On March 20 the leaders of the American Foreign Service Association, the professional association that represents Foreign Service members, held their first meeting with Secretary Clinton and her senior deputies. They discussed a wide range of resource, personnel, and career-related issues of concern to Foreign Service members that should also be of interest to other foreign affairs professionals, active and retired. Following is the text of the cable sent by AFSA to diplomatic and consular posts summarizing the meeting. – Ed.
FM SECSTATE WASHDC
TO ALL DIPLOMATIC AND CONSULAR POSTS COLLECTIVE
SUBJECT: AFSA: First Meeting with Secretary Clinton
1. In our first official meeting with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on March 20, AFSA raised the membership's top concerns regarding resources, the overseas pay disparity, war-zone staffing, family-friendliness, political ambassadors and the future of USAID.
2. Secretary Clinton, accompanied by Deputy Secretary Jacob Lew and Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy, warmly received AFSA President John Naland, State VP Steve Kashkett, USAID VP Francisco Zamora, and AFSA General Counsel Sharon Papp for the 30-minute discussion. Naland pledged AFSA's willingness to collaborate with the Secretary on an ambitious agenda of action items vital to the long-term health of American diplomacy. The Secretary thanked AFSA for being a strong advocate for the Foreign Service.
Budget, Resources, and the Overseas Pay Gap
3. Turning to resources and staffing, the Secretary said she and her team were 100-percent engaged and had moved quickly to persuade the White House and Congress of our needs, but acknowledged that this will be an uphill battle in the current budget environment. Naland argued that the present and future demands on U.S. diplomats will necessitate dramatic budget increases and sufficient new staffing to create the "training float" that will enable the Foreign Service to acquire the languages and special skills essential to our mission. He drew a sharp contrast between the Foreign Service and the U.S. military, which devotes considerable resources and time to training its people.
4. In response to AFSA's affirmation of the growing urgency of the overseas pay gap, Secretary Clinton said she had raised this issue at the Cabinet level for the first time and that the response was one of surprise that such a problem existed. There is a consensus, she affirmed, that the pay disparity must be fixed, but tactical disagreement between State and the White House over what legislative vehicle to use. State is reinforcing the need to act on a daily basis. The Secretary guaranteed her best efforts but indicated that no one could guarantee the ultimate results.
Shifting Priorities: War-Zone Staffing
5. Kashkett urged scrutiny of the size, scope and utility of war-zone staffing. He conveyed AFSA members' hope that Secretary Clinton will end the previous administration's exclusive Iraq-centric focus, which has strained our assignment and promotion systems, led to neglect of our other 265 embassies and consulates, and created a perception that important diplomatic work elsewhere in the world is not valued. AFSA members worldwide have told us they believe there should be a serious reevaluation of the staffing requirements of the Iraq Mission, especially now that the security situation has stabilized.
6. He noted that AFSA for years has received expressions of concern from members serving in Afghanistan that the attention and resources devoted to the two war zones was imbalanced, and that our extremely important efforts in Afghanistan have been complicated by being placed on the back burner.
A Historic Opportunity for Employee-Friendliness
7. Pointing out that today's Foreign Service employees and their families typically spend 10 to 15 years at hardship posts, Kashkett highlighted three vital areas in which Secretary Clinton has a historic opportunity to make great strides in addressing longstanding unfairnesses affecting our members and their families:
- Increasing substantially the professional work possibilities for family members and partners who accompany FS members overseas, possibly through creating new job openings for family members and by establishing an "equalization fund" to make it easier for our embassies and consulates to hire EFM's or MOH's instead of locally-employed staff;
- Obtaining paid maternity/paternity leave for FS employees who are unique among federal workers in that they often have no choice but to exhaust their annual and sick leave during the mandatory three-month medevac from many overseas posts for childbirth;
- Finding ways within U.S. law to offer status and benefits to domestic partners overseas, who share all the risks and hardships of Foreign Service life but who are not entitled to government-supplied travel, health care, mail service, foreign language training, or any kind of special consideration in the event of an evacuation.
8. The Secretary acknowledged these inequities and promised to address them. The Deputy Secretary indicated that an analysis of "Members of Household" issues is already in the works.
9. After making the observation that the U.S. is the only Western democracy that routinely appoints unqualified non-career ambassadors who have no diplomatic experience – and that this has been a concern among those who care about American diplomacy for decades – Kashkett commented that AFSA members worldwide were encouraged by the president's remarks last month and are hoping this administration will move this practice in a new direction. Our members, he noted, are closely watching the administration's selections for special envoys, ambassadorships, and senior positions.
10. AFSA leaders expressed the hope widely shared among our membership that the seasoned career professionals of the Foreign Service, who have devoted their lives to acquiring expertise on foreign affairs, will be chosen for key jobs. The Secretary responded that she wants to reward and promote career diplomats and is conveying this to the White House, which takes the lead on presidential appointments.
Focus on USAID
11. Shifting to USAID, Zamora stated that the agency has been abused for eight years and suffers from a confusing, hypercentralized and wasteful structure. Members are unsure about the overall USAID mission and concerned about the creation of the F Bureau. Secretary Clinton agreed that the agency needs a better sense of purpose and that State and USAID must collaborate to implement both diplomacy and development. USAID, she said, should not be reduced to the role of a contracting agency.
12. The Secretary pointed out that USAID did well in the FY2009 budget through the efforts of Deputy Secretary Lew who has successfully pressed for increased funding on behalf of both USAID and State.
13. Zamora asked when a new administrator would be named. The Secretary assured him that no one is more interested in this than she is, but that the White House must finalize its decision.
14. Lastly, Francisco commented that USAID still has work to do in the area of diversity. He noted, for example, that Hispanics are still the only under-represented ethnic group at the agency. The good news, he added, is that increased funding through the DLI has the potential to correct this situation and overall recruitment activities have increased.
Just the Beginning...
15. AFSA leaders were encouraged by the tone of cooperation in this initial encounter and by the Secretary's immediate willingness to press Congress and the White House to remedy the neglect that the Foreign Service has suffered in recent years in budgets and staffing. At the same time, we recognize that Secretary Clinton is just at the beginning of a long road towards restoring the capabilities and central role of the Foreign Service. There is much work ahead, and we made clear to the Secretary that AFSA – and the men and women of the Foreign Service – stand ready to tackle these challenges as her allies.
16. While the Secretary is understandably absorbed by the daunting agenda of substantive foreign policy matters confronting her around the world, we hope she will remain engaged with AFSA on these personnel and career issues that directly affect the viability, relevance, and long-term health of the U.S. Foreign Service.