Before John Price became an active blogger / commenter / editorialist, he served as U.S. Ambassador for 3 years in Africa and is now a Resident Scholar at the University of Utah. His career has given him keen insights into the operations of the U.S. State Department and I enjoy reading some of his posts. In a recent post, Price talks about how the culture of the State Department culture needs to change.
As the next Secretary of State, Senator John Kerry will need to focus on changes at the Foggy Bottom headquarters in Washington DC. […] The constant rotations of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) should be considered…[…].State Department officers spend from one to three years in their positions, before rotating to new assignments. This rotation process is a common practice at other government agencies that embassies have to deal with, which is an inefficient way to carry out our foreign policy. Each time a new person arrives on the scene, time is wasted bringing them up to speed. Embassies lose time reviewing issues previously covered, and are hampered by differing levels of experience within the same job position.
Having read lots of communiques from Ambassadors in the Canadian world of foreign affairs, I know that sometimes those posted abroad don’t always “get it right”, and what might improve local operations on a temporary basis becomes unsustainable for an organization over time.
The complaint that people rotate “too soon” is a common one. You see it in lots of businesses, governments, etc. because it is better for the micro-unit of the organization if people join and never leave. Corporate memory isn’t an issue because it hasn’t left. No time spent staffing. You know what else looks great to managers? Slavery and indentured servitude.
But here’s the thing about managers. They’re paid to manage. Not manage when it’s easy, or manage just the easy things, but to actually manage. And one of those “inputs” is people. I trip over the same argument in my current job. Lots of people who say “Well, I’d like a 2-3 year commitment. We don’t want job-hoppers.” Absolutely. Well, except that the vast majority of people who move quickly are doing so because they want to get away from their current boss, not because the grass is simply greener somewhere else.
So locking them is unsustainable for three main reasons.
First, because those who do the same post for an extended period of time often start advocating for their host country. Without realizing the racial overtones, many of those in the ranks of Foreign Affairs departments world-wide call it “going native”. Generally speaking, it means that if you are posted to, say, Germany, and you spend 95% of your time talking to German officials, unless they are complete nut-bars, you will eventually start to see the reasonableness of their position and arguments, in a mild form perhaps of Stockholm Syndrome. So you start to advocate on their behalf more than you are representing your country’s views. This is particularly exacerbated if you have limited contact with your home country, or more likely, contact that frequently only comes in written form. It’s just not as compelling as the face-to-face interactions you get with your host country. So the transformation happens, often after the 3rd year mark. It’s hard to remain “objective” after that. It happens in business too, where governance experts have a much cleaner term — “client capture”. In regulatory fields, the regulators often spend most of their time talking to the regulated companies without much in the way of grounding-ties to the rest of government or even counter-balancing groups. It isn’t uncommon for the companies being regulated to then turn around and hire an ex-regulator to represent them to the regulators too, thus further blurring the lines.
Secondly, putting in a system of rigidity also means that you are stuck with the same views and approach for extended periods of time. Sure, if you have someone great, you want to keep them; but not everyone is “exceptional”, some are simply average, and some may just be a bad fit with that posting. I did trips to embassies and field missions, but going as a single guy on posting to some jurisdictions would have been a mental disaster for me. In aid circles, I know many people came back more disillusioned than when they left — disillusioned with bureaucracy back home, disillusioned with the life of a diplomat, disillusioned that the people they were trying to help would make any progress ever. They missed the country, they missed their co-workers, they missed their after-hours life — but they didn’t miss the work they were actually doing because progress, particularly in governance or development, is often glacial.
Third and most important, when companies or government departments put in detailed structures to limit mobility, you have the same result that countries do when they limit internal mobility in their labour market. People vote with their feet. They leave. Employees, citizens, workers, they all leave to find any situation that fits them better. I’ll give you an example. A friend went on posting, single female, committed to development and international relations. She’d done two degrees, worked in HQ for 2 different international departments, even a field posting for temporary duty. Loved it. Not necessarily the bureaucracy, nobody does, but was ready to go on posting. Was posted to a country where it is generally unsafe for single white women to be out walking alone unless it is bright daylight and in well-populated areas. End result? She was miserable. Her parent department had a lot of rules that made it very difficult to leave a posting early, and those rigidities drove her not to “tough it out” but to actually leave the Department. No flex, no retention — the opposite of what is now practically the first law of HR for managing anyone born past 1975.
There are ways to address Price’s concern, of course, but it is through carrots, not sticks. For example, you can give economic incentives for someone to spend 2 years in HQ on the Seychelles desk, followed by 3 years in the field dealing with the Seychelles, and another 1 year back in HQ. Those on postings already recognize this carrot — they get pay increases for staying on difficult postings longer. It also addresses his concern of “getting people up to speed”. The added benefit is that someone who doesn’t follow the six-year plan isn’t penalized for not giving up mobility, they’re just not given extra bonuses.
Equally though, this isn’t a perfect solution either, because people are also not moving around, seeing different approaches, bringing new ideas to the table, re-invigorating policy discussions, etc. And when it comes time for promotion, that six-year involvement with a less than tier-1 priority country may actually limit your chances at a higher level because you may not have had the same variety of experiences as someone in a more dynamic post or who moved around and got more varied experience.
When I moved to the Deputy Minister’s office at CIDA, I had previously worked at Foreign Affairs for 4 years, Multilateral Branch for five years, a short stint in bilateral programming, and another three years in corporate. For the job, I had almost the ideal background. And when I competed for some upwardly-mobile jobs, I did pretty well against those who had only done one specific type of job.
There are no quick fixes, but there are a few quick ways to kill a system, like limiting a person’s labour mobility.