Burn Bag: Another Senior Cede Request, and It’s Not Even in FSBid? (Updated)

Via Burn Bag:

“There’s a senior cede request for Deputy Executive Director in Consular Affairs, and it’s not even in FSBid.”

Note: Told via Twitter that this is bidlisted. Burn Bag entries are taken “as is” so you folks can look it up if you have access to the system.

Updated on March 12, 2016 from Burn Bag correction received: “Oops!  Misread some info.  Consular Affairs Deputy Executive Director was in fact in FSBid, just with incomplete info.  Pls consider removal.  Sincere regrets for the error.”

 

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Restoring Faith in the Foreign Service Assignment System Starts With Talking About It

Posted: 1:27 am EDT
Updated: 2:52 a.m. EDT
Updated March 12, 2016

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We understand that the State Department has just finished up a big online survey on how to improve the Foreign Service bidding process. One part of the survey apparently includes improving the process through “increase transparency.”  Well, it seems it seeks to improve transparency for the bureaus so they can tell who is actually a serious bidder, but it does not improve transparency for the FS employees who are doing the bidding. That part appears to have been short-circuited so unless DGHR starts looking at the whole system, the process is not going to significantly improve for everyone except the bureau folks who are tasked with selecting the employees rotating in.

Now that we’re thinking about the bidding process …. remember last year when we wrote about the controversy about who’s going to be the next Consul General in Istanbul (see Whoa! The Next Consul General in Istanbul Will Be a Political Appointee? and Coming Soon to PBS — That CG Istanbul Position Is Apparently Another Foggy Bottom Drama)?  The March issue of the Foreign Service Journal includes a Speaking Out piece by career diplomat Matthew Keene who has been in the Foreign Service since 1999.  According to FSJ, the author has previously worked in the Office of Career Development and Assignments in the Bureau of Human Resources as a special assistant and an assignments officer.  His piece mentions our blogpost although it does not specifically mention the USCG Istanbul position.

He notes the “tenacity with which many CDOs and AOs argue at panel on behalf of their clients and their bureaus”  and concludes that “these people care about you and the organization, and they are fiercely protective of the integrity of the assignments process.” But the Speaking Out piece also does not mince words about the problems with the Foreign Service assignments.  Excerpt below:

Last November, the blogger known as “Diplopundit” published a story about the assignment of a well-connected FS-1 as principal officer in a European Bureau post, a Senior Foreign Service position.

Since the candidate was below grade for the position, this was a “stretch assignment,” which requires the division in the Bureau of Human Resources responsible for the career development and assignment of officers who are FS-1 or higher (HR/CDA/SL) to cede the position to the division responsible for mid-level officers (HR/CDA/ML) after canvassing its clients to gauge interest in the position by currently unassigned officers.

That no qualified Senior FSO bid on a position as prominent as this one frankly strains credulity. The episode underscores a serious perception problem when it comes to Foreign Service assignments. For all the State Department’s carefully crafted standard operating procedures, as well as the Foreign Affairs Manual and Foreign Affairs Handbook guidance—to say nothing of the attention paid to precedent and the needs of the Service—when push comes to shove, getting the best jobs depends far more on who you know than what.

Indeed, if you are fortunate enough to breathe the rarefied air in the front office of a highly regarded assistant secretary or another sixth- or seventh-floor denizen, there is almost no position to which you cannot aspire.
[…]
So how do ridiculous stretch assignments happen, then? Why do positions mysteriously vanish off one bid list only to reappear days later on the list of a future cycle—or on the now list? Why are inquiries on jobs that are ostensibly open in FS Bid dismissed or unanswered? Why was some employee allowed to extend for a fourth year in a non-differential post when no one else was permitted to do the same? And how on earth did that officer get a language waiver, when the FS is filled with officers who speak that language?

These anomalies are more likely to happen when HR is run by senior officers insufficiently committed to overseeing a system that is fair, just and above reproach. The fact is that far too often, those in the most important positions, the gatekeepers, aren’t serving out of any great love of personnel management work. Some are serving a domestic tour while awaiting a plum overseas deputy chief of mission or principal officer gig. Others find themselves serving domestically for personal reasons, and believe HR provides a convenient landing spot.

The author does not just point out the problems but also writes about how to restore faith in the system. “HR must do a far better job of recruiting senior leaders uncompromising in their commitment to an FS assignments system that sets an example for the rest of the Service in terms of integrity and transparency, that meets the needs of the Service, and that upholds core values even when it is uncomfortable or may disappoint someone further up the food chain.”

Less than a day after we posted this article, we heard via Burn Bag that there is a senior cede request for Deputy Executive Director in Consular Affairs. That position allegedly is not in FSBid. Deleted due to subsequent correction received.

We have to add that this is not just a serious perception problem, and of course, it disturbs more than just the rank and file in Human Resources.  A longtime diplomat who follows this blog told us that “the reason this sort of thing gets to me is that as diplomats we are constantly promoting merit-based decision-making, democracy and rule of law, and anti-corruption in countries where we serve, a very tough message when our own department flaunts these principles.” That is not an isolated perspective.

We admire Mr. Keene for writing this piece. It takes courage to do this in a culture where frank and straight discussions about uncomfortable issues doesn’t always get the safe space it needs.

Read the full More Hemingway, Less Kafka, Please.

Let’s face it, this secretary of state or the next, and next ones after that are not going to do anything about making this process better. They will all have a host of things to do, places to go, and strengthening the institution is not going to be on anyone’s top list.  So here’s something from the Lorax to think about.

 

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Sherman Funk: This story sounds incredible, but it is absolutely true (Via ADST)

Posted: 12:17 am EDT
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The Foreign Relations Authorization Act for fiscal years 1986 and 1987 (P.L. 99-93) amended the IG Act to include the Department of State and the Foreign Service. The Omnibus Diplomatic Security and Antiterrorism Act of 1986, (P.L. 99-399) required the establishment of an independent OIG at State by October 1, 1986. The OIG was established on August 27, 1986.  Sherman M. Funk was the State Department Inspector General from 1987–1994 . He served under four secretaries of state (Schultz, Baker, Eagleburger and Christopher).

Below is an excerpt from Mr. Funk’s oral history via ADST.

There’s a story which nobody believes that is absolutely true and people are still in jail as a result of it, the Japanese. This story sounds incredible, but it is absolutely true. When they built the new embassy in Tokyo, and a compound, the specifications called for two manholes on access points in the rear courtyard where the oil tank was buried. Nobody thought of asking why you needed two. And the embassy opened, and shortly after it opened the truck appeared, a big oil tank truck, guys wearing uniforms driving it. And the night before the security called in and said that they were getting oil, and they went through and opened up one of the manholes, put a hose down and they filled the tank. A couple days later another truck appeared in the morning, also a call to come through saying we were getting a delivery. Nobody thought of asking why deliveries so close. The truck came in, opened up the other manhole and put a thing down and it was true half of the oil had been pumped in a couple days before.

This went on for sixteen years, and in the sixteen years only one person, a young assistant GSO, ever inquired why we were buying so much oil. One person. And the admin counselor called in the senior FSN, the GSO type, and said make a study of why we’re spending so much money. The guy came back with the report that the weather is so volatile here, we have equipment which needs the oil. The person who did that report was the guy in charge of the scam. Toward the end one of the workers got disgruntled, that he wasn’t getting enough money on the scam, and went to the assistant security officer, our assistant regional officer, and said that, “You’re being robbed.” The assistant legal security officer went to the same FSN and asked him to look at it. The guy came back and said no problem. That went on for another year.

Now people who listen to that story say it’s not possible. Sixteen years we used enormous volumes of oil. In fact, we prosecuted. One of my lawyers and two of my investigators went out, we went to Tokyo, worked with the courts. It was hideously embarrassing for the Japanese by the way, and they were very tough on these people involved. We’re getting back most of the money, we’re suing the companies because they should have had controls to prevent that. But one of their biggest arguments, and if that were argued in the States, they would win, was you guys are so stupid why didn’t you guys know something was wrong. We just deliver for your requirements. To me, I find that so incredible, and it went on for sixteen damn years, but we’re getting millions of dollars back now. But we had to sue for it.

What kind of naiveté is it to ask somebody who would benefit from it? And if the thing was going on, he would certainly know what was going on. How much management moxie does it take? How much common sense does it take? Twice they went back to the same person who was the contact point in the embassy, who would make the telephone calls to have the deliveries come in the next morning. Incredible.

Read the full oral history interview here (PDF) conducted by Charles Stuart Kennedy on July 14, 1994.

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