Former AFSA Presidents to SFRC: Delay Approval for FSO Dana Smith as Qatar Ambassador

— Domani Spero
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Eleven former presidents of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the professional association of the United States Foreign Service have written to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) requesting that the Committee postpone consideration of FSO Dana Shell Smith’s nomination as ambassador to Qatar until the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) has made a decision in the case related to Ms. Smith and another senior FSO, Susan Johnson.  Ms. Johnson, the immediate former president of AFSA served two terms from 2009-2013.

The letter says that the former AFSA presidents, which includes seven former ambassadors, “firmly believe that Ms. Smith  has not demonstrated the judgment or temperament to shoulder the responsibilities of Chief of Mission.” 

Ouchy!

It adds that “Ms. Smith’s actions are central to a formal Grievance brought against the Department of State by Ms. Susan R. Johnson, also a Senior Foreign Service Officer and President of AFSA at the time she co-authored an op-ed that stimulated negative Department reaction.

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Excerpt from the letter:

 Ms. Smith and Ms. Valerie C. Fowler, then Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary respectively, misusing their official positions and authority over senior assignments and career advancement in order to convey personal views, authored a factually incorrect letter-petition sent through State Department e mail to other FSOs in senior positions, publicly attacking Ms. Johnson on an ad hominem basis for the op-ed she co-authored about the declining role of the Foreign Service.

Senior levels of the Department declined to acknowledge the behavior of Ms. Smith and Ms. Fowler as improper, unprofessional and unprecedented.    Instead the Department condoned the impropriety and compounded the Grievance by nominating one of authors of the ad hominem letter to the senior Foreign Service promotion board which reviewed and did not recommend Ms. Johnson for promotion.   This nomination, the letter-petition and the Department’s inaction may have tainted the board and denied Ms. Johnson a fair promotion review.  Individually and collectively, these actions send a chilling message that speaking out about or questioning personnel policies that lead to the weakening of the Foreign Service as a professional cadre may put careers at risk.

Valerie C. Fowler named above is now the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs in the R Bureau. PDASes do not need Senate confirmations. As an aside, have you noticed that the R Bureau now has 15 senior officials, all non-career appointees except for five FSOs?

According to her LinkedIn profile, Ms. Johnson is currently a senior fellow at the Academy of American Diplomacy where she is working on the latest AAD study-report on strengthening Foreign Service professionalism. The April 2013 op-ed referred to in the letter to the Senate is online at WaPo (see “Presidents are breaking the U.S. Foreign Service).” That op-ed piece was authored by Ms. Johnson who was then AFSA president, Ronald E. Neumann, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, and  Thomas R. Pickering, a former undersecretary of state, and chairman of the AAD board.

The Senate letter was from the following former AFSA presidents: Ambassador Thomas Boyatt, Ambassador William Harrop, Ambassador Alphonse La Porta, Ambassador Theodore Eliot, Ambassador Dennis Hays,  Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes, Ambassador John Limbert, and senior  FSOs F. Allen “Tex” Harris, Theodore Wilkinson, Marshall Adair, and Kenneth Bleakley. Their letter specifically requests that consideration be postponed “until the Foreign Service Grievance Board has made a decision in the case and forwarded the file to the Committee.”

WaPo’s Federal Eye has additional details of this “family” feud:

State did not permit interviews with Smith and Fowler. Doug Frantz,  an assistant secretary of state, said the letter asking the committee to delay action on Smith “contained errors.”  He noted that Johnson’s grievance “was filed subsequent to Ms. Smith’s nomination.” He added that Johnson could have requested Fowler’s recusal from the board, but did not.

Though the letter from Smith, Fowler and the others to Johnson was sent by government e-mail, Frantz said it “was intended to be a private communication from AFSA members to the head of their association.” It’s not private now.

We should note that Douglas Frantz was appointed Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Public Affairs in 2013. Prior to Ms. Smith’s nomination as ambassador to Qatar, she was Mr. Frantz’s top deputy as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of Public Affairs (2011-2014).

Also, the average time for consideration of a Foreign Service grievance from time of  filing to a Board decision was 41 weeks in 2011 and 33 weeks in 2012.

This could take a whole tour …

Or … maybe not.

Today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) cleared Ms. Smith’s nomination for the Senate’s full vote.  Unless a Senate hold suddenly materialize, we anticipate that this nominee and a whole slew of ambassadorial nominees will be confirmed as Congress runs off to its summer vacation in August.

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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. 
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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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JFK is in the building, and we’re not Just Kidding!

Protocol’s Capricia Marshall with Under Sectary for Management Patrick Kennedy met Senator Kerry at the C. Street entrance.  The arrival ceremony includes a brief welcome speech from Susan Johnson, the president of AFSA and an introduction by Deputy Secretary Tom Nides (who actually bowed to 68th).  On the front row “seats”, you might see several of the under secretaries and assistant secretaries, the Director General of the Foreign Service and the USAID administrator.

Below is Secretary Kerry’s arrival in Foggy Bottom in a 23:44 video. The text is here.

The State Department also announced:

#SecKerry will start tweeting from @StateDept. Tweets from him will have his initials -JK

The use of the three-letter initials is a routine practice over there. So Hillary was referred to as HRC.  John F. Kerry would have been JFK.  Except now, it seems he’ll be referred to as “JK” as the three letter initial is already taken.

WaPo’s In The Loop helpfully points out:

“…[N]ow that Kerry’s in the high-stakes world of international diplomacy, he might be in danger of sending mixed messages over a medium where meaning is easily lost. His sign-off, “JK,” for instance, is also online shorthand for “just kidding.”

Folks, think about it.
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