Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Rocking the Boat is a Dangerous Thing, No?

The Consuls’ Files: Missing since 10/02/2009

Yellow butterfly Rocks the old, wooden boat – splat! No more butterfly

The blog has been missing for 11 days now. Folks are still looking and asking questions. We now think that the somebodies got Madam le Consul and her blog; no, no, definitely not the aliens from space.

The cache files of her blog posts have now been posted in a zip folder at cryptome. Nathan Hodge of Danger Room has posted about her here and also put in a query with the State Department media desk last Friday. NDS at Calling a Spade a Spade calls her “a shooting star” and asks, “Where in the world is MLC???” The Consular Corner writes: "The Consuls' Files" - probably the best visa blog in the universe -- has disappeared from our screens. Over a relatively short period of time, 'Madam le Consul' provided more consular education to more people than any of us ...would have thought possible. ” The hunt is still on, the speculations are still coming in. Now, if she was shut down by the Consular Affairs bureau, and I say if, because I have not seen the paper trail yet -- my sense is that this is not for one single thing she wrote but the whole notion of an active, experienced senior consular officer blogging outside the “reservation” so to speak. That is -- that the expensive bureaucratic white out pen had not been put to good use and no one had been able to “edit” or “tighten” her thoughts for “clarity” prior to every posting. That and well, she must have caused some ulcers ... who knows what she was going to write about next ...

But see -- consular work is hard, grinding work and some people are exceptionally good at it; but it is oftentimes, a misunderstood trade. (No, these officers cannot get you out of jail and yes, they have been known to buy a hamburger or two out of their own pocket for the amcits in the jailhouse). Yes, despite the grunt work, consular officers can be smart, funny, witty and even quite fearless in their jobs. And here is one smart, funny, witty consular officer who has not been emasculated despite years in the bureaucracy. You’d think that the Recruitment Office at the State Department should have been happy to point to a blog like hers, especially in light of the persistent staffing need in the consular cone. For Madam le Consul did bring humanity, common sense, realism and humor to her blog. But with that authenticity comes less control, and control is the central issue, isn’t it?

I understand that some office at State is looking at updating the official guidance on blogs, social networking and such. The problem I’m afraid is that whatever decision will be written in stone will be arrived at by a few folks at the top of the chain who have no desire to blog or just want to keep the status quo of keeping everything but the fine nuggets under wraps ...

It is no wonder that the general public still thinks of diplomats as insulares, pampered cookie pushers, stripped pants ivy-leaguers working the cocktail circuits in cushy capitals around the globe. That is far from the truth, of course, but not being able to see and hear what Foreign Service employees think and do except in the vetted sphere of the official channels, not being able to understand their challenges working overseas, and seeing only a splice of a “self-flattering operation” in the official mag or blog -- why should the American public have a different view otherwise?

In the new era of Gov 2.0 and Diplomacy 3.0, the traditional notion that only the nice things get said and written about is still quite prevalent. It’s as if the price of admission to the club is to say just enough so they know you’re smart, but not too much that they want to throw you out club for being too smart. I supposed it helps us order our complex world if we know exactly what everyone says at any given day, which is -- not much. But this train has left the station a long time ago; the State Department has just not quite caught up with the train yet, or figured out how to put this into effective use.

I recognize, of course, that there are sensitive matters that are not appropriate to this medium. But as I’ve written previously, there has to be a smarter way around this without getting choked under the limitations of that great Muse of “official concern.” The trick, I think is finding the right balance between an authentic voice and a level of tolerance for less control.

As the first Federal agency created under our Constitution, the State Department has been around since 1789. This is an old, traditional, hierarchical bureaucracy. This is not to say that it has not tried to change or tried to examine itself in years past…it’s just that it’s stiff on the ankles, and used to its old ways….and it gets mighty cranky of anyone trying to hurry it into the next century…

In 1967 there was Chris Argyris’ report on organizational ineffectiveness within the State Department. Prior to its publication, Robert Peck of the Department of State's Office of Operations objected and argued that it presented “a rather dismal picture” of the Department and would incur publicity that would affect it adversely. I think this is an argument that lives on every single day in every department of a bureaucracy (not just at State, but more so at State), and newcomers will be schooled quickly that “transparency” and “openness” can only go so far … or it will come back and bite your silly arse. The disappearance of Madam le Consul's blog is a lesson; the question is -- are we being taught the right lesson or the wrong one?

* * * Here's something from the diplomatic memory lane:

In January 1967 the Department of State published Some Causes of Organizational Ineffectiveness Within the Department of State by Professor Chris Argyris of Yale University. A condensed version appeared in the January 1967 issue of the Foreign Service Journal under the title, “Do You Recognize Yourself?” Argyris based his report on tape recordings he made of three Airlie House management conferences held by the Department in 1965. Attended primarily by Career Ministers and Class I Foreign Service Officers, their purpose, according to Argyris, “was to help the participants enhance their competence in dealing with people and managing systems (such as embassies, regional bureaus, functional departments). During the discussions the men diagnosed with earnestness and commitment their personal limitations as leaders of people, as well as the problems of the Department of State as an organization.” Argyris concluded that the Department's interpersonal milieu, its “living system,” predisposed it to ineffectiveness and destined reform efforts to mediocre success at best and failure at worst. Among the system's norms, according to Argyris, were “withdrawal from interpersonal difficulties and conflict, minimum interpersonal openness and trust, [and] mistrust of one's own aggressiveness, and aggressiveness of others.” The result was a Foreign Service culture that discouraged forthrightness and risk-taking and encouraged those who played it safe and did “not make waves” either in their behavior or their writing. Argyris offered a series of recommendations for altering the living system so that it would reward risk taking and initiative. (Ibid., pages 21–26) Readers' reaction to Argyris' report was printed in the March, April, and May issues of the Foreign Service Journal.

Prior to publication of the report, Robert Peck of the Department of State's Office of Operations objected to a number of quotations in the report by Foreign Service Officers. He argued in a December 30, 1966, memorandum to Deputy Under Secretary of State Crockett that they presented “a rather dismal picture” of the Department and would incur publicity that would affect it adversely. Therefore they should be deleted. (Kennedy Library, Crockett Papers, MS 75–45, Argyris Report, 1966–67) Crockett decided not to delete any material, however, noting in his preface to Argyris' report that the decision “to publish it without censoring the quotations was not taken lightly” but that “being honest and open about the problems dealt with in this study offers the best beginning for dealing with them effectively and constructively.” (Some Causes of Organizational Ineffectiveness, page iv)

From Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968 Volume XXXIII, Organization and Management of Foreign Policy; United Nations, Document 112

1 Source: National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, S/S-Katzenbach Files: Lot 74 D 271, Administrative & Personnel. No classification marking.

2 Before leaving office, Crockett prepared for publication a manuscript of approximately 240 typed pages entitled “Management in the Department of State and the Foreign Service.” In his introduction Crockett wrote that the “Department of State and the Foreign Service, although they may have been late in joining it, are now in the forefront of the management revolution” and thus he prepared the manuscript “in order to give to the public, and to our own people, a description in layman's language of what the management of the Department and the Foreign Service consists.” Crockett circulated the 13 chapters among members of his office for review, comment, and approval. The manuscript was never published. A copy is in the Kennedy Library, Crockett Papers, MS 74–28, Book-Personal, W.J. Crockett.

3 President Kennedy called the State Department a “bowl of jelly” in 1961. (John Franklin Campbell, The Foreign Affairs Fudge Factory. New York, Basic Books, Inc., 1971, p. 6) Joseph Kraft called the Department a “fudge factory” in a May 20, 1966, Washington Post column that stated: “The fact is that the Department has not been run primarily as a decision-making instrument. It has been run as a fudge factory. The aim has been to make everybody happy, to conciliate interests, to avoid giving offense and rocking the boat.”

There is no electronic copy of Argyris’ paper but you can read it in the State Department’s library. I’ve also been trying to find a copy of Crockett’s “Management in the Department of State and the Foreign Service.” If you know where I can find one short of visiting the Kennedy Library, please drop me a note.

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5 comments:

NoDoubleStandards said...

Great post. I'm hoping some news seeps out about this soon.

karakapend said...

agree with above commentor. thanks for staying on this, hope something comes up soon.

Maria said...

I suppose the burning question remains, "Why did MLC's plug get pulled!?!" Or, more simply put, but with a measure of symmetry, "MLC gone, WTF?"

To divine the reason for her abrupt departure, I've reviewed the files. MLC's rebuke of USG policy in Afghanistan on Sept. 23 may have been the first step towards this seemingly imposed silence. In it, MLC basically mocked what she called the USG's ill-advised sojourn in the graveyard of empires. This is probably a violation of State's code of conduct, which demands that FSOs support and defend USG policy, independent of their personal policy beliefs.

Secondly, on Oct. 1, MLC deigned to indirectly conflate acts of terror against the U.S. with Israeli crimes against humanity in Palestine by publishing OBL's open letter to the U.S. This may have broken an unwritten, but (as I understand it) even more important rule of conduct-- Never question Israel's actions. Ever.-- And, its corollary rule-- Never reprint other people's criticism of Israel. Ever.--

Moreover, she went on to appallingly write that there is "a great deal of truth" in OBL's letter and that most Muslims are peace-loving people who have legitimate grievances.

This sort of brazen subversion cannot stand. Will not stand. Ever!

Lee said...

I think it is more likely that she frankly gave some poor advice contrary to the FAM, openly mocked other cones and career advancement for those stuck in cons for first/second tours, and was way over the top pompous. A bit too imperious as a public face of CA.

kateofthespirits said...

See, Lee, this is what I think Madam was trying to cure: the attitude that people need to worry about career advancement because they are "stuck in cons for first/second tours." She said, and convinced many that she was right, that consular work IS diplomacy and should never be considered a place in which one is sadly "stuck." As she might say herself, it's not as if you're down in the cellar washing the dishes while everyone else is enjoying the ball: you are learning vital lessons that will carry you through any career, consular or otherwise.

PS - 'pompous' and 'imperious' are not synonyms for 'self-confident' and 'certain.'

And also PS - the FAMs change all the time; what is contrary today can be dogma tomorrow.

As for me, I miss her badly and hope she comes back. She gave consular work a feeling of vitality and urgency that it often misses.