November 16, 2007

No DiploWimps At State: Volunteers For Iraq Fill All Jobs

After facing a mini-mutiny earlier this month over assignments to Iraq, the State Department will announce today that they have filled the open positions with volunteers. Foggy Bottom management told staff that without getting enough volunteers to fill 48 remaining slots for foreign-service officers, mostly coordinating rebuilding efforts, Secretary Condoleezza Rice would break with recent tradition and assign FSOs on a mandatory basis:

The State Department expects to announce, perhaps as early as today, that volunteers have filled all 48 open jobs at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad for next year and that it will not order any foreign service officers to work there against their will, officials said yesterday.

Volunteers for the last three or four positions are currently being vetted. Once that process is completed, a senior department official said, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will ask personnel officers to assure her that everyone selected "does in fact have the right skill sets" and meets all requirements before an announcement is made.

Rice's decision late last month to order diplomats to serve in Iraq if enough volunteers could not be found caused an uproar at State, where large-scale "directed assignments" have not been used since the Vietnam War. But while the controversy is expected to subside for now, internal strains over personnel shortages and policy are likely to reappear as long as Iraq continues to be a dangerous diplomatic assignment and to drain resources from other posts.

The FSOs blamed State management for the bad press. The normal assignment procedure uses a bidding process, where FSOs attempt to get their most desired positions. When the assignment goes to another, they then bid for the next open slot. Many of those who had not already bid on Iraq waited to see whether they had won an assignment they preferred more, rather than specifically objecting to an Iraq posting.

However, the reaction of the FSOs to the demand for more volunteers didn't do the professionals any favors, either. In the meeting, they levied a list of complaints about the venue, which made it clear that Iraq didn't have much popularity as an assignment. They also alleged that State prepared them inadequately for the posting, giving them just a couple of weeks to get up to speed on issues like defensive driving, weapons "familiarization" that doesn't include target range work, and so on. They gave the impression, as a group, that they would not consider volunteering for the assignment.

In any business, miscommunications can get out of hand, and this appears to be the case at State. The complaints of the FSOs on preparation sound reasonable, and the need for the assignments to be filled ASAP is obvious. Rather than bark at each other, management should have given the FSOs a forum in which they could have shown how to generate more interest in volunteering for the Iraq assignments. The FSOs could have offered their critiques in a more constructive manner, knowing the critical nature of the mission in Iraq.

This sounds like a case of poor management at the operational level. Perhaps Condoleezza Rice might want to look into how that can be improved.


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