By Patricia H Kushlis
The General Accounting Office (GAO) published its 32 page investigation of the Foreign Service promotion process in July 2013. The title? Foreign Affairs Management: State Department Has Strengthened Foreign Service Promotion Process Internal Controls, but Documentation Gaps Remain.
In essence, the July GAO report echoes the same themes – including the failure to keep records – that were reported in a highly critical State Department OIG report of the department’s Human Resources Bureau published three years earlier. The GAO also corroborates the gist of my posts on WhirledView about the same topic, posts I began writing in 2008.
Perhaps the most important take-away from the GAO report is that while State’s Bureau of Human Resources has procedures that could and should be effective, the failure to implement all of the procedures all of the time could compromise the promotion boards’ final results. In fact, we know this was the case in earlier years as pointed out in the 2010 OIG inspection report.
As the GAO noted:
“The absence of a fully documented system of controls increases the risk that intentional or unintentional failures to implement safeguards, by board members or state human resources staff, may go undetected and uncorrected. Such a failure to implement safeguards, in turn, increases the risk that the integrity of promotion results could be intentionally or inadvertently compromised.”
The State Department Inspector General’s Office’s internal investigation in 2010 of the promotion system unearthed far more serious irregularities than simple sloppiness in the way the department’s Bureau of Human Resources was administering perhaps the single most important function under its jurisdiction. What makes the operation of this system so important is that although entrance into the US Foreign Service is not only incredibly competitive but also once someone becomes a Foreign Service Officer, the rest of his or her career hinges on an “up-or-out” principle along the lines of the US military including competitive annual promotion panels that screen upward advancement, a rigid hierarchical structure and a mandatory retirement age of 65.
This means that HR irregularities - whether through simple sloppiness or intent to deceive - can result and have resulted in career US diplomats being forced out of the service and their careers destroyed based on questionable premises. This has been going on for years.
What Does This Mean for Americans?
State’s HR ineptitude doesn’t just harm the individual, or individuals, in question. The problem has larger implications for the effectiveness of American diplomacy and hence the national security of the American people. Not only can the wrong individuals be incorrectly promoted (or not promoted) because of weak HR documentation and controls but a system that willy-nilly eliminates qualified officers as this one does is simply not cost-effective.
It is impossible to grow a Foreign Service Officer overnight: As a longtime and knowledgeable observer of the Foreign Service once told me, it takes 20 years to grow a tree and at least as long to grow a US diplomat. The work requires a combination of high level job-based knowledge, a variety of interpersonal and intellectual skills combined often with strong foreign language proficiency. This is why it is crucial that HR, as the keeper of the keys, protect the integrity of the promotion system.
Yet the recent GAO report, for instance, tells of promotion boards (2010-11 and 2011-12) with members hazy about the criteria they swore to uphold. It also reports incidences of missing documentation in officers’ files considered by those same promotion boards. These files are assembled by HR. The board members are selected and briefed by HR. With such holes even the best intentioned board members cannot make sensible and fair decisions.
As is seen in the corporate world, any organization that cannot manage its human capital properly threatens the profitability and longevity of the company itself.
The good and the bad
I have been writing about problems with the administration of the Foreign Service personnel system since 2008. The fact that the GAO found improvement in State’s management of it since 2010 as a result of HR’s partial compliance with the recommendations contained in the then highly critical OIG report is all to the good. Yet, the fact that gaps in documentation remain – incorporated to prevent corruption - is not.
The GAO reported that although State has made an effort to implement procedures that would reduce problems in the process – such as updated recusal procedures, board member oaths and an overhaul of the rules that govern reconstituted boards – it also stated that longstanding concerns about HR’s management of the process continue: confusion among board members over promotion criteria; incomplete candidate files; insufficient training of board members and more.
More troubling, the GAO observed that the procedures designed to protect against fraud are not always followed: The two most important are missing board member oaths and the failure to have members of reconstituted boards sign or initial final score sheets that rank the individuals being considered accordingly. For earlier evidence of effects of this violation, see Joan Wadelton’s 2011 score sheets.
Finally, the GAO reported an example of possible wrong doing – an allegation that an “HR official” had “inappropriately instructed a board member.”
This is not the first time I’ve learned of that kind of allegation either. I wrote about a similar earlier case in which an HR official gave a promotion board member a list of candidates that the HR official wanted the board member to help promote. Unfortunately, the whistleblower in this case – someone who reported the violation within the system rather than going to Wikileaks, the Al Kamen column or other parts of the mainstream media – has suffered severe retaliation for doing so. (See my December 2, 2009 WV post “A System in Need of a Large Broom” for the details.)
Once again, as the GAO highlighted in its Executive Summary of the July 2013 report:
“The absence of a fully documented system of controls increases the risk that intentional or unintentional failures to implement safeguards, by board members of State Human Resources staff, may go undetected and uncorrected. Such failure to implement safeguards, in turn, increases the risk that the integrity of promotion results could be intentionally or inadvertently compromised.”
How then can the GAO Study Help Restore HR to the Straight and Narrow?
An outside study which validates problems that have been being talked about for years is important especially one that provides further insights and recommendations into what State’s OIG should be looking for in its inspections of HR and in the OIG’s dealing with individual complaints about HR’s operation. At the end of the day, HR cannot be trusted to police itself – no group of human beings can.
In order for GAO’s report to be useful, State’s new IG should make an inspection of HR a high priority to ensure that the GAO’s recommendations are followed and the gaps in its management of the promotion be eliminated.
NEXT ROUND Reinvent the Foreign Service grievance process and restructure the Grievance Board
In the next round of activities to improve the functioning of the Foreign Service personnel system, the GAO should be asked to provide guidance on reform of the Foreign Service grievance process through a separate study and, in particular, one that includes recommendations for strengthening the independence and competence of the Foreign Service Grievance Board.
In essence, the primary recourse an officer has to try to right a wrong in the area of human resources is to take his or her case to the Foreign Service Grievance Board. Yet this is a body housed within and controlled by HR. This inherent conflict of interest as well as other issues surrounding the grievance process needs investigation by an outside body such as the GAO.
As I pointed out above, although officially appointed by the Secretary of State, the members of the Grievance Board are nominated by HR. Not only is the board housed in HR and its members effectively chosen by HR, the board also has little authoritative power to reverse HR decisions: the FSGB can recommend recourse, but, in the end, the board is not the final arbiter – HR is. In essence, HR is defense attorney, judge and jury. This concentration of power in HR over all of the FSGB'S decisions is simply not good for the well-being of the institution or its staff. After all, it has been all too well documented – remember Stalin gained control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union through control of its administrative apparatus - that control over personnel and budget are the two most powerful reins any individual can hold in any organization.
To abolish the current conflict of interest and shorten the timelines for decision-making, the selection, operation and powers of the Grievance Board need to be separated from HR and its decisions given greater weight than they now have. See my April 23, 2013 post “Can the Foreign Service Reform Itself? If so how and where to begin?”
See The Troubled State of State, WV, 2008-2013 for 24 previous posts on management issues at the State Department.