Friday, April 11, 2008

Bread and Butter Diplomacy

If you are in the AFSA listserve, you have already seen John Naland’s Straight Talk on Staffing and Resources. If you have not yet seen it, you can read it here. This latest update laments the bleak budget for this year and states in part:
“Not only does the FY08 budget leave State unable to create any of the 254 new Foreign Service positions that the President requested this year, but it cannot fund all existing operations at current levels (excluding Embassy Iraq which is funded mostly by supplemental appropriations). The inadequate FY08 budget follows disappointing FY07 and FY06 budgets which also failed to fund requested staffing increases (outside of consular and diplomatic security). These Congressional refusals came despite sharply increasing Foreign Service staffing needs in Iraq, Afghanistan, hard language training, and other emerging priority areas.”

How did it come to this? State's relations with Congress dates back to the Continental Congress. A bit of a historical perspective here from U.S. Diplomacy: “In 1775 Congress established the Committee of Secret Correspondence (later named the Committee for Foreign Affairs), which among other actions appointed Benjamin Franklin as Commissioner to France. In 1781 that committee ceased being a part of Congress and was established as a separate executive entity called the Department of Foreign Affairs. In 1789 it was renamed the Department of State. Reflecting the high status enjoyed by the Department, Congress in its Presidential Succession Act of 1792 placed the Secretary of State fourth in the line of succession, ahead of all other cabinet secretaries.”

So how did it come to be that we’re so stripped to the bone these days -- not only do we have a huge staffing problem (19% vacancies in both domestic and overseas operations), in some U.S. missions, we walk down dimly lit corridors because we can’t afford to pay normal electric consumption in our offices, we slash down local employees’ benefits, we eliminate overtime, EFM jobs and more -- there are even talks of furloughs and shortened work weeks, etc. and we better not have anything break, because frankly, there’s no money for repairs or anything else. How did we come down so low in Congress’ estimation that it can afford to let us operate in this manner?

It is true that the Foreign Service is a small organization. We have about 11,500 people with 6,500 commissioned officers (e.g. consular officers, political officers) and 5,000 support staff (like HR officers, IT, financial officers). DOD apparently has more full colonels/Navy captains and more band members than the State Department has diplomats according to Michael Cotter.

It is also true that we do not have a natural constituency and with all politics being local, we’d be lucky if we even appear as a blip in congressional screens beyond the committees where we are considered somewhat relevant.

But what is also true is the fact that we have so poorly managed our relationships with Congress, we have no cushion to fall back on. With perhaps the exception of Secretary Powell’s tenure, we have missed many opportunities to get Congress on our side and to help them understand how we work. As one mid-level Democratic House aide said:
“The military has realized a little bit better where their bread is buttered. They work with us; they talk to us. State Department is really an entity unto itself. It' s a different culture and they live in that world.”

Another mid-level Senate aide had this to say:

“(State) doesn't explain itself very well, and it doesn't spend a lot of time talking to the Hill. In fact, in my experience, we have a devil of a time just getting State Department folks to come up and talk on the record. And then when we do get them, we have this legislative shop person in the middle, making sure they don't say anything out of the box.”

Overseas, we tend to send our most junior officers to work in Congressional delegation visits. I remember one time when we sent one junior officer who arrived at post a week earlier, to be control officer. Heck, he could barely find his way around the Chancery. This should not be a “find a warm body” exercise because, y’see, we pay the price for it. In fact, FSI, if it does not yet have one, should have a training module for all entry level folks on how to further congressional relations and supporting congressional visits as well as a refresher training on the same subject for all mid-level and SFS employees.

Here’s an excerpt from a congressional staffer’s vignette:
“The next morning our control officer arrived. He turned out to be an innocent young third secretary on his first assignment abroad. He had never before been assigned to a CODEL and was substituting for the administrative officer, who allegedly had a scheduling conflict…”
Sounds familiar? If I were that congressional staffer, I probably would not have a very positive memory of that encounter either. But more importantly, by sending a junior officer to attend to these visitors, an experienced officer missed a real chance to engage them in our turf and missed an opportunity to help them understand our many challenges in operating overseas. Here is a paper written by Thomas Melia on Congressional Staff Attitudes Toward the Department of State and FSOs. This should be required reading for everyone at State because it gives us a window from which to see ourselves -- from the perspectives of folks who wield great influence over our bread and butter issues (and consequently over how we live and operate at home and overseas). I think we forget at times that visitors in congressional or staff delegations represents a core block of our stakeholders and mishandling or ignoring them can come back to bite us. Not in big chomps enough to disable usually, but in nips and snips over a long period with consequences that we see playing out now.

I don't want to sound pedantic but I think it also bears repeating that building organizational relationships is as much about the people as it is about the work. This should be the first tenet in bread and butter diplomacy. The Hill like State has a long memory; it gets rebooted every few years or so (perhaps a bit differently from how we reboot ourselves) but even with politics being what it is, nobody goes away forever here. In cyberspace, a basic rule says it simply: Remember the human. Real life is not altogether different. 


Harvey said...

Great blog! Keep going. I'm interested in joining the foreign service someday, there is a lot of valuable information here!

Consul-At-Arms said...

I've quoted you and linked to you here:

DS said...

Thanks Harvey! I encourage you to check out
State is always looking for good people to represent our country overseas.

DS said...

Thanks again CAA!