WaPo reported that the request is “stroking fears of another witch hunt.” The New York Times reports that the request has “rattled” the State Department. One publication says that “Trump’s transition team is rounding up names of US State Department staffers working on gender-equality issues.” Oh, hey, the “State Dept” is now trending on Twitter.
We suspect that those “freaking out” have not been through a number of presidential transitions. The Trump Transition was asking for positions and program funding, it does not look like it was asking for names. We think the request is reasonable as the new administration assumes office. The new administration will have new program priorities and it may cut funding and staffing on some programs more than others. Will it cut programs focused on gender equality? It’s possible, but that is its prerogative, as it was when the Obama Administration assume power eight years ago. Employees may disagree with those priorities, and policies, but their commitment to the Service is to serve the administration of the day whether they personally agree with those policies or not (see On the Prospect of Mass Resignations: A Veteran FSO Cautions Against Rash Decisions).
Poor Mr. Kirby had to explain this at the podium:
The incoming administration will make their own policy decisions based on the foreign policy agenda that President-elect Trump lays out. That’s their job. That’s why we have elections in this country. And the professionals here at the State Department – and they’re all professionals – will carry out that foreign policy agenda and they will support that foreign policy agenda.
As I said yesterday, it is normal, it is usual, it is typical, it is expected that as a new team comes in – and I saw this for myself eight years ago when I was in the Pentagon for the transition between President Bush and President – then-President-elect Obama – for a transition team to want to have a sense of organization, of resourcing, and of staffing for the organization and the sub-units of those – of that organization that they’re about to lead.
The people that work here, now that I’ve had two years to see it, they are true professionals. Whether they’re political appointees or career Foreign Service or civil servants, they are professionals. And while I can’t discount that some of them might have some anxiety, I can assure you and I can assure the American people that they will face change squarely on, that they will respond appropriately, that they will remain professionals, and that whatever the foreign policy agenda that is being pursued by the incoming administration, they will support it, they will implement it, they will inform it, and they will help guide it, because that’s what they do.
Please don’t disappoint Mr. Kirby.
We should add that FSOs (Generalist) and FS Specialists have an average of 12 years and 11 years, respectively, in the Department. Civil Service employees have about the same average number of years in the Department at 11 years.
Which means that the average employee came in during the Rice tenure under President Bush, and has served through two of President Obama’s terms under the Clinton and Kerry tenures at the State Department. The last time there was a huge policy shift during their employment was in 2008 when the White House transitioned from Republican to Democratic leadership.
No doubt there will be issues and policies in the future that some folks at the State Department may consider their red lines. But today is not that day. The “panic” or freak out” at today’s, or rather yesterday’s reported request may have been driven by higher anxiety or trepidation but folks need to recognize the need for bureaucratic discernment, particularly during this transition, but also when the new administration is in place.
No one likes change but there it is every four or eight years. The political appointees will leave to make way for new political appointees. There will be new priorities and low priorities. Some old programs may be cancelled, and some new programs and initiatives will certainly be prioritized but the career services go on. The State Department needs its best people now more than ever. As Ambassador Bill Burns said recently, the ability of American diplomats to help interpret and navigate a complicated world matters more than ever. We’re counting on our career folks not to get “rattled” whether dealing with this complicated world, or anything else.