AFSA Threatens to Sue State Department Over Ambassadors Credentials, Again

Updated on March 6, 10:13 pm PST with the “demonstrated competence” requirement in the FS Act of 1980.

— Domani Spero

Via WaPo’s Al Kamen:

The State Department employees union is demanding that the department turn over key documents on three embattled ambassadorial nominees — and all pending Obama administration nominees, both career Foreign Service and non-career folks — by Thursday evening or face a prompt lawsuit for the materials.

The documents, called “certificates of demonstrated competence,” essentially explain the rationale for nominating  each individual. The 28-member governing board of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) voted unanimously to demand the documents.

AFSA had filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents in July, but it has not received them.
[…]
Although the board was very concerned about those particular three nominees, “We’re not going to be satisfied with one or two small victories,”AFSA president Robert Silverman said in an interview. “We want the system to be fixed, it’s broken.”

With the certificates in hand, the board, probably by telephone vote, is expected to deal with those three nominees. On the other hand, if AFSA needs to go to court for the documents, it may not get them before the full Senate votes on the nominations.

On AFSA’s Facebook page, the news has yet to generate a wave of response from its membership. Besides over a dozen likes and a few short “bravos,” a couple of concerns were also posted:

One wrote: “While I appreciate the broader issue, and think that it is nice that the press is focused on the service of career diplomats, I wonder how much efforts like this will go to alienate senior leadership in the Department and Administration who might later be called on to advocate for OCP or other issues of concern for the rank and file. I agree the Service would benefit if a few more Ambassadorships went to career diplomats, but I doubt that the senators who right now might applaud the sideshow generated by a lawsuit will feel similarly disposed when a Republican administration is making its appointments.”

Another comment: “While I am concerned about the quality of our Ambassadors I am even more concerned that AFSA has chosen this matter as the defining issue on which to expend its political capital.  I understand your explanation that no publicity is bad publicity but if the choice is to put our support behind an initiative that will benefit a very select few versus a different initiative that will benefit all, i.e. OCP, then I would rather we back the latter. My fellow proletarians may disagree but this seems to me a much wiser use of resources.”

In responding to one FB comment, Mr. Silverman, the AFSA president wrote in part:

“I want to assure you that we are working very closely on this Chief of Mission Guidelines initiative with the senior leadership at State, other Administration and SFRC. That has been the focus since the initiative’s genesis in August. Informally senior State leaders applaud and support this initiative. And we are collaborating closely with State on our single biggest ask of Congress: the third tranche of OCP. From my perspective as AFSA’s president, this collaboration has never been closer. The unprecedented media attention also strengthens AFSA’s voice in general. The goal is to have it help with OCP, and the most urgent issue in front of us – the Senate holds on 1,300 FS members awaiting tenure and promotion.”

Thursday night is reportedly the deadline.  It’ll be an interesting night, or maybe not.

If the State Department releases these “certificates of demonstrated competence” on “all pending Obama administration nominees,” it will, no doubt, be a media field day. We could be wrong, but we don’t think State will roll over a threat that easily.  If it does’t, AFSA will, of course, have to go to court. It won’t be for the first time.  Since we don’t have a drive-thru court, this will certainty take time winding through the federal district court. By the time a hearing is in sight or folks need to appear in court, the ambassadorial nominees potentially would already be confirmed and off to post.

We have not been able to find anything on these “certificates of demonstrated competence” — not in the FAM or anywhere else in state.gov.  Not even in history.state.gov but it is in the FS Act of 1980:(h/t to M!)

Section 304 (4)
(4) The President shall provide the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate, with each nomination for an appointment as a chief of mission, a report on the demonstrated competence of the nominee to perform the duties of the position in which he or she is to serve.

Also,  a little digging in ADST’s oral history project gave us an idea on what maybe in these “certificates.” Below is an excerpt from the ADST interview of Charles A. Schmitz who served in the State Department from 1964 to the early 1990’s. He worked in the Director General’s Office from 1976-1978 and served as AFSA Vice President in 1990 when the association took the State Department to court for these “certificates.” Excerpt below, read the full interview here (pdf).

The State Department, in a most conniving, almost criminal way, connived to keep from the public view the description of how bad a lot of these appointees were, in violation of the law. The law requires the State Department to issue a certificate of demonstrated competence for every ambassadorial appointee.
[…]
It is in the Foreign Service Act. It is much ignored, by the way. Pell required it to be written into the law, but then quit taking it seriously. Therefore, the certificate was produced in name only. It was not a certificate of competency at all. It was a brief, usually one page, description of what the person had done. A typical example was of the model…Mr. so-and-so has been a pillar of his community, a successful businessman in running his used car dealership and therefore would make an excellent ambassador of the United States to Spain. It was so bad that these things were not even carefully done. They had typos in them. In one case the last line naming the country was the wrong country.
[…]
Nobody noticed it because they classified it. There is a little operation in the State Department that produced these things. They were not really State Department people, they were White House people sent over to write these things. There were two of them. They then sent them as confidential documents to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. That is why we sued him. We said that you can not classify somebody’s resume. Under the National Security Act involving classification this is a violation of the act. We, of course, argued that point until we were blue in the face for months and months with the State Department in negotiations. They refused to move on it, so AFSA sued the Secretary of State in the Federal District Court. Before the matter came to hearing, the State Department compromised and provided AFSA all of the documents which it had withheld until that point. It undertook to provide us the documents as the law should require and denied having done anything wrong.
[…]
These things turned out to be laughable in practice. They were slipshod, superficially done, just marking the boxes So we had to expose that in some fashion. And that was important that it was exposed and ultimately, as I said before, what caused a certain amount of embarrassment. This didn’t defeat any of those nominees, but it may have had some effect on other potential appointees, or the nominators anyway who realized it wasn’t going to be just a free ride to nominate anybody as ambassador.

Remember Battlestar Galactica’s “All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again?”  

* * *

 

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AFSA Releases Underwhelming Ambassador Guidelines For “Successful Performance”

— Domani Spero

We’ve been hearing about the AFSA ambassador guidelines for a while now.  We were prepared to be amazed but frankly, given that AFSA has largely ignored the termination of ambassador report cards, we tried hard to contain our expectations (see State/OIG Terminates Preparation of Report Cards for Ambassadors and Sr. Embassy Officials).

Last week, the State Department’s favorite columnist over at WaPo writes, “The cringe-inducing performances in recent weeks by some of President Obama’s ambassadorial nominees have raised expectations that the American Foreign Service Association will weigh in next week with some revolutionary guidelines to revamp the nomination process.  Don’t count on it. Thoughtful, yes. Explosive, hardly. Our sense of the guidelines, which AFSA began working on last summer, is that they’re fairly anodyne suggestions, not a call for stricter criteria.”

According to Al Kamen, the AFSA board reportedly approved the draft guidelines on a 17 to 5 vote, with all four former ambassadors on the board voting against the guidelines, “apparently feeling the new ones watered down the 1980 Foreign Service Act’s useless section on ambassador selection.”  We also heard complaints that while AFSA has been working on these guidelines since last summer, the AFSA membership reportedly did not get a chance to provide comments and input until Friday last week. What the hey?!

Below is the relevant section of the Foreign Service Act of 1980

SEC. 304 – APPOINTMENT OF CHIEFS OF MISSION

(a)(1) An individual appointed or assigned to be a chief of mission should possess clearly demonstrated competence to perform the duties of a chief of mission, including, to the maximum extent practicable, a useful knowledge of the principal language or dialect of the country in which the individual is to serve, and knowledge and understanding of the history, the culture, the economic and political institutions, and the interests of that country and its people.

(2) Given the qualifications specified in paragraph (1), positions as chief of mission should normally be accorded to career members of the Service, though circumstance will warrant appointments from time to time of qualified individuals who are not career members of the Service.

(3) Contributions to political campaigns should not be a factor in the appointment of an individual as a chief of mission.

We are confident that various administrations since 1980 had their own definitions of what “from time to time” actually means.

So what’s the purpose of releasing these guidelines now?  AFSA says that it offers “this Guidelines paper as a resource to inform the executive and legislative processes of nominating and confirming U.S. chiefs of mission. Chiefs of mission are the president’s envoys to foreign countries and multilateralinstitutions, usually carrying the title of ambassador. They lead our engagement with foreign governments and act as the CEOs of U.S. overseas missions and embassies.”

One retired ambassador who is not an AFSA member asked why ambassadors are even described as CEOs  since they are not — having no bottom line, no shareholders, and no board of directors?  Without all that, we wonder who gets to fire these CEOs to improve “corporate” governance at our overseas missions?

Some of the folks we know who are retired members of AFSA are opposed to the practice of appointing bundlers as ambassadors citing Section 304 of the FSA 1980.   Some see this issue as key to defining an American profession.  Others strongly believe that AFSA as the professional association representing career Foreign Service diplomats, “must–like Cicero–at least take a stand and call out the current system for what it is–plutocratic  corruption.”

Just saw WaPo reporting that AFSA “may oppose Obama ambassador nominees” but that AFSA President Robert Silverman reportedly also “noted that there may be a feeling that AFSA might not “want to get into the middle of a dogfight” while it’s in progress.”

Whose dogfight is this, anyways?  Does AFSA really think that these guidelines would change the current practice of nominating ambassadors ?

At the DPB yesterday, a reporter asked if the State Department believe that an association or the union for current and retired professional diplomats should have any say in the nomination process.  The official spokesperson Jen Psaki replied, “I’d have to check and see … if we have an official U.S. Government position on that question.” Prior to that question, she did say this:

“Obviously, the nomination process, as you well know, happens through the Executive Branch, which has been a traditional process, and input and thoughts comes from a range of resources. And certainly, we support freedom of speech by anyone in terms of what they view nominees should be able to – should – criteria they should meet. But again, these decisions have traditionally been made out of the White House.”

Seriously now, are you hearing what she’s saying?

AFSA says that the Guidelines are “drawn from the collective experience of a group of distinguished former chiefs of mission, both career and non-career, and from legislative and regulatory sources.” Ten ambassadors, all retired; including Ambassador Donald Gips, our former ambassador to South Africa who also served  as head of the WH office for Presidential Personnel.  In that role, Ambassador Gips managed “the selection of several thousand political appointments for the Obama Administration” prior to his appointment to South Africa.  The working group surprisingly did not include a single member of the active Foreign Service.   How well or how badly these missions are managed have a direct impact on the life and work of our diplomats. So we’re curious — how much input did the active membership provide in finalizing the guidelines that the association issued on its behalf?  

AFSA says that the paper is “non-partisan in nature” and offers the following guidelines:

Under “Leadership, character and proven interpersonal skills,” the Guidelines says “A key skill is the ability to listen in order to better understand the host country’s perspectives.”

You know that every bartender worth his/her salt, actually could do this one just as well, right?

Under “Understanding of high level policy and operations, and of key U.S. interests and values in the country or organization of prospective assignment,” the Guidelines says of the  nominee: “He or she demonstrates the capacity to negotiate, and has the proven ability to take on various challenges, including working with U.S. and foreign business communities and other nongovernmental interests, and providing services to U.S. citizens.”

One could argue that Mr. Tsunis, the hotelier nominated for the U.S. Embassy Norway can demonstrate this just as well. As CEO of Chartwell Hotels, LLC which owns, develops and manages Hilton, Marriott and Intercontinental hotels throughout the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states, he presumably worked with U.S. and foreign business communities and provide services to American citizens. Every. Single. Day.

The third item in the Guidelines is Management.  The President of the Garden Club of Oz, as well, “possesses experience in setting goals and visions, managing change, and allocating resources.”

The fourth and last item listed is “Understanding of host country and international affairs.“The Guidelines says of the nominee: “has experience in or with the host country or other suitable international experience, and has knowledge of the host country culture and language or of other foreign cultures or languages.”

Experience as a foreign exchange student count, right?

To be clear, your blogger’s household does not pay any dues to AFSA, so we are not a member of any standing.   But after reading  the AFSA Guidelines officially titled, “Guidelines for Successful Performance as a Chief of Mission,”we also had to wonder — what was AFSA thinking?  Yes, it is doing something, but is it doing the right thing?

In fact, we think folks could wave these AFSA Guidelines around to defend even the most controversial ambassadorial nominees.  Let’s try it.

For example, according to Wikipedia, Colleen Bell, producer of The Bold and the Beautiful, graduated with high honors from Sweet Briar College with a bachelor’s degree in political economy, a dual major in political science and economics. She spent her junior year abroad at the University of St Andrews in Scotland.   Scotland is not Hungary but that is a foreign culture, is it not? You don’t think this is enough for AFSA Guidelines #4?  Doesn’t it say on paper, “of other foreign cultures or languages?” She also produced the world’s most-watched soap opera, viewed in over 100 countries. The show serves 26.2 million viewers, including U.S. citizens. You don’t think that has anything to do with management and understanding of international affairs?

As a taxpayer with a vested interest in the effective functioning of our overseas missions, we have followed AFSA and the Foreign Service closely.  While we are not a voting member of this association, we would have wanted, instead, to see two things from AFSA: 1)  work on strengthening the Foreign Service Act of 1980 through Congress, who is after all, tasked to provide “advice and consent”on ambassadorial nominees under the U.S. Constitution, and 2)  work on the reinstatement of the OIG Inspector Evaluation Reports (IERs)  to promote accountability and successful performance of our chiefs of missions overseas.  The end.

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Have You Heard About These “Dramatic Changes” Coming to AFSA?

— By Domani Spero

Update below.  Scroll down to view comments from AFSA State VP Matthew Asada and AFSA Retiree Rep Edward Marks

FS employees join the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) for many reasons, one of which is representation by AFSA legal counsel in EEO process or in criminal/administrative cases.  AFSA’s website strongly advised that “employees seek guidance and representation from AFSA or private counsel prior to agreeing to any interview and especially a voluntary interview.

We are hearing that “dramatic changes” are in the works without AFSA membership approval.  The changes reportedly will affect the nature of AFSA, potentially reduce services to members and potentially compromise the privacy of AFSA’s clients.

As we understand it, there are two possible contentious issues:

  • All new AFSA cases will now reportedly go through the State-VP who allegedly will “independently decide” whether or not they merit the attention of the AFSA lawyers.
  • Names of all AFSA clients will reportedly be added to an AFSA database of cases. The database we’re told will be maintained by the State VP.  The database will allegedly be accessible to two non-attorney staff members and all Board members.

These changes are reportedly intended to “improve AFSA’s service” and “more efficiently use AFSA’s resources” but have apparently already resulted in the resignation of AFSA’s most senior labor-management staff member.

In a letter to AFSA President Robert Silverman leaked to this blog, former State VP Daniel Hirsch expressed serious concerns about these reported changes, writing:

“For as long as I have been an AFSA member, AFSA members have had direct, initial access to AFSA’s attorneys and management specialists, who were the first, and usually the only, people in AFSA to hear the details of a member’s case. AFSA attorneys are legally bound by two sets of laws to maintain client confidentiality, and AFSA clients have routinely been told that no other party will learn the details of their case unless the client authorizes disclosure on a limited case by case basis to named individuals. This ensured in the past that every dues-paying member had access to the free legal advice paid for by their dues, and the right to receive that advice from a party who was objective, knowledgeable, and bound to protect their privacy.
[…]
[T]he idea of having a single, untrained individual serve as gatekeeper to AFSA services also has enormous potential for abuse.
[…]
The inclusion of names on AFSA’s client database is likewise a dramatic departure from past practice. When the database was created during my term, the issue of names was thoroughly discussed by AFSA’s attorneys and by AFSA’s membership staff. All agreed that the inclusion of names would compromise privacy, reduce client trust in AFSA, and serve no useful purpose. It was also noted that the Department’s staff does not include names in their similar databases (using instead case numbers assigned by staff members) and that the inclusion of PII in a database run over State Department computers, without appropriate approvals, is contrary to State Department policy.”

We’ve checked the AFSA website but there’s nothing there about these changes.  So we asked AFSA.  One AFSA Constituency Representative told us:

“No change – AFSA has a duty and a keen interest to represent all as the elected bargaining agent when the employee has been hit by Mgmt. […] But AFSA needs to examine the range and content of its grievance case load and try and figure out what the systemic problems are that are subjects of repeated grievances. We need to use that data to fix the system.  We are trying to fix the leaking pipes and not just keep emptying the buckets every day.  To do that we have to understand the case load and do analysis.  That requires data.”   

On August 29, 2013, we emailed State VP Matthew Asada with the following questions:

I heard that as AFSA’s State VP you will now decide whether or not new AFSA cases merit the attention of AFSA lawyers, is this true?  The AFSA client-lawyers are covered by confidentiality, where does that leave you? What is the rationale behind this change?

There’s also talk that names of all AFSA clients will be put in a database maintained by you and non-lawyer staff of AFSA. Can you understand why this could be troubling to the AFSA membership?

Can you confirm that these new policy changes has already resulted in the resignation of AFSA’s most senior labor-management staff member?

Will AFSA be sending out an ALDAC on these changes to inform its membership?

We did not get a direct response to our questions. We did get an email from Mr. Asada, a rejoiner response to the AFSA Constituency Representative’s email above on August 30:

“As  Tex [AFSA constituent rep] noted, there has been no change to our existing policies. All of us at AFSA are interested in ensuring that we are responsible custodians of AFSA’s resources and that we use those resources – entrusted to us by our members – to advance the overall interests of the Foreign Service and its 16,000 members (several of whom are avid Diplopundit readers).  We want our members to know how we are working on their behalf and communications is a key part of that (we recently brought on Kristen Fernekes as AFSA’s new Director of Communications).”

The response above, unfortunately, reminds us of a teevee talk show where guests often answer with a non-answer. So let’s add more questions, because why not?

  • When new clients have to see an AFSA Governing Board Member  who decides whether dues-paying members need to see AFSA’s lawyers or not, instead of having direct access to AFSA’s lawyers, isn’t that a departure from previous practice?  Doesn’t this constitute a change that the membership should be aware of?
  • Are AFSA Governing Board Members covered by client confidentiality?  If not, what kind of confidentiality agreement protects AFSA clients?
  • Since cases are available in a database accessible to over a dozen people, how safe is that data from accidental disclosure? What protection does AFSA employ to ensure protection from unauthorized disclosures?
  • What are the consequences for disclosure of this data?
  • Do AFSA members have an option to opt-out from the data collection?

We understand AFSA’s interest in learning from the data of its grievance case load but, wouldn’t it make more sense to look at cases resolved in … maybe the last five years, instead of new cases?

Let’s pause for a moment here and imagine this. Say I have a potential sexual harassment case against an official at the State Department or at AFSA.   I go see if I can get legal help from AFSA. Instead of speaking directly with an AFSA attorney, I have to see an AFSA Veep to make the case why I need legal representation. Before the AFSA Veep decides whether or not I need a lawyer, he/she would have to ask me questions about my sexual harassment case. That means details. Even if I get an AFSA lawyer, that still means the AFSA Veep knows the details of my case. They then put my name in an AFSA database. The database is accessible to about a dozen or so people. If/If somebody leaks my case (even accidentally) to the official identified as the other party in my case, who pays for breach of confidentiality?

See why that is disconcerting?

Finally, elections. Remember in the 2009 elections when there was such a hubbub about the use of an email list during that nasty campaign?  That election went all the way to the Department of Labor and DOL ordered a DOL-supervised AFSA election to avoid another food fight. (See AFSA Received Letter from DOL. 11 Days Ago…).

Yep, that’s one other reason why folks might get a bad feeling about a database.

We tracked down Daniel Hirsch, the immediate past State VP for AFSA who served two terms, for comments.  He sent us the following response:

As a former AFSA VP, I can’t imagine what is meant by “AFSA’s resources.” As AFSA VP I, like my predecessors, managed member resources, paid for by member dues, to ensure that they were available to dues-paying members when needed. Yes, there is more demand now on those resources, because there are more members. More members pay more dues, so AFSA can afford to accommodate the increased demand.That’s why, and how, AFSA hired an additional attorney and an additional legislative assistant last year. 

AFSA is not a for-profit organization, and it has nearly 4 million dollars, and growing, in reserve already. What is responsible about obliging members to violate their right to confidentiality in order to allow one official to decide whether to allow them access to the services they pay for? Does it increase the efficiency of an organization, whose purpose is to help its members, to save money by helping fewer members? On what basis will that decision be made? And what qualifies one official to make it alone? 

If you have an opinion or questions about this matter contact your AFSA Governing Board representatives. If AFSA releases a clarification about these changes or non-changes, we’ll have a follow-up post.

 

Updated on 9/13/13 @1557 EST

Below is an email response from Edward Marks, Retiree Representative, AFSA Governbing Board (same position on last GB):

“You should be careful about jumping into discussions of situations with inadequate or partisan information. Your article is not factual, refecting paniced and uninformed reactions by people with vested interest in the existing situation. A situation which many find inadequate when dealiing with the Department on systemic as well as personal questions. The former VP Daniel Hirsch was a vocal , and distinctly minority, obstacle to all change proposed in the previous Governing Board and obviously is continuing to oppose change today. He has of course his views, but they are distinctly parti pris. Please do not pursue the media habit of of giving equal coverage (although in this case you did not even do that) to two sides without at least identifying the partisan affiliations.”

Below is an email response from Matthew K. Asada | Vice President of the American Foreign Service Association

“Again, there has been no change in structure of AFSA’s legal department nor in the processing of inquiries or cases.  AFSA leadership is constantly reviewing the organization with the intent of improving service, advocacy, fiscal management, etc.  AFSA would be remiss if it did not do this.

Any changes would go to the AFSA Governing Board for decision in accordance with its bylaws.  But again, there has been NO decision to make any such change.

We welcome feedback from our members as to how we can improve service and encourage them to contact us with their ideas and suggestions.”

👀

AFSA Elections 2013: Unofficial Results, Asada Defeats Hicks

—By Domani Spero

AFSA ballots and candidate statements were mailed on April 15, 2013.  On June 6, the ballots were counted.  Since most of the elected positions were unopposed, the only results not previously known were those of the State VP, State Rep and Retiree Rep. We have the unofficial results for the State VP and Retiree Representive races (confirmed by two sources), but do not know as yet the results of the State Representative race.  We will update this post when the official results are released by AFSA.

Probably the big news in this race is that Gregory Hicks, the former DCM of US Embassy Tripoli who was called a Benghazi “whistleblower” by the Oversight Committee failed in his quest to represent the Foreign Service. The winner of the State VP race is Matthew K. Asada, a “fourth generation Japanese-American and third generation public servant from Detroit. “ He joined the Foreign Service in 2003 and is currently an entry-level Career Development Officer.  He was first elected AFSA State Representative in 2011.

 

President:
Robert Silverman * (unopposed)

Secretary:
Robert F. Ritchie * (unopposed)

Treasurer:
Charles A. Ford *  (unopposed)

State VP: 3 Candidates/1 Elected Position
Matthew K. Asada (elected)
Gregory N. Hicks *
Donald L. Moore

USAID VP:
Sharon Wayne (unopposed)

FCS VP:
Steve Morrison (unopposed)

FAS VP:
David Mergen (unopposed)

Retiree VP:
Lawrence Cohen * (unopposed)

USAID Rep (2):
Jason Singer (unopposed)

FCS Rep (1):
Barbara Lapini (unopposed)

FAS Rep (1):
No candidate

IBB Rep (1):
Andre de Nesnera (unopposed)

State Reps (11):  15 Candidates/11 Elected Positions (don’t have results for this)
Clayton Bond *
Andrew Burton
Everett “Alex” Copher *
Tim Corso
Todd Crawford *
Chuck Fee *
David Jea
Kenneth Kero-Mentz *
Elise Mellinger
Ken Reiman
Nancy Rios-Brooks *
Sue Saarnio
Michael D. Thomas *
Lillian Wahl-Tuco *
David Zwach *

Retiree Reps:  8 Candidates/4 Elected Positions
Marshall Adair  (elected)
David Greenlee (elected)
Tex Harris (elected)
Ed Marks (elected)
Barry Friedman *
Stephen Keat *
Chris O’Donnell
Leon Weintraub

(* = member of the iAFSA Coalition slate)

(^-^)b

AFSA Elections 2013: Thin Candidate Selection Sends Troubling Sign of Persistent Indifference

One of our readers prompted us recently to check out the upcoming AFSA elections … and so we did. Here is part of the election announcement:

AFSA Committee on Elections has approved the following candidates (see below) for positions on the ballot for the AFSA Governing Board for the 2013-2015 term. All regular voting members of AFSA will be emailed or mailed a ballot and the special election edition of AFSA News on or about April 15, 2013. 

Completed ballots must be received by 9:00 a.m. June 6, 2013 in order to be counted. The new AFSA Governing Board will take office on July 15, 2013.

According to the announcement, for the first time ever, members with valid email addresses already available to AFSA will be afforded the opportunity to ditch the paper ballot and vote online. The announcement also says that “Any position for which there is no candidate will be filled by the eligible AFSA member who receives the most write-in votes. If no one is elected on this basis, the new Governing Board will fill the vacancies.”

You may check out the names of the candidates here but be warned that the selection is rather sparse. Except for State VP, State Representatives (15 candidates for 11 positions), Retiree Reps (8 candidates for 4 positions), all positions on the ballot are  unopposed.

Where are the AFSA candidates?

The American Foreign Service Association is the professional association and labor union of the Foreign Service. It has 16,000 dues-paying members. It says that it represents more than 30,000 active and retired Foreign Service employees of the Department of State, USAID, FCS, IBB and APHIS.

This is not a healthy sign.

Back in January, the outgoing two-termed AFSA president Susan Johnson penned an AFSA Needs Strong Leaders (pdf) column.  I understand that this was widely disseminated to FS-01s and the Senior Foreign Service. Excerpt below:

If you want to give back to a career that has enriched you immeasurably, AFSA offers that opportunity. If you want a stronger professional Foreign Service, better equipped for the challenges of contemporary diplomacy, better professionally educated and trained, better led and managed, and better resourced by Congress, then service on the Governing Board gives you an opportunity to advocate for these goals.
[…]
Now, more than ever, AFSA needs to speak with a clear, strong voice. We need the best of the Foreign Service to step forward to lead and govern our association and union, and to fortify our advocacy with management, our political leaders in the executive and legislative branches, and with the American public.

We’d like to know if she ever got any response back.

We heard that somebody  from State’s eDiplomacy office was a candidate but dropped out on the last day of the nomination. Tried to reach out to that individual on Twitter but we don’t think we’ll hear anything back.

In any case, that leaves one sole candidate in the running for AFSA president – Robert Silverman.  According to his Linkedin profile, he served in Riyadh as Economic Counselor (1 year, 1 month), as DCM in Stockholm (2 years, 11 mos), as Political Counselor in Tel Aviv (2 years, 3 mos) and is currently an advisor at the Bureau of Legislative Affairs.

Since the presidential slot is uncontested, it looks like Mr. Silverman is slated to succeed Ms. Johnson on July 15. Unless, of course, a strong write-in candidate pops out of the magic box.  Is that even possible?


The continuing indifference of the Foreign Service majority

We’re told that out of the last ten elections or so, about half have been unopposed for most of these positions. We have no reason to disbelieve that.

Is it that people do not feel connected to AFSA?

Is it that most people do not feel that service in this organization is worth doing?

Or is it that in the grand scheme of things, people do not think it makes a whole lot of difference who gets elected?

We cannot avoid but think that the thin line of candidates in this year’s elections is just one more manifestation of member disengagement.

It is not just fewer people are coming forward to serve but this disengagement with AFSA was also reflected in the 2011 election where only 17% of the members turned out to cast their ballots, 7% less than the 2009 elections. We understand that in 2007, 80% of the members also did not bother to vote.

In 2010, David T. Jones, a retired Senior Foreign Service officer dissected the 2009 election and came out with the troubling conclusion:

“The essential conclusion must be AFSA members regard the effect on their lives as so ancillary and/or the consequences from AFSA efforts so ineffectual that voting was not worth the few minutes to review candidates/platforms (or the cost of postage to return the ballot).  The result of this indifference was predictable:  those few who cared gained and held control of AFSA abetted by de facto abdication/ indifference of the Foreign Service majority. “

Mr. Jones also has a new must read article on Unionization, AFSA and the FS in the April issue (pdf)  of the Foreign Service Journal (p16):

“Although AFSA is legally barred from employing the strongest weapon a union can wield—the ability to take direct action/strike to defend its members’ interests—there are many other steps it could take. Instead, we whine, importune and send the equivalent of a flaccid note of protest when management tromps on our toes. 
[…]
An ambassador doesn’t like you? Out you go. Someone more powerful has a “favorite” in mind for a position? Even a director general’s decision can be reversed, without recourse.  Oversight is a joke, as well. State hasn’t had a permanent inspector general in more than four years, yet AFSA has taken no action to pressure the department or the administration to rectify the situation. Has it even issued a blistering press release deploring the signal this glaring dereliction of duty sends?”

And this we heard recently:

“It’s sad but perhaps reflects the perceived realities of today’s Foreign Service and its culture with a strong and perhaps excessive emphasis on personal career development, meaning  climbing the career ladder as fast as one can scramble.”

Tenure at AFSA is essentially a time out, or perhaps the better description would be a time freeze for the full-time AFSA officer positions.  That means time-in-class (that is, time in a single salary class) is suspended. And there are no EERs for the two-year tenure. Which also means the promotion prospects is nil.

So, there’s a reason right there, both good or bad depending on how you look at it.

We were going to suggest that the election rules be updated to require that the top four Governing Board positions should have at a minimum two candidates to give the AFSA membership a choice. But given the apparent difficulties recruiting candidates, that probably is a ‘dead as soon as read’ suggestion.

While it looks like majority of the candidates in this election cycle will get the positions they want, AFSA members have several weeks to get to know them better (unless, of course, you already knew them from prior posts). You can still learn about the candidates’ vision and reasonable goals for the organization, and inquire about their previous jobs and how well those positions and tenures prepare them for representing the Foreign Service not just before State management, but also to the Congress, and to the American public.

So ask questions. And then ask follow-up questions.

What did you say?

We should encourage all voting AFSA members to look into the conditions under which candidates left their previous post?!?

Wait a minute – were you the one who sent that to the burn bag? No?

Well, can’t you ask them that question during their debate, town hall meetings, or election forums? No?

¡Ay, carumba!

Dear AFSA election candidates, some people (we have more than a few emails) are interested on why you left your previous posts. Presumably you all have left one post or another since you’re now in DC.  Can you please, please talk about this in your election forum so people would stop sending us these anonymous and cryptic emails?

Now where were we?

Oh, as an interested bystander who sits on the wall, we cannot really nudge AFSA voters to vote if they don’t want to. But perhaps voters might look at it this way:

If you don’t vote because of limited choices, or for whatever reason — you are sending a signal that you do not care. You don’t want to be like those folks who boycott elections or threaten to move to Canada (but don’t) then come out with placards when they’re unhappy about one thing or another, do you?

If you do care, then ought you not consider voting? Even if you have to vote for [INSERT NAME]  as a write-in candidate? Why? Because then perhaps your organization might learn to read your smoke signals better and work harder to engage with you … well, try and think about it ….
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