Wednesday, February 27, 2008

WhirledView: Why the AFSA Survey Is Right: Favoritism Charge is Real

This today from PHK on Whirled View:

Why the AFSA Survey Is Right: Favoritism Charge is Real


Last week, I reviewed the results of the American Foreign Service Association’s fall 2007 survey of active duty Foreign Service employees for a talk I was giving here in Albuquerque, New Mexico. As I reread the survey’s summary of responses on AFSA’s website, it came even clearer to me than previously that the major issue affecting Foreign Service members was the perception – at least - of undue favoritism in the State Department that benefited far too few individuals. Such charges can be part and parcel of any organization – but when they are believed by so many people on the inside they need additional investigation to help separate fact from fiction. So I thought I’d dig around a little this past week to see whether or not the perception of favoritism at the State Department was real.

Maybe this is simply the sign of the times in these United States – the widening division between the haves and the have nots. Maybe it is the result of an excessively hierarchical system worsened by, in my view, an unnecessary division into two classes of professional US Foreign Service employees: the Senior Foreign Service and the regular services, a divided and unnecessarily divisive system that since it’s inception almost 30 years ago has over-compensated a few at the expense of too many. This is one reason why today the Foreign Service lacks enough qualified officers trained in Arabic, Chinese, Korean, Russian and other difficult languages.

Whatever the reason, the AFSA survey hit - with its very high response rate - a raw nerve among State Department higher ups and resulted in denials by several. Those who most vociferously objected to the survey’s veracity, of course, were a few of the very people who have also most benefited from the system the way it is.

Survey results mischaracterized in too much of the MSM

Meanwhile, the AFSA survey results were mischaracterized. misconstrued and often twisted in too much of the MSM. Although there were a very few exceptions, most of the media stressed the Iraq policy and forced assignments issue as the most important. Wrong. In reality, Iraq policy was not the major issue for respondents although, in fact, many disapproved. The top issues had primarily to do with problems of favoritism. Reporters, evidently, took too little time to read the three page AFSA survey including reviewing its graphs. Perhaps the reporting was so poor because most reporters failed to understand the Byzantine Foreign Service system. If that was the case, however, they could, and should, have asked.

Solvable inequities

From what I’ve discovered through my own research, albeit only the years 2006-8, the impressions recorded in the AFSA Survey were dead right on the perception of excessive favoritism. In fact, the survey results appear to have correctly identified two key issues that should demand the Department’s attention now, not later. Unlike the quagmire that is Iraq, these inequities can, and should, be easily resolved.

They are as follows:

1) Senior Foreign Service Officers as well as all other US government employees assigned overseas by other departments except the FBI are able to keep their Washington, DC locality pay boost when assigned abroad – a salary increase now over 20%. The Foreign Service generalists and specialists, however, cannot: this means they need to serve at 20% hardship (or greater) differential posts just to make up for what they lose leaving Washington to serve overseas. These are the very people who are paid less to begin with. There are far more of them. These professional staffers make US Embassies and Consulates abroad tick.

2) The second issue is the perception of abject favoritism in State’s assignments, promotions and special awards system. I reviewed the biographic information on the appointments of career U.S. Ambassadorial assignments for the years 2006-8. This information is readily available through the Internet. The data I used comes from the Ambassadorial biographies found on the State Department, White House and/or Senate Foreign Relations Committee websites. It didn’t take long to discover that what smelled like favoritism and walked like favoritism also talked like the favoritism highlighted in the AFSA survey.

Here’s what I found: too high a percentage of Senior Foreign Service Officers who held or hold positions in Human Resources were or are being nominated for Ambassadorial positions than should have been nominated if there had been a level playing field for Ambassadorial nominations among all those eligible to be considered for them. What is even more striking is that none of those nominated for Ambassadorships between 2006-8 from positions in Human Resources had served in Iraq since the invasion in 2003 – or for that matter had ever served in Iraq. Period.

I focused on the 2006-8 period because of the ever increasing pressure on Foreign Service Officers and specialists to serve in Iraq as the years have gone by since the invasion in 2003. It would, however, also be useful to know whether the trend for senior Human Resources staff to be assigned to Embassies without having served in Iraq extends back to 2003. Perhaps AFSA or the Congress should ask that question.

What is particularly troubling is that these are the same people who are encouraging, dangling enticements – or putting the screws on – their colleagues to serve in Iraq when 1) they have not done so themselves; and 2) they are then rewarded with Ambassadorial posts.

Yes, a number of Iraq Senior Foreign Service alumni did become Ambassadors after their service in the Iraq war zone – about 14 percent of the total career Ambassadorial assignments versus approximately 11 percent from Human Resources. But there were far more Senior Foreign Service Officers who served in Iraq during the same time frame than in Human Resources so there should have been a significantly greater number of Senior Foreign Service Officers who had served in Iraq awarded Ambassadorships than those in Human Resources. This was not the case. Perhaps the Department and/or AFSA should be asking why.

Maybe the stress and strain of a seemingly never ending Iraq commitment that calls for more and more Foreign Service personnel every year to serve in an ever expanding Embassy and on increasing PRT (Provincial Reconstruction Teams) and a career service and a Department that is severely understaffed are parts of the problem.

I also think, however, the current divisive system itself has far outlived whatever utility it may once have had. It does not, and has not for some time, served the requirements of the U.S. diplomatic service well. There needs to be top-to-bottom restructuring and rethinking of the Foreign Service personnel system for this 21st century global information age in which cultural understanding and foreign language expertise have never been more important. At minimum, playing by threadbare-teachers’ pet rules needs to stop.


Anonymous said...

cultural understanding and foreign language expertise have never been more important.

Just curious for your opinion. Since more of the elites in all countries are learning and speaking English, and language translation programs via artificial intelligence have dramatically improved, is there any point in the near future in which State is going to scale down its language training and requirements?

Digger said...

I seriously doubt, and would certainly hope, they wouldn't scale down the language requirements. There was an interesting story I heard in my area studies class about a meeting between a particular Israeli leader and our Ambassador. Another well-known Israeli leader burst into the room, yelling in Hebrew, and then realized the Ambassador was there. He apologized and then continued more calmly but still in Hebrew. He was alerting the Israeli leader that they had just attacked a neighboring country. The Ambassador, who did not speak Hebrew, was none the wiser and didn't know what had been said until later.

Another good reason we still need to learn the languages of the countries where we serve is that many of our contacts, who may not be among the elite, can't or won't speak English. I also think our willingness to learn other languages makes people who might have been unwilling to talk to us more willing.

And if nothing else, we still need the languages to do consular work. In Jerusalem, where students take 12 years of English, fully 2/3 of my applicants could not speak English well enough to do a visa interview in it.

Anonymous said...

State needs to increase its language training and proficiency requirements not reduce them. That the US has almost no diplomats proficient enough to be interviewed in Arabic cuts down considerably our effectiveness in dealing with the Arabic media. Don't kid yourself, the media is still written in whatever the local language and embassy officers need to be able to read it and report back on what is written or said. It is also very useful, even crucial to be able to understand what is going on on the fringes of a meeting (as Digger just indicated). Sometimes interpreters get it wrong. Sometimes one can pick up something related to a negotiation that is not expressed in English. Sometimes interlocuters are more comfortable in their own language particularly when discussing fine points. It's their country, not ours and many people do not speak English, or English at a high enough level to communicate in it effectively. Also diplomats do not only talk to other diplomats.

BTW: Thanks for the reposting.