Article: U.S. Foreign Service marginalized by political appointees

Joe Davidson
Columnist April 29, 2013

It doesn’t rise to the level of an international incident, but a recent op-ed in The Washington Post certainly is causing a stir in U.S. foreign policy circles.

It started with the April 11 publication of an article with this provocative headline: “Presidents are breaking the U.S. Foreign Service.”

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012. View Archive

It was written not by some hot-headed alarmist, but by three well-respected foreign policy practitioners — Susan R. Johnson, American Foreign Service Association president; Ronald E. Neumann, a former ambassador and current president of the American Academy of Diplomacy; and Thomas R. Pickering, a former undersecretary of state and chairman of the Academy’s board — all current or retired members of the Foreign Service.

Their argument: “The U.S. Foreign Service is being marginalized . . . relegated to a secondary status: staff support to political elites who set and manage policy.”

The reason: “The overwhelming — and growing — presence of political appointees in mid-level and top leadership positions at the State Department.”

No surprise — that argument was not embraced by officials at the department’s day-long briefing Monday for the Association of Opinion Journalists . (Note to State’s diversity office: There were no women and one person of color among the nine briefing officials).

The article also unveiled a workplace tension unique to State — the sense among some Foreign Service employees that they are being overtaken by their civil service colleagues.

But the encroachment of political appointees seems to be the bigger problem for Johnson, Neumann and Pickering. Since 1975, the number of top leadership positions, including deputy secretaries, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, rose from 18 to 33, according to the authors. Meanwhile the share of those slots filled by Foreign Service officers dropped sharply, to 24 percent last year from 61 percent.

So what, you ask? Part of their reply carries a lesson that generally could apply to many federal agencies:

“For all their merit, political appointees are short-term officials, subject to partisan, ­personality-specific pressures. They do not notably contribute to the institution’s longer-term vitality, and their ascension creates a system inherently incapable of providing expert, nonpartisan foreign policy advice.

“When the bulk of its leadership positions are held by transient appointees, the Foreign Service is undermined. This situation spawns opportunism and political correctness, weakens esprit de corps within the service and emaciates institutional memory.”

That esprit de corps remains strong, said one official who briefed journalists. Indeed, according to this line, State is just one big happy family, at least most of the time. There’s probably some truth to that, but not so much that the points in the op-ed should be minimized.

In the countries he covers, “there are foreign service and civil service and foreign service limited and private personal security contractors and all manner of employee and I will tell you that in my experience, nobody in my offices, in my missions, knows or cares what the employment type is,” said Alex Thier, a political appointee who is assistant to the administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan programs in the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“What you have is a cadre of people who are in­cred­ibly dedicated to purpose,” he added. “I have never heard anybody once complain about the mix, the type of officials.”

The point involving Foreign Service and civil service workers is a little trickier for the article’s authors to make. Foreign and civil service folks toil side by side, and the authors don’t want to sound like they are picking on their co-workers. At the same time, they say the “civil service personnel system must be adapted to conform more closely to the requirements of professional diplomacy.”

That sounds like they want the department’s civil service to be more like the Foreign Service.

Among other differences, Foreign Service officers rotate to positions around the world and generally speak a foreign language.

Whatever the merits of that point, Johnson, Neumann and Pickering raise issues about the coexistence of the two personnel systems that deserve attention.

“The result has been an increasingly fractious and dysfunctional corporate environment, draining energy and focus. The civil service has grown significantly the past few decades, at the expense of the Foreign Service. . . . If this trend is not reversed, the United States will lose the invaluable contribution of people with overseas experience.”

Mike Hammer, assistant secretary of state for public affairs, said the department must “make the best use of the expertise and knowledge of the folks that we have, the civil service, the Foreign Service and the political appointees, to get the best product possible.”

He acknowledged that the different systems “at times can create certain tensions.”

Hammer is a Foreign Service officer heading a public affairs office that he said is heavily civil service, with some political appointee direction.

“The bottom line — we are a people service,” he said. “The people need to interact in a way that gets the most out of folks.”

No one disagrees with that or any of the other pleasantries State officials offered.

The real question is how seriously they will deal with the frank and constructive criticisms that Johnson, Neumann and Pickering provided in an attempt to make State the best it can be.

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