It’s been two months since I wrote "Large Broom Still Needed" a post that focused on a number of serious endemic administrative deficiencies that adversely affect the operation of the State Department. These deficiencies result in a far less effective institution than it could, should and needs to be if it is going to play the leading role in this country’s national security apparatus that the Obama administration and Secretaries Clinton and Gates want.
Easter has come and gone so I thought that it was time to check back to see what and whether anything had changed on the management front in the interim.
The first thing I discovered was that one of the personnel practices I cited as a problem in my "System in Need of a Large Broom" post last December -- the hiring of certain individuals by bypassing normal procedures -- had made its way into The Washington Post. Citing the case of Reta Lewis -- described by the Post as a "veteran lobbyist" -- the article made reference to Lewis' improper hiring through the Schedule B mechanism. Now Hillary is entitled to hire the people she knows and trusts -- all Secretaries have that right.
But she got bad advice from someone in her HR office about this one and it went public. In fact, State's personnel problems seem to be leaking out into the open with some regularity. The Town Hall meeting in January where three different people brought up personnel issues, an article in the LA Times about discrimination against African-Americans March 16, 2010 -- you get the picture.
Bottom Line: Little or Nothing has Changed
The Department still has no Inspector General – the acting Deputy IG – a retired Foreign Service Officer and old friend of the Under Secretary for Management -- is still in place drawing both his full retirement pay plus full senior officer salary. Furthermore, the relationship between State’s Office of the Inspector General and Office of Human Resources allegedly continues to remain too cozy.
From what I understand, it still must be in the construction stage.
Seems to me it’s possible to buy land, find an architect, builder and crew and actually design and build a custom house in far less time than it is taking the State Department to fill this single statutorily required position.
You would never know this problem existed from the outside, however. When I went to the latest publicly available version of State's phone book I found someone listed as "Civil Service Ombudsman." Sounds good -- except when I did a little checking I discovered that he had retired several years ago. He, like his successor in the job, was an insider from the Human Resources (HR) world. So any Civil Service employee who runs afoul of HR and wants help from an impartial outsider clearly isn't going to get it.
So how about bringing in a qualified outsider with no previous ties to State as the Civil Service Ombudsman and also creation of a Foreign Service Ombudsman. Wouldn't these be a wise steps as well.? The problems with the Grievance Office could be greatly alleviated if credible Ombudsmen were able to represent employees in disputes involving Human Resources.
A system riddled with holes
Meanwhile, the Foreign Service promotion system remains riddled with holes so large that a truck can be driven through them. Shocking allegations continue to emerge. A Foreign Service Officer currently being TICed out (forced out for time in class) was told by someone who had sat on her promotion panel that she had been so highly ranked by that panel that it was virtually impossible that she did not make the cut for entry into the Senior Foreign Service in 2007.
She was subsequently told the same thing by someone who sat on a promotion board that reviewed her in 2006. Except that when the promotion lists came out in those years, this FSO's name was not on them. As it happens, this person had clashed with HR management at the time. A coincidence? I have no idea. Is this story true? I can only say that it is not the first such case that has been brought to my attention. And -- as I have noted before -- similar claims exist regarding reconstituted promotion boards.
Unfortunately, it is hard to know what to make of all of this -- as HR has destroyed all records of Foreign Service promotion board deliberations for years.
Interestingly enough, we hear that HR is trying to force some semblance of order on the reconstituted promotion board mess. Perhaps my calling attention to this matter has prodded the Department in this direction. Perhaps it was Congress' recent expression of interest in an indefensible system. In any case, I understand that HR -- in contrast to years of chaotic (and seemingly corrupt) practice -- is making an effort to have reconstituted boards meet together -- or have members not physically present reporting in by phone.
All well and good -- except that we also understand that HR is finding it hard to reconstitute panels mandated by the Foreign Service Grievance Board for numerous individuals affected by HR's arbitrary exclusion of those individuals for bonus pay. As well as for a significant number of FSOs whose files HR is alleged to have misplaced along the way to last year's annual promotion boards.
HR's rumored response?
To ask the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) for permission to have fewer than the current six mandated individuals sit on the reconstituted boards. The inability to call a meeting of six people will surely come as shock to the rest of the Department's Bureaus -- which routinely hold dozens of meetings a week --many quite large and involving officials from other agencies or other countries. Given the seriousness of both this problem and the implications of any proposed changes, we would expect AFSA to put this out to its membership for discussion. Even then -- improved procedures (or any procedures at all) are going to be suspect. After all -- the people implementing the system are the same as before. And as I keep saying -- State's OIG adheres to no visible standards regarding complaints about HR.
The Public Member Conundrum
Furthermore, the requirement that each Foreign Service promotion panel must include a public member does not, in reality, keep the system honest -- despite the original intent. Here’s the rub: Public members are hired and paid by Human Resources and many of the same ones return year after year. To whom do they owe their loyalty? It should come as no surprise that public members are alleged to have yielded to pressure from HR managers to influence the outcomes of promotion boards to which they were assigned.
It’s Still about the Goodies
As I noted in previous posts, ambassadorships have gone overwhelmingly to HR insiders over those who have put their lives on the line in Iraq and Afghanistan. The latest -- and most appalling -- examples? The most recent Director General and his Deputy -- both having spent their two-year tenures pushing their State colleagues off to war zones -- are going where? To Iraq or Afghanistan? Not a chance. They are both enjoying agreeable posts in the South Pacific.
Nor has the situation regarding bonus pay for senior foreign and civil service improved. HR insiders dot the lists as they have for years. As an example on the Civil Service side, a current senior HR official and a former senior HR official (now at the Department's training institute) have received either SES (Senior Executive Service) Performance Awards or Presidential Rank Awards every year for at least the last five years -- including 2009. Whether the awards lists are long or short -- these two women are on them.
HR is a support function at the Department -- not a line function. The several hundred SES employees in the State Department do complicated, high-profile work on the front lines of diplomacy; many of these people are ignored at awards time. It is difficult to imagine how these HR employees (who after all, have run a Bureau unable to put together six-person meetings on a regular basis) manage to snag the US government's top honors year after year. It certainly calls into question the integrity of the awards process -- from the selection of the boards that grant the awards -- to the choice of award recipients themselves.
I repeat my suggestion to Hillary and her people -- revise the regulations to bar any one senior employee (Civil or Foreign Service) from getting an award more than once in three years.
The Five Percent Kiss of Death
As another part of this strange moonscape, Congress has mandated that five percent of FSOs reviewed by promotion boards each year are to receive what is known as a "low ranking" statement inserted in their performance files.
On the one hand, this requirement was likely instituted to serve notice to an individual that something was seriously wrong with his or her performance in comparison with others at the same grade level; after receiving two such warnings in five years the person would be subject to selection out. Problem is, some of these warnings are also alleged to have been manipulated by HR managers to the advantage or disadvantage of an affected individual.
There are accounts of low-ranking statements imposed by promotion panels being arbitrarily removed from the affected officers' files by HR staff. And there are even more disturbing allegations of the fabrication of low-ranking statements by HR to punish individuals against whom they bear grudges.
As I noted in a previous post, for years the prevailing attitude in the Grievance Office – which, by the way, is part of HR – has been that the grievant is always wrong and employee complaints frequently result in premature career ends. There is no indication that this has improved under the new Director General and reports of problems with grievances continue to come my way. So what is the solution to this not insignificant corner of the HR mess?
The Black Hole of Calcutta on a Moonless Winter Night
In short, State’s Human Resources Office remains as opaque as the black hole of Calcutta on a moonless winter night. No surprises then that reports of shocking irregularities continue to ooze out. All of this should call into question the integrity of the way HR now operates.
Stay tuned: next up. Fair Play? Minorities and Women at State's Plate.
Related WV posts
System in Need of a Large Broom: Buyer Beware, December 2, 2009
Clean Up Time at Foggy Bottom, March 9, 2009
Cleaning Up the Shenanigans and instituting the Golden Rule, June 20, 2008
Favoritism in the Ranks Saga Continues at State, May 27, 2008
Why the AFSA Survey Was Right, February 26, 2008