The State Department’s FRUS Fracas Concludes

Early this year, the special review panel appointed to look into the controversy in the Historian’s Office at the State Department submitted a two-page report (January 19, 2009). It concludes among other things that the current working atmosphere in the HO and between the HO and the HAC “poses real threats to the high scholarly quality of the FRUS series” and the management challenges in HO merit “serious consideration of a reorganization.”

The report led the Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy to request a follow-up inspection by the OIG. Last week, State’s Inspector General released its report (h/t to Skeptical Bureaucrat) with the following key judgments:

»The Office of the Historian (HO) is responsible by law for the publication of a thorough, accurate, and reliable account of major U.S. foreign policy decisions within 30 years of the events recorded. This is the Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) series. While the 30-year deadline has rarely been met, HO’s influential advisory body, the Historical Advisory Committee (HAC), fears that mismanagement of the human resources made available for the FRUS and the effect of this on morale within HO – also historically poor – threaten further delay, possibly damaging the thoroughness and accuracy that give the FRUS its unparalleled prestige. OIG finds these fears to be justified.

»A large majority of present HO employees alleged to OIG cronyism, favoritism, and lack of transparency on the part of HO management, and in general the creation of an unhappy workplace as the basis for their disaffection. This, they said, was made worse by the manner in which one division chief carried out security and other duties that go beyond his normal area of authority. For its part, management attributed academic atavism, displeasure with security regulations, and ignorance of Civil Service rules to the same employees. Neither side shows much confidence in the other.

»Compilation and publication of the FRUS is a years-long and highly specialized process. Experience is a vital component in it, but with 21 employees having left HO in the past five years for differing reasons, this experience is being lost. Contrary to the director’s assertion, “newly minted” PhDs cannot perform at the necessary level of quality after only a short time on the job. Lapses in production are therefore inevitable. This likelihood is aggravated by vacancies in the jobs of general editor and one division chief that were imposed by the special review panel.

»There is a built-in tension between HO’s FRUS-related statutory obligations and the resources made available to meet them, just as there is between the timeliness and the quality of the FRUS itself. Even with an increase in staff and in budget, HO is no closer to meeting these obligations than in the past. The foreign affairs world and the players in it continue to grow in number and complexity, outpacing efforts to have FRUS keep up. There is a need for more structured thinking about how FRUS can meet its obligations and expectations within realistic funding levels. This strategic thinking and planning should be conducted jointly with HO’s advisory body, the HAC.

»With each finding fault with actions of the other, relations between HO and the HAC today are professional but strained. The director’s advisory role in the appointment and reappointment of HAC members is controversial, while the involvement in HO employee complaints by some HAC members made disaffection in HO worse.

»Oversight of HO by the Bureau of Public Affairs (PA) has not been regular or, lately, helpful. OIG believes that HO should remain in PA, but that the bureau should provide a more structured mechanism for closer supervision of HO.

»HO has a large number of contractors – 12 of its 49 positions. This means increased costs: OIG estimates that each contractor costs the U.S. Government about $12,000 more per year than would a direct-hire employee. It also means increased instability in an office requiring a high degree of education, training, and experience to carry out its responsibilities.

»HO needs an administrative officer as well as additional direct-hire positions for historians. These would help the FRUS by allowing more time to be spent on research and compilation and by providing a more stable workforce.

»HO office space is cluttered and badly arranged; cubicles are generally small and inconvenient. The office is not sized to house 49 positions. PA should find a space planner to review the existing facility, while actively seeking larger, more suitable space for HO.

A closer reading of the OIG report also reveals the following hard-hitting nuggets that the OIG is not shy of pointing out:

The Assistant Secretary was consumed by other duties

Until about two years ago, PA was regularly and helpfully involved in what HO was doing. The Assistant Secretary had urged the director to “put HO on the map,” and the supervising deputy assistant secretary helped to get the additional resources that were needed to do it. The deputy assistant secretary attended HO staff meetings and lent a strong, benevolent hand to the office’s problems as well as to those of individual employees. Regular PA staff meetings supported the bureau’s sympathetic supervision. Unfortunately, changes in PA’s front office resulted in a loss of interest in HO. Until PA resumed office director meetings with the change of administrations, there were none. The deputy assistant secretary had little contact with the office, and the Assistant Secretary was consumed by other duties.

Public Affairs oversight of the Historian’s Office

OIG found that the problems in the management of HO had not been reviewed and corrected by past PA officials. More interaction in the way of regular office director meetings, more broadly inclusive staff meetings, and realistic periodic performance evaluations of HO leadership involving personal knowledge of HO activities, might have identified the issues in HO and helped resolve them. Because of past lack of clarity in PA on who performs the oversight of HO and how it will be done, OIG believes that PA should establish a clear chain of command for the HO office director to utilize when informing PA of HO activities, and to provide better PA oversight of HO.

Something in HO is very wrong

In varying degrees, nearly 75 percent of the present HO employees interviewed by OIG were critical of the way the office is run. They alleged favoritism, cronyism, a lack of transparency, lack of interest in the FRUS, disparagement of the staff, suspicion, an absence of leadership, and, in general, the creation of an unhappy workplace. The statements to OIG generally were made by individuals with first-hand experience of the issue. For the most part they included specific instances to which the speaker was a party. The effect is a widespread perception of mismanagement and a general – though not unanimous – disaffection. As measured by OIG questionnaires, and by comparison with many other inspected entities, average individual morale (5 being the highest) is a low 2.82 and that of the office an even lower 1.91.

HO is an unusual organization in the Department’s structure: highly specialized, remote from its parent bodies, and attractive to those who prefer research to operations. Poor morale is not a new problem, as both the 1990 and 2002 OIG inspections of PA found, but today it is unusually low. When added to the high number of staff departures in recent years, the two together indicate that something in HO is very wrong.

Lack of trust all around

OIG found an unending chain of allegations and counter-allegations. There is a lack of trust all around. Some employees told OIG that they loved their jobs but did not like going to work.

OIG believes that the HAC’s real and expressed fear is that managerial problems in HO will so damage staff morale and effectiveness as to cause harm to the FRUS above and beyond any other aspects of the problem, however genuine they may be. On this point its worries are on firm ground. The HAC is on less solid ground in the matter of engaging with HO staff on internal HO administrative problems. This happened after individual HO employees approached HAC members about personal complaints. HAC members then became involved in internal HO management issues, with some taking the initiative themselves to contact HO employees. Both HO employees and HAC members told OIG that this happened after their approaches to PA did not give them the satisfaction they sought. The HAC then took its worries to the Secretary, who set into motion the chain the events leading to this review.

The OIG interviewed more than 90 persons, including past and present HO members as well as PA staff and other Department personnel. HO employees also filled out standard OIG questionnaires. The inspection team attended HAC meetings, met with the full HAC membership, as well as separately with two of them, and both met and corresponded with members of the special review panel.

The OIG provided a 24-point recommendation for the Historian’s Office (see pages 31-33).

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