I did not realized the difficulty of writing the parting notes at the end of this blog’s journey (also see goodbye). I’ve put off writing for days and have instead worked on a stone pathway in my garden. It’s still unfinished but I’ve exhausted myself enough to sit down and write something today.
It felt as if after 5,110 days of running this blog, I’d ran out of things to say. Or perhaps it’s just that some things have changed and yet remained the same and that I’ve laughed myself silly for living in a simulation🤣! In any case, I will try to write down a few parting thoughts.
When we started this blog over a decade ago, Foggy Bottom’s usage of social media was just getting its sea legs. Blogging was a source of excitement and anxiety (see Foreign Service Blogging: Tigers Have Teeth, Rather Sharp … Rawr!!!).
These days, we see folks, even self-identified high-ranking Foggy Bottom denizens, writing on their personal Twitter profile that their “tweets = personal views”. Do you remember in the old days (and in FSGB cases), being told that you are on duty 24/7? That is, you are on duty 24/7 until the government decides that you are not. That old political counselor who told his foreign counterpart that he had no personal opinion, only an official opinion would seem like a dinosaur these days.
Last year, two FS employees made the big news for social media posts, and one for reported participation in the Jan. 6 attack (remember – No Insurrectionists in America’s Diplomatic Service. How times have changed!
Twitter remains a dangerous sinkhole, official or otherwise. A tweet is immediate, and a retweets can travel quite a distance rather quickly. For my readers who are in the FS, it still pays to be prudent what you tweet or retweet in your personal capacity, especially if you are self-identified as a U.S. diplomat.
Foreign Service Spouses
In 2009, I wrote Diplomatic Spouse Employment: A Drip in a Large Tin Roof. Ten years later, do you seriously think that the prospects for spouse employment would be a lot different?
I’ve come to the sad conclusion that the lives of most FS spouses will continue to be challenging in the years to come. And their financial future will continue to be perilous. As American families become dual-income couples, the FS families will continue to be largely one employee working. Because it is not a priority, a majority of spouses will remain unable to work while overseas, thus, limiting their ability to prepare for their own retirement. Time is a limited resource; once you’ve spent it, you won’t ever get it back. That applies to age and retirement accounts.
Don’t forget to attend the Retirement Seminar you say? What about if State starts allowing folks to take the retirement seminar upon tenure? Wouldn’t that make more sense for long term planning purposes? Of course, spouses may only attend on “a space-available basis” as often the case with State. Drat that! Actually, it occurred to me that if more spouses have access to the retirement seminar, more employees may be forced to head for the exit.
While some agencies operating overseas have made provisions for spouses to be employed at certain jobs at US missions, it remains a hit or miss for State Department spouses. Even when State can centrally fund jobs so they do not come out of post funds, State often doesn’t. One can blame Congress for consistently under funding diplomacy, but one can also recognize that jobs for spouses isn’t on any Secretary of State’s priority list, not even for retention purposes. Does State even know how many employees resign due to the inability of spouses to keep a career? Data not collected, hey? At some point in the future, it may be that only the independently wealthy can again afford to go overseas to represent our country.
In early 2014, State/OIG confirmed to this blog that the practice of preparing Inspector’s Evaluation Reports (IERs) ended in April 2013. Ambassador Pancho Huddle, who previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan and spent five years as a senior OIG inspector at the State Department, told us then: “When OIG dumped their IERs, they dumped their ability to make a real difference.” And I totally agree. I remain convinced that it was wrong to end that practice. All teeth, but no bite have repercussions.
Recently, after 11 years, State/OIG returned to US Embassy Luxembourg. The 2011 report detailed poor management issues and stated that two DCMs, two section chiefs, and other employees either curtailed or volunteered for service in Kabul or Baghdad. That political ambassador resigned. Once that report was released, it generated a media feeding frenzy.
The 2022 report did not indicate much of an improvement. Post’s authorized staff included 32 U.S. direct- hire employees. A staff turn over of 42 percent over a 2 ½- year period under another political ambassador did not prompt any noticeable reaction from the Department or the media. Of course, this time around, the OIG did not show up in Luxembourg until three months after the well-connected political ambassador had departed!
But seriously! The DGHR and Undersecretary for Management must know about the curtailments of almost half the mission. No one thought to ask what’s going on when post got to 25% staff curtailments? Or it didn’t matter? Or was it simply acceptable losses to keep an appointee in place? Moving people and household cost money. But who cares, right? It’s only taxpayers money.
In the last administration in particular, accountability was just a long, strange word to be admired. In several documented cases of bosses behaving badly, and many more not documented in public reports, nothing really happened. Remember IO? Protocol? Or when top State Department officials commented on a leaked IG report and attacked the OIG? Or when the OIG was fired under cover of darkness?
I must add that the current administration has now nominated a political appointee whose performance was blasted in an OIG report during a prior tenure. I hate to say this but it is likely that political connections and consideration will win the day and this nominee will get confirmed by the U.S. Senate no matter what the OIG report said in 2015.
While, I’m thinking about accountability, perhaps Secretary Blinken busy as he is these days, should task one of his top lieutenants to see what should be done about the reported toxic workplace at the Office of Civil Rights (S/OCR). The office that leads global training on the prevention of workplace harassment and is tasked with investigating sexual harassment appears to be a problem in itself. The OIG reportedly wasn’t interested in looking into various allegations in that office and did not respond to our inquiry. We’re hoping Congress can get the GAO to take a look.
DCMs as CDAs
In the old days, when the ambassador left office, the deputy chief of mission (DCM) routinely stepped in as charge d’affairs (CDA) (the accredited diplomat who serves as the embassy’s chief of mission in the absence of the ambassador or until a new ambassador arrives). This is how DCMs got their experience in leading the mission; it also allowed section chiefs to be acting DCMs and afford them the experience of running the embassy.
In the last few years we’ve observed a change in this routine practice. In some cases, the State Department recalls retired FSOs to work as CDAs; in other cases, Foggy Bottom officials are sent out to manage the embassy until a nominee is confirmed by the U.S. Senate. What signal does this send to the active service members? We are aware of a few cases when DCMs who stepped in as CDAs were not functioning as expected (micromanagement, staff threatening curtailments, etc). It may be that in those case, Foggy Bottom had to send somebody to help steer the ship, but if DCMs are no longer afforded the traditional practice of becoming CDAs, when should they learn how to become COMs?
Assaults and Harassment
Readers following this blog are aware of the series of blogposts we wrote about sexual harassment and assaults in the Foreign Service. Those posts were some of the most difficult stories I had to write. Probably half the stories I heard did not make it to the blog because the survivors wanted me to hear their stories but did not want to share them publicly.
In the fall of 2016, we blogged that the Department’s Sexual Assault Reporting Procedure Appears to Be a Black Hole of Grief. In November of that year, the Department finally directed a task force to create a new section in the Foreign Affairs Manual for sexual assault (see U/S For Management Directs Task Force to Create New Sexual Assault FAM Guidance).
In 2017, the Department released a new section of the FAM addressing sexual assault reporting procedures (see @StateDept Releases New Sexual Assault Guidance For COM Personnel & Facilities Outside the United States). 3 FAM 1700 is far from perfect but sexual assault reporting wasn’t even in the FAM previously, so this was a start. If this blog played a role in lighting a fire under State to get that done, I am satisfied. The Department sent us a note at that time “to make absolutely sure” that we have seen it and gave us an “officially provided” copy of the new section.
In 2020, State/OIG released the long-awaited report on the Department’s handling of sexual harassment reports. It was distressing to read. Both the investigations conducted vs the reported complaints and the underreporting are striking. Of the 24 cases where misconduct allegations including sexual assaults were substantiated, we have no idea how many perpetrators were criminally charged.
While I’m writing about this, a quick reminder that every COM facility with an assigned FS Medical Specialist should have at least three Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit (SAEC Kit) per 3 FAM 1700. Make sure your post have them.
Funny Bone Gone
Our 14 years of blogging about the State Department and the Foreign Service included poking fun at the Foggiest Bottom here, here, here here, and here. But only once did I received an official take down request (see Aww — @StateDept Sends Official Take Down Request For April Fools’ Day Cable). In April 1, 2017, I wrote, Inside @StateDept: Leaked Cable Provides Guidance For ‘America First’ Cost Savings Initiatives. Apparently, it wasn’t funny at all for the 7th Floor people. Poor things, they could not find their tickle bones.
Now, poor me, I’ve misplaced my funny bone after the back to back performances of T-Rex and the Mikey Po. You, too?
And finally …
When I started blogging in 2008, some readers told me they read this blog in secret; that no one in their offices would admit to reading the blog. Not sure what was the penalty if caught reading the blog then. Years later, I would get occasional notes from individuals telling me that they had informed this office or that office that they have reported their complaints to this blog. Goodness me! I’ve almost always pass up on those stories because there are processes in place that exist for a reason, and frankly, I did not appreciate being used as a “We told the witch, watch out!” warning. How times changed!
I hope our readers join us in sending thanks to our diplomatic employees and their families. Thank you for your dedication to our country and for your willingness to serve in often difficult and dangerous places. Thank you, also, to the foreign service national employees whose support is essential to our overseas operations. I understand and appreciate the hardships you face and the sacrifices you all make. I am sad to leave but you have my deep respect and admiration.