Remember When the Fight For Reform Used to be Normal in the Foreign Service

Posted: 2:31 am ET

 

All this talk about reorganization …. a retired FSO recently told us that the last time there was a grass roots, officer led call for action for changes in the Foreign Service was in 1999. The officer remembered “stealth RIF of FSOs, expansion of GS and political appointees and virtually no attention to the institution itself and its longstanding, multiple problems.”

 

 

Madeleine K. Albright was secretary of state from 1997 to 2001. She  recently wrote an op-ed about the “hollowing out” of the State Department (see WaPo: The national security emergency we’re not talking about).  Yay! What short memories we have.  We should also note that Warren Christopher who preceded Albright served as secretary of state from 1993-1997 and managed the then unprecedented 27% budget and staffing cuts at the State Department (see The Last Time @StateDept Had a 27% Budget Cut, Congress Killed ACDA and USIA).

As the retired FSO shared the story, a small group of concerned active officers came together and the result was a letter drafted “when the talk became tiresome.”  The letter we’re sharing below appeared as a Department Notice (Thanks X!), was reworked numerous times and eventually gained over 1,500 signatures from ambassadors to secretaries. This was the days before social media, and without the Sounding Board. The FSOs involved sent out the letter via emails and collected signatures at the entrance of the cafeteria in Foggy Bottom.  One FSO subsequently added a crossed but clipped blue ribbon, which by the time the new Secretary of State arrived had spread throughout the Department.  The FSO explained that the ribbon meant “No more blue ribbon panels!”, of which there had already been far too many and no action.

All of this had apparently been timed to be able to address the still unknown next Secretary of State (who turned out to be Colin Powell).  He was met by a sea of clipped blue ribbons the day he arrived and we were told that the movement was one of the things that caused him to announce that he intended to be a COO as well as be CEO of the Department. We understand that two things derailed the effort: 1) one of Powell’s senior manager’s fixation/fear of the strategic in favor of smaller, tactical fixes wherever opportunities presented themselves, and 2) 9/11 happened which set the stage for the real future decline of the Foreign Service and the Department.

The retired FSO said: “The point is that no serious or worthwhile “reform” effort has ever moved forward with any success without active duty initiation and demands, and the fact that there has been none such since the last century is more sadly symptomatic than anything else.  But maybe if today’s officers even have a vague sense that such is both possible and part of their job as officers, maybe there are a few who could still step forward.  At least they should know that such action USED to be normal in the Foreign Service.”

For folks who want to read up on organizational history and behavior, also check out A Theory of Public Bureaucracy: Politics, Personality, and Organization in the State Department.  The books is from 1979 but still worth a read and affords a window into understanding an organization that changes and remains the same all at the same time.

 

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