AFSA Elections: What’s Missing This Campaign Season? Fire, Ice and Some Spirited Debates, Please

Posted: 2:20 am  EDT
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Retired SFSO David T. Jones, in the aftermath of a highly contentious 2009 election,  wrote that “AFSA’s elections must return to diplomatic civility rather than channeling canines contending over hunks of meat.”

The 2011 election was tamed and supervised by the Department of Labor. The 2013 election was underwhelming with most positions uncontested. The 2015 election by contrast has two full slates with fairly recognizable candidates. But one only has to watch a couple of town halls meetings to recognize that this is the most polite campaign to-date.  As if they were afraid to offend each other by asking real questions.

There are three candidates running for President of AFSA: Barbara Stephenson (Strong Diplomacy), Matthew Asada (Future Forward AFSA) and Tex Harris (no slate). Odd thing here is that Mr. Harris while running for president has also endorsed Mr. Asada.

On the May 6 campaign message, Ambassador Stephenson says this:

This election season, voters have a clear choice. If you are satisfied with what AFSA has been achieving for you, then there are two presidential candidates who represent that tradition. If, however, you want to see senior, experienced leaders and managers known for their interpersonal and negotiation skills work to achieve a more strategic set of outcomes, then please vote for the entire Strong Diplomacy slate.

Mr. Asada’s May 6 campaign message says:

Future Forward AFSA is running to ensure that AFSA remains an independent voice for the Foreign Service. Employees need an advocate that can collaborate with management to get things done, and challenge it when it strikes out in the wrong direction. AFSA was the first to sound the alarm about this bidding cycle’s “100 job deficit”.

Well, who else is supposed to sound the alarm, if not AFSA?

A SFSO deeply active in AFSA speaking on background says that he/she agrees that “there should not be personal attacks of any kind” but that there ought to be “a robust and spirited debates on the issues!” Candidates should be free to critique the current Board’s record, this AFSA fella told us, but that they should also elaborate what they would do differently.  Which seems fair enough.  If AFSA has set up an election forum, that should be put to excellent use in the last few weeks of this campaign.

We must say that it has not always been easy to get answers from AFSA in the last two years.  There are a few pet peeves we’d like to throw in because we never got a satisfying response.

Indefinite Senate “Hold” on Rank and File Nominations

We remain concerned about the genesis of the Senate “hold” on ordinary non-ambassadorial ranked members of the Foreign Service. The hold has air quotes because our understanding is that some nominations are actually not officially put in for consideration but is in what we’d call “confirmation purgatory.”  We have also asked about a few FSOs whose nominations have been stuck in the Senate confirmation process dating back to 2012. An AFSA insider who declined to be identified refers to the “mean-spiritedness” in the confirmation process.  We have asked Mr. Asada directly about the eight nominations awhile back and received no response.  Other folks we’ve asked were advised by AFSA not to talk to us about this.  This is concerning because the blog Dead Men Working has been blogging up a storm about this issue since late last year.  While we do not agree with everything DMW writes, that blog raises some troubling allegations that we think must be addressed.


The jobs, the jobs, shouldn’t we just do an auction every two years?

We understand that the Chief of Mission Guidelines initiative was adopted in part by the Obama Administration and is reportedly now being legislated in part by the Senate’s draft State Authorization bill.  (See AFSA Releases Underwhelming Ambassador Guidelines For “Successful Performance”).

There were two things we were hoping to see from AFSA: 1)  work on strengthening the Foreign Service Act of 1980 through Congress, who is after all, tasked to provide “advice and consent”on ambassadorial nominees under the U.S. Constitution, and 2)  work on the reinstatement of the OIG Inspector Evaluation Reports (IERs)  to promote accountability and successful performance of our chiefs of missions overseas.

That did not happen, of course. At the time when this COM Guidelines was being massaged into a sausage, we’ve heard from a good number of AFSA members  asking why this  was “done in the dark” without informing the membership. A couple helpfully suggested that perhaps the USG should just auction off all these jobs every two years given that anyone can do the work.  Well, what do you think about that auction?

AFSA’s Ambassador Statistics

We’ve seen the Obama political ambassador statistics at over 40% thrown about. The ft.com says 41% citing AFSA statistics on ambassadors. Roll Call repeated the number here on political ambassadorships.  We sent a note to AFSA citing the questions on Twitter re: ambo stats, specifically the accuracy of the % cited and if it has any comment. We  never got a response.

Blog pal @Philip Arsenault has done a lot of good work using presidential records to track the ambassadorial appointees going back to the Eisenhower Era.  He was not able to replicate the 41% Obama political ambassadorships attributed to AFSA.  It looks like AFSA counts every International Organization (IO) ambassadors for Obama but has sparse info for every other president. Since IO has the highest number of pol appointees, this could easily skew the numbers for President Obama.  If AFSA is counting IO appointees for the Obama tenure, it should also count the IO appointees for all other presidents.  Fairness requires that.  If it is unable to account for those IO appointees from other presidents, it should ditch the Obama numbers in the counting or  if they have to use to IO data, it must be clearly noted as such.

Also if AFSA is counting CDAs as ambassadors even when those are not Senate confirmed appointees, this could mess up with the numbers.  As an example of this, take a look at AFSA’s list for President Reagan’s ambassadors to Ethiopia from 1982-1991 (Reagan was in office from January 20, 1981 – January 20, 1989).  All three — Korn, Cheek, Houdek — are listed as career appointees. They are but there’s a problem.

According to history.state.gov, these diplomats were appointed as Chargé d’Affaires ad interim; they were not nominated by President Reagan, and they were not confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Screen Shot 2015-05-12 at 2.38.18 PM

Screen capture from history.state.gov

Once Philip brought his concern to our attention, we stopped using AFSA’s numbers. As of this writing, the AFSA Ambassador Tracker indicates that President Obama’s political ambassador appointees for the second term is down from the reported 41% to 35.9%, still higher than Philip’s number which is 32.9%. We trust Philip’s data more because when there are questions, he is responsive, when there’s an error, he is quick to fix it. With AFSA, we got nothing but radio silence and we don’t see how we could rely on those numbers until they’re properly scrubbed.

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Wanna Talk About Stuff?

Depending on where you’re sitting, the following could mean something or not, worth a discussion at the election forum or not:

  • AFSA told us, “We do not publish election statistics on the AFSA website, nor do we provide that information to anonymous sources.” Again we’re asking — what legitimate reason is there for the election statistics of the labor union of the United States Foreign Service not to be public record or at the minimum, available to its membership? Shouldn’t AFSA members learn what kind of turnouts they have every election? Wouldn’t drilling down the numbers help with voter engagement?
  • A number of Foreign Service Grievance Board cases are “settled” or withdrawn. We understand that a confidentiality clause governs these cases. But when the Department “settles” these cases, how come the redacted complaint and the terms of the settlement are not made available by AFSA to its members for analysis?
  • Do you know that Department employees who take the CIA’s polygraph examination for detail assignments will have the  results of their polygraph provided to DS and HR for security  clearance and assignment purposes?  A source told us that “In and of itself, it does no  harm if the CIA retains them for its clearance purposes, but it can  have an unanticipated negative impact when indiscriminately released  by the CIA to third parties, like DS and HR, who use them in violation of the CIA’s restrictions to the Department  and assurances to the examinees.”  If this affects only a fraction of the Foreign Service, is that an excuse not to do anything about it, or at a minimum, provide an alert to employees contemplating these detail assignments?
  • An elected AFSA representative participated in the Brussels Forum of the German Marshall Fund in 2014. An AFSA member asked this blog why? The Brussels Forum is an annual high-level meeting of the most influential North American and European political, corporate, and intellectual leaders to address pressing challenges currently facing both sides of the Atlantic. Participants include heads of state, senior officials from the European Union institutions and the member states, U.S. Cabinet officials, Congressional representatives, Parliamentarians, academics, and media. We think the “why” question is a fair and legitimate question unless non-union fees were used for this participation.  Folks, stop sending us these “why” questions here. Every elected representative at AFSA should be willing and available to answer the why questions.
  • Assignments are typically handed out a year before folks have their rotation/change of station. What’s this we’re hearing about 300 unassigned Foreign Service employees  at the end of April? What’s being done about it?


Okay, there’s an indifferent Foreign Service majority but …

Mr. Jones wrote that very few AFSA members vote in Governing Board elections … “The essential conclusion must be that 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).”

Or email ballot.

We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: What these elections show is that even if only 22% of the membership cast their ballots every two years, AFSA still operates as the professional association and recognized labor union of 100% of its Foreign Service members. In essence, the priorities of 1/5 of its membership, the minority who actually votes, becomes the priorities for all, including the majority who doesn’t.

Think about that. Even if a large number of members opt out by not voting, AFSA still functions on the Foreign Service’s behalf. Shouldn’t FS members at least make an effort to pick who gets to represent them?

We are paying attention to this election but for the record, we do not vote; we just sit on the wall and watch.  We do have two wishes.   There are already rumors that this could potentially be another contested election. So first, we really hope that the candidates do not go there. Following the 2009 election, the AFSA election turn out dipped dangerously down to 17%. Another contested election could potentially turn off the already small number of voters.  And if that happens, we would not blame them at all.

Second, we hope that whoever gets elected as the next Governing Board would endeavor to be more open and responsive to questions.  Even if those questions occasionally come from unusual quarters like ours.

The end.

Note: Please note that the comments section is purposely disabled for this blogpost. We hope AFSA provides an election forum for the members interested on the issues. If not, check out Strong Diplomacy and Future Forward AFSA, Ask questions. Start a discussion. Be ever present. Vote. Then get your friends to vote.

 

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