations of board members being given lists of people to promote by their home bureaus, thereby preventing others from competing on a level playing field. But to make it worse, HR keeps no records of key decisions – like promotions. This has allowed HR the opportunity to usher forth any results it so chooses. The minimal controls that exist on paper are ignored. And I am informed of at least one instance where an individual given those "special" instructions by HR who refused to go along to get along – or get ahead -- was then relentlessly retaliated against by HR.
There is, in fact, a way for an individual to challenge irregular, incompetent or unfavorable decisions by the personnel system -- the grievance procedure. This can be done to request a new promotion board -- through a legal filing requesting that a "reconstituted" board be assembled. This filing may or may not be honored. But such requests would be rare if the current personnel system operated honestly and transparently. Challenging the system in this way is painful and expensive to the individual concerned and can itself result in a can of worms.
Here’s the can of worms at its worst
No records of "reconstituted" board deliberations are retained and the board members themselves routinely do not meet together -- meaning they cannot know the final candidate rankings to which they attest. Meanwhile, HR officials have been signing off on the final results for the board members without the member’s permission or even knowledge. In once instance, at least, HR announced the results of three out of six boards reconstituted for a single individual before the boards even met. The officer in question - one of State's first employees in Iraq after the invasion - had been cited for exceptional work in Fallujah. Despite HR's repeated assurances that Iraq service is valued - apparently it just didn't matter.
Hiring cronies for career (not political) positions
On the Civil Service side, senior managers in Human Resources are alleged to have approved position descriptions that permit their cronies to be hired for jobs without them having to go through the normal competitive process. As a result individuals have been hired for positions beyond their competency. This, mind you, may be an all too normal approach for Schedule C (political appointments) – but not for the career services where specific qualifications (not related to money-bundling) are de rigeur.
Then there are charges of nepotism: for years Human Resources managers have been accused – with good reason - of abusing their positions to hire family members. In a recent case, a senior HR official hired a child for a job that came under the official in question. I’ve always believed that the division of the Foreign Service into two classes (done under the Carter administration) has not produced what was intended – e.g. a better functioning operation – and was not what the system needed. Reform – yes. Much more management and other training for staff. Yes. A very different approach to staffing junior grade Consular positions overseas. Yes.
Nevertheless, a nineteenth century hierarchy for a knowledge-based organization that retires far to many of its highly trained officers - just when they are at their career peaks – hurts the organization and wastes the taxpayers money. But this is what has been happening for years. But the corrupt – perhaps even criminal – mismanagement by State Department Human Resources must not continue unchecked.
The Foreign Service Grievance Board cannot be the only functioning recourse for those damaged by this. And an unexpectedly early retirement by someone causing these problems is not good enough. Hillary Clinton brought in Jack Lew, as the first ever Deputy Secretary for Management, but where does he stand in all of this? Meanwhile, the Department still operates under an Acting Inspector General who is alleged to have either refused to investigate claims against HR, or whitewashed them.
He follows in the notorious footsteps of Cookie Krongard – who was chased out of his office by Henry Waxman. The new Director General of the Foreign Service, who operates as the true head of Foreign Service Personnel, has yet to make her presence felt.
There’s more . . . but I’ll leave it for a follow-up.
In the meantime, would someone with integrity and competency please investigate - but more than that straighten out this embarrassing mess before more people get hurt and the department deprived of their talents? Hillary? Jack? Congressional Oversight Committees? Anybody out there?
Previous related posts include:
Clean Up Time at Foggy Bottom, March 2009;