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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

 

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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2 responses

  1. The conversation about transparency in hiring is worthwhile, but only if it takes place in an atmosphere of relative trust. Having seen and experienced middle managers who think that it’s perfectly fine to threaten, intimidate, denigrate, and scream at people to the point where the manager is ready to start throwing punches for the smallest things, I’m very hesitant to give an opinion on anything. Don’t bother with the Front Office, you’re a galley slave, there to be abused and otherwise silenced. Combine this with empty rhetoric and lip service from DC on all kinds of issues and ask yourself why should you believe anything that anyone says about reform or openness of any kind? Call me cynical, but I trust virtually no-one, and am extremely leery of anyone promoting even basic changes that will never likely happen anyway.

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    • I understand what you’re saying and it makes me truly sad. There should be zero tolerance for threatening and intimidating behaviors and that should start at the top and all Front Offices. I also think that recycling bad managers is a real problem with a multiplier effect and State should do more about it.

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