Wednesday, January 14, 2009

ProPublica on The Foreign Service's 'Half-Baked' Fiasco

Alexandra Andrews of ProPublica (January 13, 2009 4:20 pm EST) on The Foreign Service’s ‘Half-Baked’ Fiasco:

As Hillary Clinton inches closer [1] to a new role as secretary of state, she’s set to inherit a troubled Foreign Service program initiated by her predecessor. The current issue of Foreign Service Journal takes a look at the initiative, a key component of Sec. Condoleezza Rice's Transformational Democracy initiative, and concludes that its track record falls somewhere short of transformational [2] (PDF).

The Global Repositioning Program, started in 2005, was devised in order to address the disparity between the Foreign Service’s presence in developed and developing nations: Before the program was initiated, there was one Foreign Service officer in Germany for every 200,000 people, compared with one for every 25 million in India, and every 40 million in China.

The program planned to transfer hundreds of Foreign Service jobs to emerging nations, mostly from positions in Washington, D.C., and Europe. Experts widely agree that a greater Foreign Service presence in emerging nations is crucial, but the State Department’s decision not to request additional funds to realize that goal was a "critical flaw," reports the Journal.

Instead, a secretive group of ten senior staff members implemented a net-zero approach to repositioning existing resources: Eliminate a position here, create one there. But a simple-sounding process turned out to be anything but that. For one thing, the new positions were costlier, often requiring the elimination of two or three positions in the U.S. In addition, Foreign Service offices receiving new employees were given little warning or resources for extra office space, housing, vehicles, administration staff, etc. to support the new officer. Meanwhile, the offices losing staff saw no equivalent reduction in their workload.

Another key part of the plan – one-person posts in areas outside national capitals – hit a snag when they were designated as consulates, a term that carries a host of complicated legal issues. Only two of these positions have actually been put in place. A separate plan for virtual posts, monitored mainly through online communication, was dismissed by one officer as, "A joke. A Web site, nothing more."

What the Journal describes as the "half-baked" program has sapped resources at a Foreign Service already hobbled by a cash crunch: The president of the American Foreign Service Association told Congress in July: "Unfunded mandates include 324 positions in Iraq, 150 in Afghanistan, 40 in the office to coordinate reconstruction efforts, [and] 100+ training positions to increase the number of Arabic speakers." Contrast that with the $1 billion the U.S. has doled out for State Department security contractors [3] in Iraq.

It remains to be seen what the incoming secretary of state will do with the program, but its critics don’t expect it to last. They’ve called it "just the latest bumper sticker in a slogan-rich political environment, doomed to pass into oblivion once the administration ends."

We’ll soon find out.

~ ~ ~ Here are some of my prior posts related to transformational diplomacy:

1 comment:

jc said...

I actually think that Global Repositioning is a worthy exercise even if it is a zero sum exercise. It's a hard exercise - and no one likes to give up resources - but priorities do shift ...

With that said, the devil is in the details.

I'm glad that the article in the FSJ mentioned respondents who noted that the loss of DRI positions counteracted any gains that GRP may have offered - along with some fuzzy obfuscation of what was going on. That was certainly my experience.

At a previous post, there was a DRI position in my section that was filled prior to my arrival (as well as prior to the arrival of the Ambassador, DCM, and HRO) - so even if post "knew" that the position was a one-time fill, that institutional knowledge was lost and we were all shocked to find that the position would not be re-filled.

As I recall, when on leave my Ambassador went to see the Director General about - actually about two DRI positions at post. When the Ambassador said you can't eliminate these positions, the DG responded that the positions weren't being eliminated - just not being filled - and the Ambassador needed to talk to the Bureau about filling it. (Technically correct, another post in the region kept a DRI slot by sacrificing a slot in another section.)

Later, a few months after the position went unfilled one of the GRP cables explained that one of the sources of FTE for the GRP exercise was the elimination of vacant DRI positions - and the now vacant position(s) was in fact eliminated by HR.

It used to drive my Office Director back in Washington crazy when I would say that all of the new positions in the biggest country in our region didn't come from Washington or EUR, they came from positions that had been eliminated in the rest of the region. He would insist that not filling the DRI positions was unrelated to GRP. Perhaps, but the elimination of the FTE was.

Anyhow, we made an unsuccessful pitch to recreate the position during GRP II. My reading of the feedback was that anyone trying to recreate an eliminated position was just whining; this exercise was about new items and new initiatives. So in round three we put together a proposal that didn't mention that the section had ever had greater staffing describing everything as new initiatives.