AFSA Elections 2013: Thin Candidate Selection Sends Troubling Sign of Persistent Indifference

One of our readers prompted us recently to check out the upcoming AFSA elections … and so we did. Here is part of the election announcement:

AFSA Committee on Elections has approved the following candidates (see below) for positions on the ballot for the AFSA Governing Board for the 2013-2015 term. All regular voting members of AFSA will be emailed or mailed a ballot and the special election edition of AFSA News on or about April 15, 2013. 

Completed ballots must be received by 9:00 a.m. June 6, 2013 in order to be counted. The new AFSA Governing Board will take office on July 15, 2013.

According to the announcement, for the first time ever, members with valid email addresses already available to AFSA will be afforded the opportunity to ditch the paper ballot and vote online. The announcement also says that “Any position for which there is no candidate will be filled by the eligible AFSA member who receives the most write-in votes. If no one is elected on this basis, the new Governing Board will fill the vacancies.”

You may check out the names of the candidates here but be warned that the selection is rather sparse. Except for State VP, State Representatives (15 candidates for 11 positions), Retiree Reps (8 candidates for 4 positions), all positions on the ballot are  unopposed.

Where are the AFSA candidates?

The American Foreign Service Association is the professional association and labor union of the Foreign Service. It has 16,000 dues-paying members. It says that it represents more than 30,000 active and retired Foreign Service employees of the Department of State, USAID, FCS, IBB and APHIS.

This is not a healthy sign.

Back in January, the outgoing two-termed AFSA president Susan Johnson penned an AFSA Needs Strong Leaders (pdf) column.  I understand that this was widely disseminated to FS-01s and the Senior Foreign Service. Excerpt below:

If you want to give back to a career that has enriched you immeasurably, AFSA offers that opportunity. If you want a stronger professional Foreign Service, better equipped for the challenges of contemporary diplomacy, better professionally educated and trained, better led and managed, and better resourced by Congress, then service on the Governing Board gives you an opportunity to advocate for these goals.
[…]
Now, more than ever, AFSA needs to speak with a clear, strong voice. We need the best of the Foreign Service to step forward to lead and govern our association and union, and to fortify our advocacy with management, our political leaders in the executive and legislative branches, and with the American public.

We’d like to know if she ever got any response back.

We heard that somebody  from State’s eDiplomacy office was a candidate but dropped out on the last day of the nomination. Tried to reach out to that individual on Twitter but we don’t think we’ll hear anything back.

In any case, that leaves one sole candidate in the running for AFSA president – Robert Silverman.  According to his Linkedin profile, he served in Riyadh as Economic Counselor (1 year, 1 month), as DCM in Stockholm (2 years, 11 mos), as Political Counselor in Tel Aviv (2 years, 3 mos) and is currently an advisor at the Bureau of Legislative Affairs.

Since the presidential slot is uncontested, it looks like Mr. Silverman is slated to succeed Ms. Johnson on July 15. Unless, of course, a strong write-in candidate pops out of the magic box.  Is that even possible?


The continuing indifference of the Foreign Service majority

We’re told that out of the last ten elections or so, about half have been unopposed for most of these positions. We have no reason to disbelieve that.

Is it that people do not feel connected to AFSA?

Is it that most people do not feel that service in this organization is worth doing?

Or is it that in the grand scheme of things, people do not think it makes a whole lot of difference who gets elected?

We cannot avoid but think that the thin line of candidates in this year’s elections is just one more manifestation of member disengagement.

It is not just fewer people are coming forward to serve but this disengagement with AFSA was also reflected in the 2011 election where only 17% of the members turned out to cast their ballots, 7% less than the 2009 elections. We understand that in 2007, 80% of the members also did not bother to vote.

In 2010, David T. Jones, a retired Senior Foreign Service officer dissected the 2009 election and came out with the troubling conclusion:

“The essential conclusion must be AFSA members regard the effect on their lives as so ancillary and/or the consequences from AFSA efforts so ineffectual that voting was not worth the few minutes to review candidates/platforms (or the cost of postage to return the ballot).  The result of this indifference was predictable:  those few who cared gained and held control of AFSA abetted by de facto abdication/ indifference of the Foreign Service majority. “

Mr. Jones also has a new must read article on Unionization, AFSA and the FS in the April issue (pdf)  of the Foreign Service Journal (p16):

“Although AFSA is legally barred from employing the strongest weapon a union can wield—the ability to take direct action/strike to defend its members’ interests—there are many other steps it could take. Instead, we whine, importune and send the equivalent of a flaccid note of protest when management tromps on our toes. 
[…]
An ambassador doesn’t like you? Out you go. Someone more powerful has a “favorite” in mind for a position? Even a director general’s decision can be reversed, without recourse.  Oversight is a joke, as well. State hasn’t had a permanent inspector general in more than four years, yet AFSA has taken no action to pressure the department or the administration to rectify the situation. Has it even issued a blistering press release deploring the signal this glaring dereliction of duty sends?”

And this we heard recently:

“It’s sad but perhaps reflects the perceived realities of today’s Foreign Service and its culture with a strong and perhaps excessive emphasis on personal career development, meaning  climbing the career ladder as fast as one can scramble.”

Tenure at AFSA is essentially a time out, or perhaps the better description would be a time freeze for the full-time AFSA officer positions.  That means time-in-class (that is, time in a single salary class) is suspended. And there are no EERs for the two-year tenure. Which also means the promotion prospects is nil.

So, there’s a reason right there, both good or bad depending on how you look at it.

We were going to suggest that the election rules be updated to require that the top four Governing Board positions should have at a minimum two candidates to give the AFSA membership a choice. But given the apparent difficulties recruiting candidates, that probably is a ‘dead as soon as read’ suggestion.

While it looks like majority of the candidates in this election cycle will get the positions they want, AFSA members have several weeks to get to know them better (unless, of course, you already knew them from prior posts). You can still learn about the candidates’ vision and reasonable goals for the organization, and inquire about their previous jobs and how well those positions and tenures prepare them for representing the Foreign Service not just before State management, but also to the Congress, and to the American public.

So ask questions. And then ask follow-up questions.

What did you say?

We should encourage all voting AFSA members to look into the conditions under which candidates left their previous post?!?

Wait a minute – were you the one who sent that to the burn bag? No?

Well, can’t you ask them that question during their debate, town hall meetings, or election forums? No?

¡Ay, carumba!

Dear AFSA election candidates, some people (we have more than a few emails) are interested on why you left your previous posts. Presumably you all have left one post or another since you’re now in DC.  Can you please, please talk about this in your election forum so people would stop sending us these anonymous and cryptic emails?

Now where were we?

Oh, as an interested bystander who sits on the wall, we cannot really nudge AFSA voters to vote if they don’t want to. But perhaps voters might look at it this way:

If you don’t vote because of limited choices, or for whatever reason — you are sending a signal that you do not care. You don’t want to be like those folks who boycott elections or threaten to move to Canada (but don’t) then come out with placards when they’re unhappy about one thing or another, do you?

If you do care, then ought you not consider voting? Even if you have to vote for [INSERT NAME]  as a write-in candidate? Why? Because then perhaps your organization might learn to read your smoke signals better and work harder to engage with you … well, try and think about it ….
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7 responses

  1. Manhattan/Domani- this is an OIG report that talks about Presidential Candidate Robert Silverman’s tenure as Deputy Chief of Mission in Sweden: http://oig.state.gov/documents/organization/160066.pdf.

    “The relationship between the Ambassador and the former deputy chief of mission (DCM) was strained. The last 3 months of the former DCM’s time at post were spent completing well defined tasks (such as employee evaluation reports) that minimized his contact with embassy staff. During this time, the Ambassador and economic counselor shouldered the responsibility for managing the substantive functions of the mission, until the current DCM arrived in May 2010.”

  2. Or, you know, could someone just share their dirt anonymously to Diplopundit so the rest of us (in Outer Snarkistan, or wherever we hang our hats) don’t have to wonder? Sheesh.

    • M – hypothetically, someone could but I may still decide not to use it. Now if its somewhere in the publicly available FSGB or the OIG report …I might look at it differently. Sorry to disappoint.

  3. This is a major problem that deserves the attention of officers in the next generation of leadership. I’d like to see a young cabal of candidates organize, put together a vision and agenda for AFSA and the service, and then robustly pursue it.

    • I totally agree. I think David Jones recent article makes some excellent points. But the next generation of leaders must own this up and come up with realistic solutions. After all, they are the ones looking ahead at multiple hardship tours as well as other FS challenges in the future.