By Joan Wadelton, Guest Contributor
Joan Wadelton was a Foreign Service Officer from 1980-2011. She served in Africa, Latin America, Russia and Iraq. In addition to assignments in the State Department, she was an advisor to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a director of the Office of the US Trade Representative. Before joining the Department, Ms. Wadelton was an attorney.
I am now entering my tenth year of a legal dispute with the Department of State's Bureau of Human Resources (HR). A complete account of my case can be found at The Troubled State of State: A System Run Amok. In this article I want to go on the record with my own thoughts about how to correct the systemic failings that I have encountered over the last 10 years in the Bureau of Human Resources, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) and the Office of the Legal Advisor.
My story illustrates a system gone horribly wrong and not just because my efforts to get a fair hearing were unsuccessful over such a long period. Rather because neither senior officials in the State Department or elsewhere in the US government, nor existing oversight mechanisms, have brought my case to a conclusion, nor have they stopped wrongdoing by Department officials.
These oversight mechanisms include:
– the Department of State's Office of Inspector General – with which I raised my concerns three times over a period of years – and which refused to investigate each time;
– the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) – which rendered a judgment acknowledging that documents produced by HR in my multiple promotion panel reviews were highly irregular – and then sent me back to HR for a repeat of those reviews -- without instituting any controls over HR staff or procedures. This second round of proceedings produced documents that are blatantly fraudulent (see Joan's promotion panel score sheets);
– State's Office of the Legal Advisor – whose attorneys have supported HR's claims in my case in federal court – although they know or should know them to be false;
– the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) – a tiny executive branch agency created to investigate and remedy government whistleblower complaints when the accused government entity will not do so itself. My request for an investigation several years ago came amidst turmoil caused by the then-agency head, who was eventually removed for refusing to investigate multiple whistleblower claims. The OSC's response to my request was so inept that I did not pursue it;
– the Department of Justice – which has represented the State Department's suspect claims against me in federal court – despite having the discretion to tell State to settle; and
– Congress – (the only bright spot in this saga) – which has made repeated inquiries about my allegations to the State Department over many years; however, State rebuffed every one of those inquiries. Congress also commissioned a very useful study by the GAO of the Foreign Service promotion process.
Although the examples I cite of incompetence and corruption involve only HR, the Office of the Legal Advisor and the OIG, there have been multiple reports concerning irregularities in other administrative areas of State. This situation has developed over a long period of time, through multiple Administrations.
Senior political appointees over many years must bear some blame for not enforcing stricter oversight over the agency in which they serve. However, the current state of affairs is largely the fault of entrenched career officials, whose lack of competence and integrity has profoundly damaged the institution.
Correcting this will take the sustained efforts of the Secretary of State and Congress working together – installing specific and permanent mechanisms to ensure outside oversight, changing laws and regulations, restructuring the Department and cleaning house of corrupt employees.
How did it come to be such a mess?
Above all, the current mess is due to a longstanding lack of rigorous oversight -- both external and internal. In addition, State's insistence that it can manage, audit and investigate itself with no outside oversight allows existing problems to persist.
Thus its five-year refusal (until late last year) to appoint an independent, Senate-confirmed Inspector General (IG). During that time, Harold Geisel, the Acting Inspector General – himself a career Foreign Service Officer – proved resistant to investigating allegations of wrongdoing against various career officials.
Unfortunately, this lack of an effective Inspector General under President Obama followed the disastrous tenure of the political Inspector General appointed by President George W. Bush – Howard Krongard. Krongard left following House hearings to investigate allegations by his own staff that he had consistently covered up findings of irregularities.
In addition to refusing to pursue investigations, the OIG has reported whistleblowers back to the very people they make allegations against, ensuring that those same whistleblowers suffer retaliation. And also ensuring that few employees will report management incompetence and corruption to the OIG.
This failure of internal oversight has collided with a Congress that – while it has in fact investigated and held hearings on significant problems -- has yet to force a recalcitrant State Department to make needed reforms.
Add to that the implosion several years ago of the Office of Special Counsel, a last resort for government whistleblowers to report corruption and seek relief (although new management is reportedly working to restore faith in the agency, its credibility was badly damaged).
The pervasive lack of oversight has led to near total impunity for those guilty of incompetence, cronyism and corruption within State. A small group of career officials has taken advantage of this to gain control of the bureaucracy's administrative functions. Their pernicious influence has persisted for years.
The longevity of the group has been made possible by its control of the personnel system. Senior managers at State stay in place for years – and when they do retire, they are rehired in a lucrative pay status, allowing them to remain in senior positions for more years. Thus, the same people turn up repeatedly in ambassadorships and assistant secretary and deputy assistant secretary jobs.
Not only does this discourage fresh thinking, it has bottled up the personnel system at the top. With the jobs at the higher ranks endlessly filled by the same people, the cohort five or 10 years behind them in the career service cannot move up to become the next generation of leaders. And as a consequence, many FSOs are forced to retire at the peak of their expertise.
Members of this inner circle have used their control of HR to give themselves and their friends promotions, prestigious assignments, cash bonuses and jobs for family members. Conversely, they have used HR as a weapon against employees they dislike – including removing them from promotion lists and blocking plum assignments and cash bonuses – no matter how qualified those disfavored people might be.
In recent years, under the failed management of Howard Krongard and Harold Geisel, the OIG has not intervened to stop such abuses. Whether because of gross incompetence, to protect friends engaged in questionable activities or because the OIG staff itself receives awards and promotions from HR, the OIG has allowed HR to operate virtually unimpeded.
Nor do employees have recourse to effective and transparent dispute resolution. For example, the Foreign Service grievance process is structured to work against the employee. Many employee complaints involve problems with HR – which itself adjudicates disputes at the preliminary levels and provides the attorneys who litigate employee grievances for the Department.
HR also hires and pays (at the SES level) the Foreign Service Grievance Board members – who are presumably disinclined to displease HR with large numbers of rulings in favor of employees.
In addition, Foreign Service grievants must overcome obstacles such as a limited right to discovery of evidence (which the Department has access to) and overlong timelines which permit Department management to delay the resolution of disputes. Finally, HR has for years viewed complainants as the enemy and acted accordingly – using the most aggressive tactics against the most minor grievances.