Tuesday, January 31, 2017

This IS the Program

Yesterday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, referring to a dissent channel cable working its way around the Department opposing the executive order banning immigration or travel to the U.S. from seven particular countries, said that State Department employees should "get with the program or they can go."

The comments represent a profound misunderstanding about the State Department in general, the dissent channel process specifically, and in fact, the nature of a nonpartisan civil service.

To put it succinctly, this IS the program.

Spicer seems to think that federal employees should just agree with everything coming from the White House without questioning. But if that is the case, why have us at all?

Let's have a little history, shall we?

The idea behind the reform of the civil service from what that was simply based on a spoils system (winner of the election gets to put their own people in all jobs) was to replace patronage appointees with nonpartisan employees qualified because of their skills. The idea is pretty old by U.S. standards. President Ulysses S Grant supported civil service reform and rejected demands to suspend it and make patronage appointments. It was his cabinet who implemented a merit system to increase the number of qualified candidates. Those efforts went a step further with the Civil Service Reform Act (also called "the Pendleton Act") of 1883. This act created the United States Civil Service Commission and eventually placed most federal employees on the merit system. It was supposed to mark the end of the so-called "spoils system."

And America is better for it. Do we really want to return to the days when our generals were chosen not for their military skills but for their connections (granted, we still have a degree of that with political Ambassadors, but that is another post)? Do you want the person developing a bridge on an interstate highway to know nothing about engineering? I hope you want those positions to be awarded based on merit and qualifications.

The Foreign Service is a good example of a meritocracy. Each year, some 50-80,000 people take a written exam. The ones who score enough to pass move on, regardless of their background or who they know. Those who pass write essays, and those who pass that get to take the oral examination. That exam is scored on a point system from 1-7, with passing being around 5.5 (it varies by career track). You can get extra points if you pass a language test, because we need people who possess foreign language skills. You can also get extra points if you are a veteran. Then you get all your clearances (security and medical). You are then place on a roll of highest score to lowest, and people are offered slots in the orientation class starting with the highest scorers first. None of it has anything to do with who you know or what political party you support. It is all about how you would do at the job.

And this system gets a lot of really exceptional people, people with real world experiences they can offer to the service of the country. And what you get when you bring in a variety of people from a variety of backgrounds and a variety of experiences is a lot of smart people with good ideas on how to help the country.

Which brings me to our dissent channel.

We communicate through cables (mostly by email now but the name cable harkens back to older times). And we will absolutely support and implement the President's foreign policy, or if we can't, we will quit. But the dissent channel gives us the opportunity to say, without fear of reprisals, that we think a particular policy is a bad idea. It was started back during the Vietnam War and according to the Foreign Affairs Manual (the FAM as we call it): "The State Department has a strong interest in facilitating open, creative, and uncensored dialogue on substantive foreign policy issues within the professional foreign affairs community, and a responsibility to foster an atmosphere supportive of such dialogue, including the opportunity to offer alternative or dissenting opinions without fear of penalty. The Dissent Channel was created to allow its users the opportunity to bring dissenting or alternative views on substantive foreign policy issues, when such views cannot be communicated in a full and timely manner through regular operating channels or procedures, to the attention of the Secretary of State and other senior State Department officials in a manner which protects the author from any penalty, reprisal, or recrimination.

Freedom from reprisal for Dissent Channel users is strictly enforced; officers or employees found to have engaged in retaliation or reprisal against Dissent Channel users, or to have divulged to unauthorized personnel the source or contents of Dissent Channel messages, will be subject to disciplinary action. Dissent Channel messages, including the identity of the authors, are a most sensitive element in the internal deliberative process and are to be protected accordingly."

It is meant to be internal, and I admit I am not happy it was leaked. And so I'll only discuss the contents of the memo generally and I won't mention any of the signatories (since there are already fears of reprisals and we have apparently been instructed not to even discuss it with Congress!). Basically, it says that the undersigned believe that the policy will hinder rather than help our mutual goal of making the United States safer. The drafters believe the executive order will actually serve as a recruiting tool for terrorists (and there is already evidence this is happening,) while actually souring our relations with the countries included in the ban.

So. Mr. Spicer, this IS the program. We are the country's foreign policy experts, hired for our skills and now with decades of experience. It is our obligation as public servants to warn the administration of dangers we see. If you are about to get into a car, and we know there is a bomb in it, I would think you would want us to warn you. And we would want to warn you. Because we love this country and what it stands for just as much as you do and have devoted our lives to serving it.

This IS the program. And I would hope that would be the way you would want it."

Friday, January 27, 2017

The New Normal?

I think most federal employees, and certainly a big swath of the country, is worried.

Some days I feel like there is so much coming at us that we need to pay attention to that I just get overwhelmed. Where do you even start?

And then I worry that if I don't say something, so many issues will have piled on and it will all just become normal. And it can't.

And I see it. Like the removal of web pages that have been put up over the years on issues like LGBT rights and climate change. All gone.

Yes, it is normal for a new administration to replace old policy pages with their own. But this many? And the not replace them with ANYTHING? Like those issues never happened, never mattered?
That isn't normal.

And now we have the resignations from the Department.

Again, normal for a new administration to want to install their own people. But this many career officers gone so fast? With no replacements in sight?

And yes, they were career officers who were in Senate approved positions. But usually, they are allowed to move into other positions because they are not really political appointees. They are career diplomats. Diplomats who have served both Republicans and Democrats. And they seemed willing to stay. Instead, they resigned. Or retired. Or were fired. Or were just asked not to come back.

Who knows?

So far, we know that Patrick Kennedy, Undersecretary for Management; Joyce Anne Barr, Assistant Secretary of State for Administration; Michele Bond, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs; and Gentry Smith, Director of the Office of Foreign Missions, are all gone. I've heard stories of several others.

Politico reported that "As is standard when a new president takes over, each official had submitted a letter of resignation. But instead of keeping the officials on, as previous administrations have often done to ensure continuity and smooth the transition process, the Trump team accepted the resignations."
That isn't normal.

They added that there have been rumors that these folks resigned in protest, but I doubt it. I worked closely with U/S Kennedy in his capacity as the mentor for GLIFAA, he was extremely professional and devoted to his work. And I hear from consular friends that A/S Bond was universally loved. they also said there is worry of a talent drain from State. I hope that won't happen, though I do know at least one person who resigned in protest. But I hope most people are dedicated enough to service, to the country, to the Constitution, to stick it out.
But still, it is already a lot. And the void is felt.

Diplopundit talked about how there is now no one in place who can declare an ordered or authorized departure. So if everything goes to hell at a post, just sit tight until they figure things out? Really?

I know someone who couldn't get a random medevac cable processed because of "post-inauguration confusion."

That isn't normal.

I worry things are breaking down. Not just at State, but in our whole country.

And I worry most that our society's attention span has withered to the point that we can't keep our focus for four years. I remember reading something about outrage fatigue.

It will all become normal.

And it isn't.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves

I got the CNN alert on my phone last night right as I got home.

The President had just signed an executive order freezing federal hiring. No positions, except those in the military, that were vacant on January 22 may be filled.

I am sure there are many who cheered. The swamp is getting drained.

First of all, being called a swamp dweller is getting pretty old. Federal employees are not the ones getting rich off of the American taxpayer. For that, you might look to Congress, who has not been subject to pay freezes or pay stoppages in the event of government shutdowns. And they are curiously well off for people working for the people...I think you will find more millionaires there percentage-wise than you will among federal employees.

Part of the trouble is that Americans have been, and are being, sold lies.

Lie Number 1: We are getting rich off of the taxpayers

As I said, we are not wealthy. Most of us are hard-working, solidly middle class folks who want to serve our country and pay our bills. We do not, contrary to what you may have heard, make more than those in the private sector. In fact, especially for those of us with university degrees, most of us make more like 24% less than we could on average if we weren't serving the country. But we want to serve, and none of us expects to get rich doing it. (and the ones who ARE making more than the private sector? Those are blue-collar jobs in the government, and I hope you wouldn't begrudge a janitor making just a bit more in order to serve the country and live in DC).

And if you got rid of our jobs, we would head straight to the unemployment office. So it isn't like you could save the government money by getting rid of us. We aren't living off of inheritances. We need our paychecks to get by. And I bet most of us are living paycheck to paycheck just like you are.

Lie Number 2: There are more federal employees than ever

Completely false. Even with the hiring done in the last months of the previous administration, we are still at our lowest levels in decades. There were 2.7 million people on the federal payroll in May, and that number rose about 3% to 2.8 million in December (largely due to agencies trying to fill positions they needed before a suspected freeze happened. The civilian workforce, by comparison, grew 4.9% over than same period.

Even at 2.8 million, the numbers are historically low. Hiring has been pretty flat over the last administration, and the current numbers are similar to the beginning of the Obama and Clinton administrations and lower than at any time during the Reagan administration. In the meantime, the population we serve has grown drastically. Percentage-wise, we are at our lowest rate in 70 years. Seven percent of the population worked for the government during World War II. Now, only 2% does. Yes, some of that number is offset by contractors, but while they are easier to fire than federal employees, they are also more expensive.

Lie Number 3: We take up a huge portion of the federal budget
False. A CBO report in 2011 showed that federal salaries make up 15 percent of discretionary spending in the federal budget. And nearly half of that goes to the Department of Defense's civilian employees. And that is not 15 percent of the total budget, mind you. Discretionary spending is just 40 percent of the budget. that means federal salaries account for just less than 6 percent of the total budget. Do you really think cutting there will help that much with spending?

Lie Number 4: The shutdowns proved we are bloated

Actually, they don't. I heard during the shutdowns from members of my own family that if employees are "non-essential" (the term they used to use for employees who were told not to come to work during the shutdown), they should be gotten rid of. But the trouble is that some of those "non-essential" people were actually in training. Most of us were forced to come to work even under the threat of not getting paid during that time. That of course gave the impression that everything functioned just fine without the government. The trouble is, it was a lie. Notice that your social security check still got delivered? That is because employees in the Social Security Administration kept working to process your payments and the post office kept delivering the mail. And the ultimate irony is that the shutdown actually cost the taxpayers MORE money.

Far from bloated, most agencies are actually understaffed. Just at our embassy, we have a number of positions that need to be filled, and now they can't. We have been told to do more with less for year, and I am sure we will be again. But at a point, we will have to do less with less. And the taxpayers will feel the brunt of it.

Lie Number 5: It is just "DC Elites" who work for the federal government anyway

Wrong. 85% of us live and work outside the Beltway, including Foreign Service Officers, who live in dangerous places and away from family just to serve you. And about 20-30 percent of us are veterans.

So seriously, just stop. Stop with the name called and please stop with the abuse. We aren't swamp dwellers. We are Americans. Americans who have devoted our lives to serving you and to serving our country, often while making less than we could otherwise. Often at risk to our own personal safety. Often at great personal sacrifice.

Beating on us may make you feel better, but it isn't getting you anything. Despite the fact that we give you a lot.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Spoils of War

Seems more and more like the change of administration means open season has been declared on federal employees.
Federal employees have long been the whipping boys for certain members of Congress.

There doesn't seem to be a problem they can't distract us from by taking aim at dedicated servants of the American people.

They shut down the government and don't pay us (but they still get paid) any time they don't get their way on an issue. (and make no mistake, we all still work, because they don't want you to know how much you actually need the government).

And when it comes to cutting the budget, it is always feds and not real areas of spending bloat (like insisting the military continue to buy equipment it neither wants nor needs because the companies making that equipment have wisely spread out the jobs across multiple states. This isn't a military need. This is a pork barrel jobs program). They freeze our pay for years. They threaten our pensions. They cut hiring when we are already at historically low levels and are stretched thin. And the farm out our work to contractors who cost more (but can be fired more easily) and sometimes even give us the likes of Edward Snowden.

And now, they want to be able to fire us without cause.

I get it. We have all dealt with THAT government employee. The one retired on active duty. The one who snarls at you when you need government services. The one who collects their pay but you can't really tell that they actually do work. I get it. I have dealt with those people too.

But the majority of us are actually dedicated, patriotic and hard-working. We know most of us could earn more in the private sector but we choose to serve. To serve the country, to serve the people, to serve the Constitution. I have never met anyone more patriotic than the hard-working federal employees I have the fortune to serve with.

Rep. Todd Rokita (R-Ind.) has put forward HR 6278, which he calls “Promote Accountability and Government Efficiency Act.” According to the Washington Post, Rokita considers the bill “a tool for … President [-elect Donald] Trump to use in draining the swamp.” What it really does is eviscerate civil service protections for all new federal employees, meaning federal employees hired one year after enactment or later “shall be hired on an at-will basis.” And the bill is crystal clear on the meaning of at-will status: “Such an employee may be removed or suspended, without notice or right to appeal, from service by the head of the agency at which such employee is employed for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all.”

That's right, for NO CAUSE. And they will not have any right to appeal.

Of course, I posted this on Facebook, and many of my friends immediately chimed in with, "So what? Lots of businesses do that."

And that is their right as business owners. But the government is different.

The Civil Service is intended to be non-partisan. We serve all Americans regardless of their or our political affiliation (can you imagine if we didn't? I'm sorry, but I refuse to send social security checks to people from Party X. Government tenders will only be given to those from Party Y). The protections for federal employees are meant to keep us non-partisan, to keep us from facing political reprisals. That was the idea behind the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883. Previously, federal positions were essentially the spoils of war, granted to supporters of the winning party. It is also the thinking behind the Hatch Act of 1939, which prohibits federal employees from participating in certain types of political activities.

I notice they aren't trying to get rid of that.

So here is where we feds stand now.
* The transition team has asked for the names of people who have worked on particular issues, such as climate change in the Department of Energy and gender and LGBT issue at the Department of State (and were asked to "ferret out" those working on LGBT issues).

* The Holman Rule has been reinstated, meaning that any member of Congress can target ANY federal employee and cut that person's annual salary to ONE DOLLAR.

* Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is pursuing measures to fire feds faster, freeze federal hiring, decrease federal contributions to federal retirement and disqualify federal employees and contractors who are “seriously delinquent” on their federal taxes. (Never mind that federal employees are delinquent on their taxes at a far lower rate than the general population. Or that is it hard to collect back taxes on people who lose their jobs.)

* Employees could be required to contribute more to their retirement, meaning an up to 5% pay cut.

* Employees could be fired without cause and without the right to appeal.

* And then of course for those of us in the Foreign Service, there is the added bonus of threats to withhold 50% of our security budget unless our embassy to Israel is moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

No wonder people are afraid.

Our jobs, our lives, have become the spoils of war.

But yeah, thanks for your service.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

An Apology That Was Overdue and Right On Time

It is long overdue and just in time.

Secretary Kerry, in what is undoubtedly one of his last official acts, formally apologized for the "Lavender Scare." You can read the complete apology below.

Lots of you may not know what the Lavender Scare was, but I bet you would be hard pressed to find an LGBT employee who doesn't.

The apology came at the request of Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), who sent Secretary Kerry a letter on November 29 reminding him that “at least 1,000 people were dismissed from” the State Department “for alleged homosexuality” during the 1950s and 1960s. According to an article in the Washington Blade, "The Maryland Democrat cited the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security that says employees “were forced out . . . on the ostensible grounds that their sexual orientation rendered them vulnerable to blackmail, prone to getting caught in ‘honey traps’ and made them security risks.” Cardin wrote the State Department also had a screening process to “prevent those who ‘seemed like they might be gay or lesbian’ from being hired.""

Although the policy of firing or not hiring LGBT employees dates to the 50s and 60s, current State Department employees who are members of GLIFAA (formerly Gays and Lesbians in Foreign Affairs Agencies and now LGBTI+ in Foreign Affairs Agencies) recall that even in the 80s and 90s, they were warned in A-100 that homosexuals would not be tolerated in the Department. In fact, it was only in 1992, the same year GLIFAA was founded, that prohibitions against openly LGBT employees having a security clearance were lifted. And basically, if you can't hold a security clearance, you can't work for the State Department.

In addition to the apology, Secretary Kerry also sent a 21-page memo highlighting some of the achievements the Department has made on LGBT rights at home and abroad over the past eight years. Among those are UN resolutions on LGBT rights and the appointment of Randy Berry as the first ever envoy for LGBTI rights.

I say the move has come just in time because with the new administration and Republican control of the White House and both houses of Congress have come renewed calls to clamp down on LGBT rights and even to roll them back. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council sent a letter to supporters calling on the new administration to “to make clear that these liberal policies will be reversed and the ‘activists’ within the State Department promoting them will be ferreted out and will be replaced by conservatives who will ensure the State Department focuses on true international human rights like religious liberty which is under unprecedented assault.” And former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) called for the new administration to end the State Department's “evil” gay agenda in other countries.

To its credit, the President-elect's transition team responded to Perkin's call by saying that it was absurd to think they would tolerate discrimination of any kind. But can we expect continued support for LGBT rights or could we have expected such an apology? I doubt it.

So thank you, Secretary Kerry. It was right on time.

Thank you too for your leadership and support. You will be missed.

Office of the Spokesperson
For Immediate Release
January 9, 2017
Apology for Past Discrimination toward Employees and Applicants based on Sexual Orientation
Throughout my career, including as Secretary of State, I have stood strongly in support of the LGBTI community, recognizing that respect for human rights must include respect for all individuals. LGBTI employees serve as proud members of the State Department and valued colleagues dedicated to the service of our country. For the past several years, the Department has pressed for the families of LGBTI officers to have the same protections overseas as families of other officers. In 2015, to further promote LGBTI rights throughout the world, I appointed the first ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons. 
In the past – as far back as the 1940s, but continuing for decades – the Department of State was among many public and private employers that discriminated against employees and job applicants on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, forcing some employees to resign or refusing to hire certain applicants in the first place. These actions were wrong then, just as they would be wrong today.
On behalf of the Department, I apologize to those who were impacted by the practices of the past and reaffirm the Department’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion for all our employees, including members of the LGBTI community.

Sunday, January 08, 2017

I'm back

I won't start off by apologizing for not blogging in a while. Sometimes it is hard to blog when life is pretty good.

And life has been pretty good. My wife and I are in jobs we like. Life at post is good...the pollution and less than awesome health care makes it a little challenging at times, but the work is interesting and the people we work with are awesome. So we are happy here.

And while we only have six months left at post, we both got our top choice of onwards. We are going back to DC and really happy about it.

I started this blog as a way to let my dad know I was safe in Jerusalem, but it turned quickly into a combination of recruiting tool (because life is better when your co-workers are awesome) and a way to raise awareness about the Foreign Service in general and LGBT issues specifically.

But in those areas, life too has been pretty good. We have marriage equality as the law of the land, so my wife and I are officially a tandem and my LGBT colleagues who are not tandems have EFM status for their spouses. Members of the trans* community can have their passports issued according to their gender identity regardless of surgical status. Yes, there are still challenges ahead (reciprocity, I am looking at you), but things are pretty good.

But then we had the election, and everything changed.

Things don't look so great anymore.

Congress has already started making noise again about attacking federal employees via their pensions and outsourcing more to contractors (because not only are contractors more expensive, but using them worked so well with Snowden). Even more concerning, they have re-enacted a rule allowing them to target individual federal employees and reduce their salaries to ONE DOLLAR. When you couple that with the President -elect's transition team's requests for the names and positions on anyone working on particular issues (like climate change at the Department of Energy or gender equality and LGBT issues at State), that looks a little ominous. (kudos to Energy for refusing and to certain bureaus at State for handing the team a complete org chart and saying we all work on gender equality).

And now you have Senators putting forward a bill to move our Embassy from Tel Aviv. I will leave aside whether or not that is a good idea, since that is specifically a foreign policy matter and so not one I feel I can discuss on this forum (but if you know me in person, you know I am not ambivalent about it).

Now that in and of itself is not all that concerning. Such bills have been put forth for years, always delayed by the President. But this time, not only do we have a President-elect who says he is willing to sign it, but a really frightening caveat has been added: 50 PERCENT funds for Diplomatic Security will be withheld, until the embassy is moved.

Never mind that we in the Foreign Service are simply the implementers of the President's policy. So whether we think it should move or not is irrelevant (much like the issues above that they want the names of people who cover them. We all follow the directives of the President, whether we agree or not).

And never mind that it can take as much as 15 YEARS to build a new embassy. Senators Heller, Cruz, and Rubio (and now others) want to cut our security budget and put our lives in very real danger. These are by the way, the same Senators who have been raising hell about Benghazi and how State's lack of security cost the lives of four diplomats, including my friend, Ambassador Chris Stevens. (Also please be kind enough not to notice that the lack of security was a direct result of cuts those same Senators made to State Department security...nothing to see here...).

(It is almost like those hearings were really about damaging Secretary Clinton's chances at becoming President and not about our safety. But I am sure I am wrong...)

And never mind that only the day before yesterday, a first tour consular officer was deliberately targeted and shot in Guadalajara.

Clearly we can do without half of our security funding for up to 15 years. It isn't like our jobs can be dangerous.

Except they are. We know they are. We all knew that when we signed up.

But we shouldn't be used as pawns for political points when we are serving the country. Or have our livelihoods threatened for following the directives of our bosses. Or have our retirements threatened because that wins political points while doing almost nothing for the budget.

And so I am back..