Tuesday, January 8, 2008

From Chutzpah to Basket Case

In the context of my personal philosophy that ridicule tends to be more effective than outrage, Condoleeza Rice has always been an easy target, particularly as she continues to run a neck-and-neck race with President Bush over the number of Chutzpah of the Week awards accumulated. Thus, it was somewhat comforting to encounter a Washington Post story that exposed the serious side of my ridicule, as reflected by all those poor souls who are obliged to work for her. The story was filed by Karen DeYoung with the following lead:

Only 18 percent of the U.S. Foreign Service think Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is doing a good job protecting their profession, according to a recent survey conducted by the service's union. Forty-four percent rated her performance "poor" or "very poor," the same percentage of respondents who said that "developments of the last few years" had made it less likely they would complete their careers in the Foreign Service.

Actually, my first reaction was one of surprise that the Foreign Service had a union, given that diplomatic negotiation is the very nature of the organization. However, if state, county, and municipal employees can be represented by a union, then I would think that anyone working for the Federal Government should be entitled to similar representation. Besides, given what the current administration has been doing to the budget for its own operations, an adversarial relationship between "labor" and "management" is pretty much inevitable, in which case the "labor" side should be entitled to an organization capable of exercising its best skills at statecraft in resolving such adversarial difficulties.

So, if there is an adversarial relationship, then a good place for the Foreign Service employees to begin is to build up some data that reflects the nature of their situation; and the survey about which DeYoung reported is at step in that direction. As is the case with any survey, there is the question of how representative the results are. To address this question, DeYoung provided the following background:

More than 4,300 Foreign Service members responded to the survey, which was sent electronically to all 11,500 members in late 2007. Seventy percent of respondents were posted overseas.

I do not know enough about Foreign Service operations to determine whether or not the 4300 respondents constitute a representative sample; however, the results, as reported in DeYoung's lead, are extreme enough that, at the very least, there should be an effort to gather more data. Given the nature of the work, this may not be easy and may require far more planning than the initial survey did. However, the "official" reaction of the union itself is probably justified:

John Naland, the union's president, said the survey raises "serious questions about the long-term health" of the service and "the future viability of U.S. diplomatic engagement."

Nevertheless, the results of the survey should not be particularly surprising in the context of White House policy, particularly where Homeland Security is concerned. Last year on my previous blog, I tried to address the problem of an administration that did not seem to grasp the significance of intelligence analysis, preferring, instead, to build an intelligence organization based almost entirely on field agents. I have often interpreted this as a philosophical preference for action over reflection. By its nature statecraft is also reflective; so we may be seeing an extension of this philosophy, which puts diplomats in a back seat behind those field agents and an active military. In other words the problem with the Foreign Service may be more systemic (an adjective that Rice has invoked in the past when being grilled by the Congress) than one of labor-management relations, reflecting a more general problem of what "job descriptions" are and ought to be.

The best thing about DeYoung's report is that it opens a door. In literary terms it is the "first sentence" of what could be a narrative that is as informative as it is fascinating. On the other hand the media business has exhibited a bad habit of walking away from such doors, rather than sending its reporters through them to learn enough to develop that narrative. Unfortunately, there is little we can do to influence media business strategy; so all we can do is make sure that those who represent us in Washington make it a point to go through this door, even it our so-called news services neglect to do so.

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