Burn Bag: The Foreign Service Should Thank Rex Tillerson

Note: We received the following letter as a submission to the Burn Bag. As most of our readers know, the Burn Bag submissions are by design short (though not always sweet) but we’ve decided that this letter merits an exception because it provides our readers a perspective that’s different from the currently prevailing one.

We do not know the identity of the writer but we have a few things that we can share with our readers. S/he is an FS-03 Foreign Service Officer who said s/he was dismayed by the latest public resignation that got so much media attention. S/he has previously served overseas in Asia and also in D.C. where s/he staffed various Department principals, witnessing first hand some of State’s long-standing problems. The writer understands that it would be better to attach her/his name to this piece, but wants to remain anonymous because his/her letter “is not about me, it is about showing that the Foreign Service is multi-dimensional and should not only be defined by Shackelford’s resignation letter.” For those interested, the Shackelford letter is here. Both letters are presented without comments. You are welcome to use the blog’s comment section for civil discussion. 

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The Foreign Service Should Thank Rex Tillerson

In his book Political Order and Political Decay, Francis Fukuyama makes a powerful argument that the “quality of the American government has been deteriorating steadily for more than a generation.” This is in stark contrast to alarmist news articles asserting that the State Department’s current problems began on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. Leading the most recent and vocal charge, Foreign Service Officer Elizabeth Shackelford’s much publicized resignation letter has been touted as a symbol of plunging morale and dysfunction within the Department. Shackelford follows the narrative that Secretary Tillerson wants to gut State and diminish the role of diplomacy. Yet underlying these assertions is a misconception of what a healthy State Department looks like. They also fail to grasp interagency dynamics that outlast successive administrations.

In an example of unqualified assertions, former Counselor of the Department Eliot Cohen penned a recent op-ed skewering Secretary Tillerson’s redesign efforts as “management-jargon-laden reforms…that demoralized the Foreign Service.” I cannot argue with the recognition of a demoralized Foreign Service. Change is hard and selling it to our community of stakeholders has never been easy. Secretary Tillerson and his team have thus far failed to communicate the redesign’s benefits, but honestly, in the current politicized environment, would they have been able to? If the Foreign Service wants to reclaim our standing as non-partisan professionals, we should look at the problems the redesign is meant to address and work to shape the discussion, rather than opt out or disrupt from within.

Secretary Tillerson started his redesign by asking a simple question “what is the Department of State’s mission, and how can it best achieve goals and objectives?” While this can easily be dismissed as Diplomacy 101, it is a necessary question to ask. Unlike the military, the State Department operates at the behest of our political leadership and Congress. Inherent to both are special interests groups that back them. So while politicians breathe new life and ideas into the bureaucracy, over time they have also contributed to a dilution of State’s mission – heaping pet projects and cumbersome reports onto a Department unable to handle them. The result has been an erosion of State’s autonomy and increasing overlap between conflicting priorities. Every year we process over 300 congressionally mandated reports on topics ranging from intellectual property and labor issues to democracy promotion and counterterrorist financing. All of these issues have merit, yet how can an embassy advance broader U.S. interests when it has officers asking host governments to pass laws strengthening IPR protection, counterterrorist financing, and trafficking in persons all at the same time? The outward message gets diluted. If everything is a priority, nothing is.

The energy and zeal with which dedicated foreign and civil servants advance the various issues in their portfolio should be commended. Likewise, it is important to understand their frustration when a new administration determines that their work is no longer a priority. That said, creating a more streamlined, mission focused State Department will necessarily leave some stakeholders disillusioned. As we have seen, even the prospect of change has riled a bureaucracy that has grown accustomed to protecting its budgets and issue areas at the expense of broader coherency and efficiency. As a low-level FS-03, I do not claim to know what the Department’s priorities should be. But it is healthy for the Secretary to ask questions on whether we should promote democracy over institution building or freedom over good governance.

Shackelford’s assertion that high-level departures and resignations over the past year have handicapped U.S. diplomacy is misguided. For nearly a decade there has been a group of senior FSOs that have traded ambassadorships and leadership positions amongst each other, effectively blocking much needed generational change. While these FSOs all served with distinction and the way they were pushed out was unbecoming of their decades of service, we should not mourn their loss.

Cohen claims that Secretary Tillerson’s “incapacity at finding and pushing through appointees” crippled his effectiveness. And to that I ask, would Cohen prefer self-serving political hacks instead? While congressional and political oversight prevents bureaucracies from “running amuck,” political patronage has the opposite effect, usually serving to advance narrow short-term interests. In the United States political loyalty is rewarded with positions in government, often (but not always) to the detriment of bureaucratic autonomy and the ability to create long-term strategy. The fact that Secretary Tillerson chose to rely on FSOs in acting positions, elevating their status and providing them increased stature, demonstrates the value he places on their experience and expertise. When pundits complain about a leadership vacuum at the State Department, I have to wonder: where is the Foreign Service Association in standing up for career FSOs like Susan Thornton and Francisco Pamieri who have successfully led their respective bureaus?

So why, if Secretary Tillerson wants to reform the Department, has he enthusiastically embraced a 30% budget cut? Let’s start by looking at the role congress plays in forcing pet projects on the Department and reducing bureaucratic efficiency with a maze of regulations and mandated reports. Congressional micro-management has decreased State’s effectiveness, forcing skilled bureaucrats to spend time on creativity stifling administrative work rather than formulating policy and strategy. Funds for pet projects are cheered at the time they are allocated, but it takes people, time, and money to spend money. Once an initiative is introduced it becomes embedded in the bureaucracy and takes on a momentum that is difficult to reign in. Temporarily cutting funds is one of the best ways to force difficult decisions. It also helps signal to special interest groups that the Department is going to be prudent in deciding which issues it will take on.

Asserting that the Department’s decline started on January 20, 2017 makes it easy to forget the neglect of previous Secretaries and helps us brush off the necessary, but painful, changes Secretary Tillerson is trying to push through. It also serves to absolve the bureaucracy for its complicity in facilitating State’s declining influence. I witnessed our collective failings first hand staffing Department principals. Information memos often came up with boilerplate jargon, offering no useful insights or recommendations. Briefing checklists were full of platitudes but lacked tangible goals the principal needed to achieve during his/her meeting. It is no wonder Secretary Tillerson expanded the policy planning staff.

I do not know if Secretary Tillerson’s redesign will be successful. I do not know if he is adopting the right approach or tactics. What I do know is that if the State Department continues on the same course it will permanently cede influence to political appointees at the NSC and their backers at partisan Washington think tanks. I also know that if the Foreign Service gets mired in partisan rhetoric and the political buzzwords of the day, it will lose any remaining support it has in congress and with the American public.

The American people need career diplomats, not only to develop policy and strategy, but also to help conserve and pass down to future administrations the democratic values and diplomatic traditions that have made this country great. Sadly, our ability to deliver on this mission has been in decline for decades – a bloated NSC is just one example how State has failed to provide the executive branch with what it needs. Stemming this institutional decay will require a Secretary willing to take political punches and a bureaucracy ready to suffer through a period of painful change. Self-serving resignation letters full of unqualified assertions are not bold statements. They are an abdication of responsibility that reinforces stereotypes of the State Department as a “deep state” bureaucracy acting outside the interests of the American people. Nothing could be further from the truth.

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A Foreign Service Officer’s Parting Shot Gets Media Attention

Posted: 1:55 am ET

 

Foreign Service Officer Elizabeth Shackelford, a midlevel officer assigned as a Political Officer to U.S. Embassy Somalia based in Nairobi  resigned from the State Department on December 8. Her resignation letter (PDF) was published by Foreign Policy on December 10.

AND NOW THIS — check out this thread (click on date) for the online conversation.

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Tillerson Aide R.C. Hammond Officially Departs @StateDept’s Position

Originally posted December 4, 2017; 2:55 am ET
Updated: Dec 13, 2017 to reflect actual departure (Tillerson Aide R.C. Hammond to Leave @StateDept This Month)

 

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Dear Secretary Tillerson: What Are You Going to Do About This? #16Days

Posted: 3:40 am ET
 

 

A new mail in our inbox:

“In reference to a blog posting dated August 8th, you reported on a woman who was raped and stalked by a supervisory special agent.  This employee is still employed and he has struck again.  Why is he still employed yet still committing offenses?”

The new case includes a petition for temporary restraining order/injunction filed on November 13, 2017. It appears that the petitioner in this case did testify but the injunction hearing is scheduled for April 2018.

Back in August, we blogged about an individual who asserted that she was raped and stalked by a supervisory Diplomatic Security agent assigned to one of Diplomatic Security’s eight field locations in the United States:

She said that was interviewed by Diplomatic Security’s  Office of Special Investigations (DS/DO/OSI) in November 2014. She also said that she provided a Victim Impact Statement to DS/OSI in December 2015. The investigation reportedly concluded in February 2016 with no disciplinary action. She informed us that during one telephonic conversations with a Supervisory Special Agent, she felt pressured to say that “I was pleased with the DoS handling of this case.” She presumed that the call was recorded and refused to say it.  She cited another case that was reported around the same time her case was investigated in 2014.  She believed that there were multiple police reports for the employee involving different women for similar complaints.

We’ve asked the Bureau of Diplomatic Security for comments about this case, and whether this was reported to the Office of Inspector General. To-date, we have not received an acknowledgment to our inquiry nor a response to our questions despite ample time to do so.

Read more: A Woman Reported to Diplomatic Security That She Was Raped and Stalked by a DS Agent, So What Happened?

We are aware of at least three different incidents allegedly perpetrated by the same individual who has law enforcement authority. One of these three identifies herself as “Victim #4”.

Per Department of State Authorities Act for Fiscal Year 2017:

1 FAM 053.2-6  Required Reporting of Allegations to the OIG (CT:ORG-411;   04-13-2017)

a. Effective December 16, 2016, section 209(c)(6) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980, as added by section 203 of the Department of State Authorities Act, Fiscal Year 2017 (22 U.S.C. 3929(c)(6)), provides:

REQUIRED REPORTING OF ALLEGATIONS AND INVESTIGATIONS AND INSPECTOR GENERAL AUTHORITY.—

(A) IN GENERAL.—The head of a bureau, post, or other office of the Department of State (in this paragraph referred to as a ‘Department entity’) shall submit to the Inspector General a report of any allegation of—

(i) waste, fraud, or abuse in a Department program or operation;

(ii) criminal or serious misconduct on the part of a Department employee at the FS–1, GS–15, or GM–15 level or higher;

(iii) criminal misconduct on the part of a Department employee; and

(iv) serious, noncriminal misconduct on the part of any Department employee who is authorized to carry a weapon, make arrests, or conduct searches, such as conduct that, if proved, would constitute perjury or material dishonesty, warrant suspension as discipline for a first offense, or result in loss of law enforcement authority.

(B) DEADLINE.—The head of a Department entity shall submit to the Inspector General a report of an allegation described in subparagraph (A) not later than 5 business days after the date on which the head of such Department entity is made aware of such allegation.

b. Any allegation meeting the criteria reflected in the statute should immediately be brought to the attention of the relevant head of a bureau, post, or bureau-level office. (Bureau-level offices are entities on the Department’s organizational chart as revised from time to time, see Department Organizational Chart.)

c.  The first report by any Department entity should cover the period beginning December 16, 2016 (the day the law went into effect), and ending not later than five business days before the date of that report. Thereafter, any additional reportable information is due not later than the five-business day deadline stated in the statute. 

See more: @StateDept Now Required to Report Allegations and Investigations to OIG Within 5 Days

The case of the individual in the August blogpost occurred before the Department of State Authorities Act for Fiscal Year 2017 became law. But this latest case was filed on November 13, 2017.

We’ve asked Diplomatic Security for comment but despite ample time to do so, we only hear radio silence.

NADA

We’ve inquired from State/OIG if DS officially reported this case to them, and we got the following response:

“In response to your inquiry, it is best addressed by the Department.”

What the what?! So we end up asking our dear friends at the State Department’s Public Affairs shop:

We recently received information that the same individual is now alleged to have committed similar offenses in another state. This is not the first nor the second allegation. Since DS never acknowledged nor responded to our request for comment, and State/OIG told us we should direct this question to you, we’re asking if you would care to make a comment. What is the State Department’s response to this case involving an individual, a supervisory DS agent with multiple allegations who remains a member of the agency’s law enforcement arm?

Apparently, our dear friends are still not talking to us.  As of this writing we have not received any acknowledgment or any response to our inquiry.  Should we presume from this silence that the State Department hope that we just get tired of asking about this case and go away?

Anyone care that there is potentially a serial offender here?

In 2014, a woman (identified herself as Victim #4) reported that she was raped and stalked by a supervisory agent of Diplomatic Security.

In April 2015, a case was filed for Domestic Abuse-Temp Rest Order against the same person.  The case was closed. Court record says “The court did not issue an injunction against the respondent in this case. The reasons were stated on the record and may be explained in the final order. No adverse inference should be drawn against the respondent when an injunction is denied or a case dismissed. The fact that a petition was originally filed means nothing.” 

On November 6, 2017, another case for “Harassment Restraining Order” was registered against the same individual and closed. The court sealed the name of the complainant. The court record says  “The court did not issue an injunction against the respondent in this case. The reasons were stated on the record and may be explained in the final order. No adverse inference should be drawn against the respondent when an injunction is denied or a case dismissed. The fact that a petition was originally filed means nothing.”

On November 13, 2017, a “Domestic Abuse-Temp Rest Order” was filed against the same individual, and this case is scheduled for an injunction hearing on April 30, 2018.

2014. 2015. 2017.

A source speaking on background explained to us that once Diplomatic Security completes the investigation, its Office of Special Investigations (OSI) sends the case report to the Bureau of Human Resources Conduct, Suitability, and Discipline Division, Office of Employee Relations (HR/ER/CSD).  This office is under the responsibility of the Director General of the Foreign Service, or in the absence of a Senate-confirmed appointee, under the authority of Acting DGHR William E. Todd, who reports to the Under Secretary for Management (currently vacant), who in turn reports to the Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.

“The most concerning cases can take years and remember, the employee is waiting from CSD to hear proposed discipline. Almost everybody appeals that initial decision. Then they appeal the next decision to the FSGB which, not infrequently, dismisses cases or reduces disciplinary action for timeliness. Each step in the process can take multiple years and DS can’t do anything other than remove law enforcement authority when appropriate.”

This one via State/OIG (ISP-I-15-04):

The Bureau of Diplomatic Security, OIG, and/or the Office of Civil Rights (S/OCR) may initially investigate misconduct involving both Foreign Service and Civil Service employees, depending on the nature of the allegation. If an investigation suggests a possible disciplinary issue, the case is forwarded to the Bureau of Human Resources Conduct, Suitability, and Discipline Division, Office of Employee Relations (HR/ER/CSD). Similarly, when a bureau without delegated disciplinary authority or post management determines that misconduct by an employee warrants more than admonishment, they forward documentation to HR/ER/CSD for consideration of disciplinary action. HR/ER/CSD, which has eight staff members, receives about 240 referrals per year.

“Preponderant Evidence” vs “Beyond a Reasonable Doubt” Standard via State/OIG:

HR/ER/CSD and bureaus with delegated disciplinary authority are responsible for determining whether disciplinary action is warranted and for developing disciplinary proposals.

The “preponderant evidence” standard is used rather than the higher standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” used in criminal cases.4 The Department is additionally required to establish a nexus between the disciplinary action and the promotion of the efficiency of the service.5 For both Civil Service and Foreign Service disciplinary cases, a proposed penalty is based on the review of similar past discipline cases and the application of the Douglas Factors…”

The Office of the Legal Adviser, Employment Law (L/EMP), and DGHR’s Grievance Staff, along with the Office of Medical Services, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, OIG, DGHR’s Office of Career Development and Assignments, and domestic bureaus or overseas posts, as necessary, cooperate in developing a factual basis for a disciplinary case. HR/ER/CSD and L/EMP clear proposed disciplinary actions from the bureaus with delegated disciplinary authority that involve suspension, termination, or reduction in pay grade for Civil Service employees.

In the 2014 State/OIG report, HR/ER/CSD staff members acknowledge that timeliness is one of their primary challenges and that the case specialists are consistently unable to meet their performance target of 30 days from receipt of a complete referral package to proposal finalization. “The OIG team’s analysis of 891 discipline cases between 2010 and May 2014, for which timeliness data could be extracted from the GADTRK database, revealed that the average time from case receipt to decision letter was 114 days.”

Our source speaking on background elaborated that the reason State/DS has an adverse action list is because it takes so long for the Department to discipline employees, Diplomatic Security “needed a tracking mechanism.” (see Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s “Naughty List” — What’s That All About?).

But. 2014. 2015. 2017.

How many is too many?

How long is too long?

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@StateDept Public Affairs Game Show: Tillerson Attends “Private Event”? #ButTelevised

Posted: 1:39 am ET

 

AND NOW THIS – WITH JUST A SPOONFUL OF SUGAR ….

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Tillerson Delivers Performance Management Tip, and EER Drafters Everywhere Cheer

Posted: 12:55 am ET

 

According to ABC News, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently told U.S. diplomats in Brussels that the U.S. State Department has yet to achieve foreign policy “wins” since he took over nearly a year ago. “While we don’t have any wins on the board yet, I can tell you we’re in a much better position to advance America’s interests around the world than we were 10 months ago,” Tillerson said.

And EER writers everywhere cheered!

No more wasted paper or wasted printer toner come Spring when employee evaluation reports are due. This may be the shortest EER accomplishment employees ever have to write if they take their cue from a secretary of state whose tenure the New Yorker says “may well be regarded as the most consequential in postwar American history.”

DS-5055 has a box for description of accomplishments: “Rated employees must describe their most significant accomplishments during the rating period. Employees should provide a factual description of outcomes achieved and how these outcomes advanced Mission or Department goals. Employees do not self-appraise their own performance.”  Well, never mind that, it can be short and sweet like:

“As the Secretary has said, not having any accomplishments over 10 months is perfectly acceptable. My work has put the Department in a much better position to advance America’s work around the world.”

You’re welcome!

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Tillerson Delivers Remarks at the Redesign Leadership Gathering #AllTheHappyPeople

Posted: 1:20 pm PT

 

Via state.gov

Secretary Tillerson was over at the Foreign Service Institute on November 29 and apparently delivered the opening remarks at the Redesign Leadership Gathering.  We don’t know what he said over there since the Bureau of Public Affairs has not seen it fit to post the transcript of his official remarks online.

Secretary Tillerson Delivers Opening Remarks at the Redesign Leadership Gathering | U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered opening remarks at the Redesign Leadership Gathering at the Foreign Service Institute in Arlington, Virginia on November 29, 2017. [State Department Photo/ Public Domain]

 [for full visual effect, click on image above or here for a larger view]

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Clip of the Day: Annoyed Tillerson Offended on Behalf of @StateDept

Posted: 1:44 am ET

 

There are still a lot of empty chairs over in Foggy Bottom, and let’s not even  talk about the musical chairs in the redesign pod, but in fairness to Mr. Tillerson, somebody wants to know what’s so bad about the acting chiefs? These are career people, they know their stuff, though they are in their acting capacity and not blessed by the White House and the Senate.

Do you really want Mick Mulvaney to come over with his bag of donuts and be the Acting Secretary of Everything?

Wait, you already have your own version of the Mickster? Did he bring donuts?

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First @StateDept Postpones Annual Retirement Ceremony, Then Postpones Annual Awards Ceremony

Posted: 2:19 am ET

 

Each fall, usually in November, and tentatively scheduled for Friday, November 17, 2017 this year, the Secretary of State hosts the annual retirement ceremony. Invitations usually go out out in the first half of October to State Department Civil Service and Foreign Service employees who retires between September 1 the year before and August 31 of the current year. Employees who retire after August 31, 2017 for instance will be invited to next year’s ceremony (fall of 2018).

On October 23, State/HR sent out an email announcement informing recipients that the Secretary’s Annual Retirement Ceremony has been changed. “Regrettably, the tentative date for the Retirement Ceremony has been preempted by another event.” This year’s ceremony is now reportedly scheduled for Thursday, December 7. The invitations to the honorees were supposedly mailed out the first week of November.

The State Department’s public schedule for November 17 is listed as follows:

9:45 a.m. Secretary Tillerson delivers remarks at the Ministerial on Trade, Security, and Governance in Africa, at the Department of State.

11:30 a.m. Secretary Tillerson participates in a Family Photo, at the Department of State.

4:30 p.m. Secretary Tillerson meets with President Donald Trump, at the White House.

We don’t know which of the above pre-empted the event last week or if somebody else had some private ceremony at the State Department venue. We’re told this has to be done during the day to avoid overtime payment.  In any case, we’ll have to watch out what happens on December 7 and see if they can round up enough people for Tillerson’s first retirement ceremony.

On November 14, a notification also went out from State/HR that the 2017 Department Annual Awards Ceremony has been rescheduled:

The Secretary’s travel demands will make it impossible for him to preside over the Department Awards ceremony scheduled tentatively for November 21, 2017. We expect to reschedule the event for a date in the near future. The Secretary would like very much to present these awards himself and asks that we try to find a date and time that fits with his calendar. We will be in touch as soon as we have any information on the plans for the ceremony.

A howler arrived in our inbox:

The Secretary postponed State’s annual awards ceremony on short notice. Individuals understand the priority of world affairs and how a crisis takes precedence over a ceremony, however, that is precisely when another senior officer conducts the ceremony. That’s great the Secretary himself wants to be there, but the show must go on. Many (if not most) individuals receiving these prestigious awards had family traveling to DC to be present. The awards are a big deal and it is Thanksgiving weekend. Now all the travel plans are wasted, money is lost (who buys non-refundable tickets?) and Thanksgiving reunions are ruined.

It’s almost like the Secretary and his top team seek out every opportunity to destroy morale amongst his staff.

Perhaps Mr. Tillerson isn’t used to thinking about these things. But see, if he has counsel at the top besides the denizens of the “God Pod”, that individual would have anticipated this. The awardees are not just coming from next door, or within driving distance, and their families do not live in Washington, D.C. Anyone with a slight interest in the Foreign Service should know that. It is understandable that the Secretary has lots of responsibilities, but State could have used his deputy, or if he, too, is traveling, they could certainly use “P” to do this on Mr. Tillerson’s behalf. Of course, if advisors at the top are as blind as the secretary, this is what you get, which only alienates the building more.

Should be interesting to see where Secretary Tillerson’s travel take him this Thanksgiving week.

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America’s “Newspaper of Record” Calls Rex Tillerson Ill-Suited As Secretary of State, Ouchy!

Posted: 2:14 am ET

 

NYT’s editorial of November 18, not only called Mr. Tillerson ill-suited as secretary of state, it also cited the 69th secretary of state’s “limited ambitions.”

One GOP senator John Cornyn still thinks Mr. Tillerson is “doing a great job”.  Early this year, the senior senator from Texas introduced Rex Tillerson before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as “uniquely qualified to serve in this important office.”

AND NOW THIS —

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