Friday, February 01, 2008

Embassy reporting officers: interchangeable?

This is an interesting piece from The Cookie Pusher. I can't decide if I agree or not. I think the argument has valid points, and as a Public Diplomacy coned officer, I certainly believe we could do our jobs better if we were integrated into political and economic sections. An having one section chief instead of three would help us in terms of staffing shortages, though in the long term it would end up meaning less opportunity for promotion in all three cones by simple verture of there being fewer slots. But if you think of public diplomacy not in terms of being a feel good cone and more in terms of a tool to advance foreign policy (and I do), whether it be by explaining clearly our foreign policy or by working with political and economic officers to make sure people they identify as good contacts or future leaders get to participate in the International Visitor program, then having the sections united makes sense.

Embassy reporting officers: interchangeable?

"We consider political, economic, and public diplomacy cone officers to be reporting officers. Theoretically, this means that we all have essentially the same set of responsibilities, if in different spheres.

Are we therefore interchangeable?

I’m going to argue both yes and no: we should be combined, by and large, into unified POL/ECON/PD sections, but should maintain portfolios that reflect our individual areas of expertise, which aren’t necessarily strictly political, economic, or public diplomacy.

At your average embassy, having an aggregated POL/ECON/PD Chief only makes sense. In a world that calls more and more for our concerted action, and our marshaling of manpower and resources (both publicly and privately), we find ourselves too often working at cross purposes, or simply working in ignorance of one another, in separate sections.

Additionally, senior PD officers still remember USIS days far too clearly, and a few continue to believe their mission doesn’t require the same kind of coordinated effort with other sections. I’ve had older PD officers tell me they regret the loss of “objectivity” regarding U.S. policy they once had. They didn’t have to “sell the same message.” This, if true, further underlines my belief that the end of USIS was necessary and fundamentally in U.S. interest.

A second annoyance we often face in separate POL and ECON sections is an old debate about where the division between these two areas lies exactly. Labor officers sometimes find themselves in POL sections, sometimes in ECON. The trafficking-in-persons portfolio is also frequently fought over (or more accurately, pawned off on the other section). Other issues that seem to have the same kind of cross-cutting nature are counter-narcotics, export control issues (i.e. Waasenaar), refugees, migration, or multilateral environmental issues.

However, combination doesn’t mean interchangeability. Officers develop expertise in a variety of areas over time. An officer with depth of knowledge in the area of cultural exchange, or press handling, or religious freedom, or the oil industry, for example, should maintain and develop that expertise. A good press attache is worth his weight in gold, and should be allowed to hone his or her skill.

We aren’t interchangeable, and portfolios shouldn’t be arranged and re-arranged as cavalierly as they often are. I’ve known many officers who bid on a position being told it had the pol-mil portfolio, for example, only to have it taken away in the re-arrangement of an incoming boss. This doesn’t make sense. Officers ought to be able to bid on what substantive assignment they want, not just something as blandly nondescript as “POL.”

Some portfolios necessarily require flexibility: a country hosting the Olympics, or working on its EU or NATO candidacy, for example, has an important portfolio with an expiration date. And, in crises, flexibility is of paramount importance. But, these noteworthy exceptions aside, we as a service need to build on our strengths and reduce coordination and communication problems.

So, to summarize: one reporting section with separate portfolios, which officers can bid on in advance and reasonably expect to keep while at post."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the comment and reference. Regarding your point about promotion if there’s only one “reporting chief,” there’s no reason to think we don’t still need senior level slots in these sections. Imagine an embassy with a DCM, who in turn has a reporting chief, a consular chief, and an admin chief. Under the reporting chief, there could be deputy section chiefs for a variety of purposes. For example, in Berlin, the very large POL section has Deputies for external and internal issues.

I’m not suggesting just an extra layer: a super-chief over a series of deputies, who are the POL, ECON, and PD chiefs of yesterday. The external affairs section could have a trade officer, a POL officer for multilateral affairs, a TIP officer, and an educational exchange officer. The internal affairs section could have a micro-econ specialist, a development officer, a political parties expert, a human rights officer, a press attache, and so forth.

I’m not trying to cast this idea in stone, nor throw out the idea of cones altogether. I’m arguing for greater development of expertise beyond merely being POL, ECON, or PD officers, and for better coordination of effort. I’m sure others have great ideas about how to do this, but it seems to me thatg co-location, even if sections remain the same, is really important. Walking outside the CAA to a different area, sometimes a different building, to speak face-to-face with the press attache doesn’t make sense.

I’d love to hear other’s thoughts on this, as well. Thanks again for your comment.