By Patricia H. Kushlis
Late last month Hillary Clinton held a Town Hall Meeting at the State Department. Two issues were raised that she and the Department need to take seriously. They both relate to the way the Department handles its people.
First, the claim that Civil Service (GS) positions that should be filled competitively are being filled without the required competition among eligible candidates.
The second is that the position of ombudsman for the Civil Service (the Foreign Service has no ombudsman) has remained unfilled for years. Indeed,the Department has never even bothered to respond to a formal request sent last May from a senior Civil Service union (AFGE) representative requesting that the position be filled. Now if the Department had a history of managing its human capital well, the ombudsman vacancy wouldn’t matter so much. But that IF is a big one and it’s pretty obvious that there’s trouble brewing from below that needs a fair hearing.
The answers to these two questions -- to which Hillary asked the Under Secretary for Management to respond -- were not satisfactory. In fact, the transcript shows that his response to one of the questions was largely inaudible.
An aside: I also do not think an ombudsman position should be filled by the next available body. The person who is chosen needs to be qualified, competent, unbiased, approved by the rank-and-file and understand how the Minoan-like labyrinth on C Street functions.
Symptomatic of Deep-seated Problems
Now this may seem like insider baseball -- or immaterial in the higher scope of foreign policy sorts of things -- but these problems are symptomatic of deep-seated ones that are endemic in the State Department’s Bureau of Human Resources and resonate far beyond its corridor.
Furthermore, the chronic lack of serious attention to the Department’s human dimension perhaps helps explain why Foggy Bottom has come to play third fiddle in foreign policy making and implementation and perhaps even why Hillary just said that the Department needs shaking up. Yes, I know that Hillary was referring to “ditching its (State’s) 20th century habits for a culture of innovation” according to Ken Stier in Time, but treatment and development of the Department’s personnel are all part of creating an environment in which people and new thinking can flourish.
The same problem exists in filling the Department’s Inspector General position. It’s still vacant at least three years after the last incumbent, the Blackwater-tainted Cookie Krongard, was waltzed out the door after his star turn in a series of embarrassing Congressional hearings. These issues -- and others -- need to be dealt with, not swept up under anybody’s flying carpet by the current administration. And frankly, anyone who knows anything about organizational management knows that there are far more enlightened ways to deal with personnel problems than those currently employed by State.On December 2, 2009, I wrote a post entitled “A System in Need of a Large Broom.” It’s been two months and I decided it was time for a follow-up. Since then, my “Large Broom” post has been widely read not only in the confines of the State Department (by several thousand people) but also on Capitol Hill and throughout the larger foreign affairs community. Nothing I wrote has been challenged. Au contraire. In reality, what I wrote at the time could be the tip of a Titanic-sized iceberg, just as were the complaints raised at State’s most recent Town Hall with the Secretary.
The Disappeared Administrator of Senior Foreign Service Promotion and Bonus Pay Boards
Whether my Large Broom post had anything to do with the sudden departure over the Christmas holidays of the official in charge of Foreign Service senior promotion and bonus pay boards, is a mystery to me. If my post helped spur an internal investigation, perhaps sped up an ongoing investigation or simply made public a serious problem that the Department should have dealt with years ago, then all to the good.
Or was the disappearance of the State Department now non-official due to simple incompetence? If so, the State Department was as slow as molasses in winter in helping the now former employee out the exit. After all, she had been in the job for over 20 years. I also have to wonder whether her behavior on the job is just one example -- among other irregularities big and small -- of a too contemptuous attitude on the part of career Department leadership towards far too many of their colleagues.
One thing that the Large Broom post seems not to have done is help fix the mess that is the reconstituted promotion board process. Although I highlighted this in some detail in early December, rumor has it that these boards still do not routinely meet together -- thereby impeding full and fair consideration of the individuals being reviewed for promotion. Meaning also that no board member can attest to the final candidate rankings -- which they are all required to do. Worse yet, there are allegations that HR has had board members sign off -- not on the final candidate rankings statement -- but on a blank piece of paper. A blank piece of paper completely detached from the official conclusions of the board. Go figure.
It's the Culture but its not one of innovation
As I’ve said earlier and I will say so again,the State Department has long had the reputation for having highly competent officers, but a very weak administrative structure. The system has traditionally rewarded a small number of senior level Foreign Service Officers who essentially clawed their way up through a very competitive, secretive, convoluted system and an overly hierarchical structure. The Foreign Service Act of 1980 made it worse. After the Cold War’s end, the Act was used throughout the 1990s to shrink the Department wholesale, forcing out too many hard language trained officers just at the peak of their careers.
To compensate for the personnel losses that never should have happened, private contractors recruit from the very pool of skilled but forced-out retirees to -- guess what -- staff Foreign Service positions in the Department. I know any number of highly experienced retirees who have either worked in State for a contractor or been brought back directly as temporary employees year upon year. There’s one thing about bringing back a temporary worker with the expert skills to ease a temporary shortage. But year after year?
This is not only bad management, but lends itself to the sort of abuse we see now by senior career officials in HR and elsewhere, who have brought back cronies who were senior administrative officials in days gone by and who are now ensconced in positions of influence. Positions of influence where -- because of special dispensations available only to the privileged few -- they are receiving not only their full pensions but good salaries as well.
But there are other serious State Department Human resources problems that need fixing. Here are two: 1) an all too pervasive attitude from the top down that the employee is always wrong; and 2) the lack of a functioning system of personnel oversight.
State’s Administrative Lobster Quadrille
I’ve focused on Foreign Service problems in previous posts, but in truth the Foreign Service does not even administer itself. The multiple personnel systems in the Department of which the Foreign Service is just one, interact and commingle in strange sorts of lobster quadrilles.
Just as the Foreign Service promotion and senior bonus pay panels are administered by Civil Service officials, so too is the Department’s grievance system. And this is the only way an employee -- whether Foreign or Civil Service -- can challenge a performance rating or any other workplace problem.
Here’s how the system works
Complaints funnel up to a single high-level civil servant in Human Resources.
This would not normally be a pleasant position to occupy, but the pay’s good, the job’s secure and this position of prestige and power over others is undeniable. Unfortunately, there currently exists a visceral negative response to employee complaints -- Foreign or Civil Service. The Grievance Office mindlessly opposes grievances even where it clear that the grievant has the stronger case, that the Department could be embarrassed by the final outcome or that taxpayer money is being wasted on petty matters that would be best resolved by quick settlements.
This attitude also translates into alleged abuse of the personnel system designed to punish grievants or to make them look unstable,including fabrication of results of official proceedings such as promotion boards (where grievants may be ranked far lower than might reasonably be expected), maligning a grievant’s mental health and character, and routinely disregarding certain requirements of the Merit Systems Protection Board that oblige an agency to list mitigating factors that an employee presents in an agency action against that employee.
Making Matters Worse
What makes matters worse is that in reality, employees have no recourse against such HR misdeeds. If an aggrieved individual complains to the Department’s Inspector General, the OIG seems to regularly turn the complaint back to the office against which the grievance was filed -- ensuring that those being accused of wrongdoing know the identities of their accusers and the misdeeds of which they are being accused. And -- astonishingly -- giving HR the opportunity to “investigate” itself. No surprises, then, that the person who files the complaint loses and worse, can suffer retaliation. This happened in 2006 to at least two Foreign Service Officers I know of. Yes, they have had their careers destroyed. But they are not alone. This is occurring in the Civil Service as well, where complaints to the OIG about HR abuses have been reported back to HR, resulting in retaliation so severe that the complainants have either left State or had their careers ruined.
Even more alarming is the Department’s attempt to cut off whistleblower complaints to outside bodies that might break apart this incestuous relationship between HR and the OIG. In a recent grievance, the Department asserted that communications between the grievant and Congress regarding HR misdeeds had to be handed over to State. However, there was no legal basis for the Department’s claim and Congress, when asked, was unaware of any restrictions on what it believes to be its privileged communications with agency whistleblowers.
Power Corrupts and Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely -- Lord Acton
Clearly too much power has been allowed to concentrate over the years in the hands of a small group in the Bureau of Human Resources: the checks that should be place in any large organization are lacking. Lord Acton’s dictum about the ill-effects of the corruption of power has been proven right -- yet again. Without oversight, this sort of cavalier attitude is going to happen regardless of country or organization. And in the
State Department, oversight has gone by the boards. Only outside eyes -- from the GAO, the Justice Department or elsewhere -- are going to be able to repair years of damage.
So Hillary, how about shaking this up too? Might help introduce some creativity in a Department in desperate need.
Previous related posts include:A System in Need of a Large Broom, December 2009.
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