A retired FSO and long time member of the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) analyzes the recent election for officers of the Association. – Ed.
Bottom Line First: The good guys won—and lost (the judgment depends on your perspective).
AFSA acts in a dual capacity as the Foreign Service’s professional association and as its exclusive bargaining agent—most importantly with the Department of State. In its role as bargaining agent, AFSA addresses many essential concerns subject to bargaining, e.g., EER instructions; promotion precepts; time in class/time in service rules; and assignment procedures.
Unfortunately, AFSA is frequently deemed as failing in its dual role: perhaps satisfactory as a professional organization (although what constitutes “professional” credentials for an FSO is vague when there is no “continuing diplomatic education” akin to “continuing medical education” or “continuing legal education”) but ineffective in promoting Foreign Service interests with State/FA agencies management. As a result, significant percentages (approximately 25%) of over 12,000 active FS personnel are not AFSA members and even fewer retirees (24% of 15,700) hold/retain AFSA membership. Very few AFSA members vote in Governing Board elections (20% in 2007; 23% in 2009). The essential conclusion must be AFSA members regard the effect on their lives as so ancillary and/or the consequences from AFSA efforts so ineffectual that voting was not worth the few minutes to review candidates/platforms (or the cost of postage to return the ballot). The result of this indifference was predictable: those few who cared gained and held control of AFSA abetted by de facto abdication/ indifference of the Foreign Service majority.The 2009 Election
Although it was well known that there would be a Governing Board (GB) election, preparations in early 2009 appeared desultory. Indeed, in mid-January there were no fleshed out slates of candidates, despite a 2 February deadline for nominations. One might have concluded from this lackadaisical approach that the 2009 election would be a “promotion from within” nonevent as David Firestein, a State Department GB representative, had been quietly assembling a team. He announced for AFSA president on 16 December, and there appeared to be no organized competition.
This slow-motion nomination/self-nomination process contrasted with AFSA’s Election Committee (EC) which issued its basic alert message on 14 November. On 23 January, in the absence of significant response, AFSA issued another notice inviting, indeed urging, candidates for positions since, ostensibly, the deadline for nominations was nearing. It was not quite a “Help, will somebody please run!” epistle; however, it was an unusual appeal. And it prompted me to respond. Although I had not run for any office since (losing) an election for 9th grade homeroom representative, I inquired about the status of nominations for Retiree Representative. AFSA responded that there were no nominations; so, sensing competition might be modest, I nominated myself as an “independent” and awaited developments.
Indeed, the next several months were the proverbial “education.”
First, in what can be regarded as, if not a violation of the AFSA election rules, at least a vigorous variation from the norm, the EC extended nominations until 25 February, significantly beyond the original 2 February closing date. This recalibrating the clock gave Firestein’s opponents time to assemble a Slate designated “Team AFSA 2009” headed by senior FSO Susan Johnson.
During this “overtime,” both AFSA 2009 and the somewhat pretentiously titled “CLEAN (COURAGEOUS LEADERSHIP, EFFECTIVE ACTION–NOW) Slate” raced to fill every slot in foreign affairs agencies and active and retired candidates. Additionally, Johnson and Firestein examined self-nominated, independent candidates to see if they fit their slates.
In my personal case, it meant that Firestein telephoned me on 1 February, discussed the evolution of the nomination process and the creation of CLEAN Slate, and suggested I join him as one of his four candidates for Retiree Representative. Since AFSA campaign circumstances had changed from when I volunteered (no formal slates; few nominees), I accepted his offer, appreciating that independent candidates usually failed when confronted with slates. So, I figured, “in for a dime; in for a dollar,” and working with a slate would be more interesting than campaigning blindly as an independent.
Nevertheless, with organizational flailing complete, an abstract observer could conclude that it was a contest between “ins” (Team AFSA 2009) with four retired ambassadors and a medley of senior officers against “insurgents,” who were considerably younger and, except for one ambassador, holding lower ranks.
But confirmation is not deification, and while experience has its utility, sometimes it only serves to inform that you have now made the same mistake twice. More importantly, with seven members of the AFSA 2009 campaign team eligible for social security retirement, the 2009 foreign service was not their foreign service. Their (and my) foreign service is book-ended by the Vietnam War and the collapse of the USSR; it is not the post-9/11 foreign service where the scenario holds over 900 unaccompanied positions and two dozen unaccompanied hardship posts. While AFSA 2009 candidates could understand the challenges of this scenario intellectually, they had not lived day-to-day with terrorism; had not evacuated posts; left families in Washington; manned PRTs in Iraq or Afghanistan. Several had not been assigned overseas in the 21st century. Thus, the question for AFSA members was whether they were better served by officers who were not only older than President Obama, but also older than the Secretary. CLEAN Slate, while attempting not to alienate Retirees by dwelling on this point (and prompting backlash against “snotty young whippersnappers”), tried to galvanize active duty FS personnel within and outside State.
Substance and Style—Opening Rounds of the Campaign
In many respects, both slates shared the same objectives: for active duty officers “comparability pay” and rights and benefits for FS households overseas; and for Retirees maintaining current annuity and health insurance benefits. But if the substantive issues coincided, the style of the contending campaigns differed considerably. Essentially, CLEAN Slate projected a much more transparent regime: advance publication of GB meeting agendas; full meeting minutes; recorded roll-call votes; a more diverse group of appointments to AFSA committees; and term limits for officers in AFSA service. Coincidentally, there was commitment to election reform as CLEAN Slate felt disadvantaged by perceived tilts in the AFSA EC favoring the incumbents, a position perhaps implicit in the slate name that their opponents were not “clean.”
Moreover, there was CLEAN Slate’s intimation that AFSA needed more vigor with senior State officials and other FA agencies regarding members’ rights and needs. Its implicit point was that AFSA 2009 wanted credit for experience while avoiding the onus for having failed to secure key AFSA objectives. In response, AFSA 2009 members charged CLEAN Slate was “angry” and confrontational—and such an approach would be counterproductive—essentially “undiplomatic.”
An AFSA campaign is a slow motion affair. Implicitly launched with the November notice of the election and specifically begun on 25 February when nominations closed, ballots, including the campaign material, were mailed to all AFSA members on 10 April. But to permit the furthest flung consulate to return ballots by pouch, ballots were not counted until 12 June with official results announced on 15 June, and the new GB installed on 15 July. This protracted process left considerable time for maneuvering and increasingly ad hominem invective.
The “Air Game” and the “Ground Game”
In virtually every election, incumbents have the advantage. AFSA 2009 had incumbency in spades; if CLEAN Slate didn’t find new ways to reach AFSA members, engage the indifferent, and get their support, AFSA 2009 would win on the complacency of AFSA voters—80% of whom had not bothered to vote in the 2007 election.
Thus CLEAN Slate focused e-mail to AFSA’s electorate, active duty and retired, bringing its message to them immediately and personally. CLEAN Slate directed its candidates to send out notifications to “Fifty Best Friends” (or all friends/colleagues that would respond positively to the candidate) seeking their votes. With 18 candidates, they hoped individualized messages of the “Support me, I’m running for ‘xyz’ on CLEAN Slate” could reach upwards of 1,000 AFSA-ites.
Initially, CLEAN Slate anticipated access to the AFSA membership list to send messages; such was the practice in the 2007 election; however, the AFSA EC reversed its 2007 precedent, denying access to the membership list. The EC also contended it was impermissible to send messages to AFSA members at work e-mail (.gov) addresses. This was a debatable reading of regulations that government resources could not be used for election activity. As the normal interpretation of that restriction was that one could not use government-paid work time, equipment, and/or office supplies to campaign, the interpretation that receiving an e-mail from an outside-the-government source would be a campaign violation raised eyebrows. In the end, senior State Department management never delivered written interpretation of this point.
CLEAN Slate combined its tactics with a sophisticated Web site that out-paced AFSA 2009’s initial efforts; a decision to take out a well-placed campaign advertisement in the May Foreign Service Journal; and some nicely designed handouts and banners providing early tactical advantages normally unavailable to a challenger.
Indeed, this 21st century approach appeared to disconcert AFSA 2009. Unable to match the IT challenge initially, AFSA 2009 fulminated that CLEAN Slate was running an “expensive” and “slick” campaign—perhaps seeking the sympathy vote of those who believe that being cheap and clumsy is the AFSA standard. In fact, CLEAN Slate simply used the volunteered skills of its candidates, family members, and friends with 21st century IT knowledge. The reality remained that so far as financial assets were concerned, AFSA 2009, replete with well-cushioned senior retirees and senior active duty officers, far surpassed financing available to CLEAN Slate.
Of separate interest was neglect of the official AFSA forum for dialogue with candidates. The 55 candidates each had a site for posting questions/responses; however, only 16 had more than two entries and only five reached double-digits. Moreover, there were fraudulent (but never traced) “attack” messages. Lesson learned? Future campaigns must employ security measures to limit access to the site. Essential conclusion? The site simply didn’t interest Foreign Service personnel.
Role of Retirees
For most of the FS, retirees are “gone and forgotten.” Not so, however, for an AFSA election. Retirees select not only four retiree representatives and a retiree VP, but also vote for the three AFSA-wide offices: president; treasurer; and secretary—and vote they do at levels significantly higher than the active Foreign Service (46% to 16% in 2009). Moreover, incumbency and seniority particularly engage retirees, and the AFSA 2009 slate was rich with such credentialed individuals. CLEAN Slate appreciated this conundrum and knew that it needed mechanisms to engage them.
For example, in the last month of the campaign, CLEAN Slate struck an innovative note.
A significant number of Retirees do not have e-mail addresses. They had received only the turgid, basic campaign literature cum ballot mailed by AFSA’s EC. Consequently, CLEAN Slate believed many Retirees had not voted, either setting aside the literature in a “get around to it” stack or consigned to the circular file. To reach this group, which might still be open to CLEAN Slate’s message, it purchased the AFSA address labels for the Retiree cohort—eliminating the tedium of addressing the equivalent of a huge Christmas mailing—and constructed a message specifically for them.
Security Clearances and Their Relevance for AFSA Work
Perhaps the most disappointing element of my campaign “education” was AFSA 2009’s exploitation of personal security clearance issues for CLEAN Slate candidates. Several AFSA 2009 candidates repeatedly charged that these CLEAN Slate candidates could not perform official AFSA functions without security clearances—although such accusations never appeared on the AFSA 2009 Web site.
The security clearance topic was not of blithe indifference to me. For 46 years, I’ve held a security clearance and been proud of the trust that the USG confides in me. An FSO without a clearance is akin to a de-feathered eagle with clipped wings. Had I made a gruesome error in supporting CLEAN Slate? I reached two conclusions:
— if a serious security problem existed, the Department would have fired and, as appropriate, prosecuted individuals involved; and
— if a security clearance was required, AFSA’s EC would not have permitted their Governing Board candidacy.
Having made these judgments, I deliberately avoided information on individual circumstances. I regarded them as “personal” and not a matter for prurient interest; perhaps I lack the voyeur instinct. My concern was whether they could serve AFSA effectively, and I concluded they would.
Nevertheless, AFSA 2009 sensed it had an issue with the security question and persisted like a Rotweiller with a grip on your groin. Harris contended that “sensitive legal classified case work” pointed out “at times” problems for AFSA to address. However, Louise Crane, AFSA’s State VP 2001-05 and CLEAN Slate’s candidate for Secretary, rebutted the argument as the only candidate having post-9/11 negotiating experience with State. In a 13 May circular e-mail, she said that as AFSA VP
“…not once did a classified document cross my desk…NEVER did I receive a classified document. The highest classification of any document I saw or held …came in an envelope on which someone had scrawled “CLOSE HOLD.” What was in that envelope? That year’s promotion numbers…by definition, AFSA issues are all unclassified.”
Tex Harris (AFSA candidate) did not respond.
The Legal Battle
Again, it was illustrative of the campaign’s basic bitterness that both slates “lawyered up” and, charging each other with improprieties throughout the election period, attempted to lay the groundwork for a Department of Labor (DOL) appeal if defeated.
Essentially, each slate adopted a separate approach: AFSA 2009 charged CLEAN Slate had obtained and illegally exploited AFSA’s online membership directory to send campaign literature. Ostensibly, EC-revised rules prohibited either Slate from using the lists; however, since senior AFSA 2009 members had gathered massive “personal” e-mail lists from years in AFSA, the ruling was the equivalent of forbidding bankers and bankrupt from sleeping on park benches.
On 15 May and again on 28 May, the EC demanded specifics from Firestein regarding his use of e-mails. Firestein rebutted EC accusations; however, on 10 June the Committee rejected his explanations and declared CLEAN Slate had violated AFSA election rules.
For its part, CLEAN Slate believed the existing AFSA establishment was exploiting AFSA resources to support AFSA 2009’s campaign. CLEAN Slate documented these alleged violations, submitted their essence to the EC on 26 April and, following EC rejection, delivered a 77-page complaint to the Department of Labor on 6 May. The most prominent complaint element was that AFSA’s State VP used internal, official AFSA membership databases and AFSA time and equipment to campaign for AFSA 2009; and that he also had sent explicit campaign messages from his .gov account.
Separately, during the 12 June vote counting, an AFSA staffer told a CLEAN Slate candidate that AFSA 2009 “hacked” into AFSA’s internal database and mined the database for e-mail addresses Team AFSA then used for campaign mailings; this alleged Team AFSA action was also reported to DOL.
Ballot Counting and Aftermath
On 12 June, the AFSA electorate delivered a split decision. At day’s end, informal totals showed Firestein lost to Johnson (winning the active duty vote but losing the retiree vote), incumbent Treasurer (Winter) and Secretary (Harris) were re-elected, and all five AFSA 2009 retiree candidates were elected. However, CLEAN Slate largely swept contested active duty positions, winning State VP, 7 of 9 State rep positions, and the FCS rep. Moreover, all five CLEAN-Slate-endorsed independent candidates won seats, and even one write-in candidate won with CLEAN Slate’s behind-the-scenes support.
Fight after the Fight: Appeals to Election Committee and Department of Labor
As the election ended, prospective claims by AFSA 2009/Independents (presumably contending all CLEAN Slate victories should be voided due to campaigning irregularities) remained pending. Team AFSA 2009/Independents’ combined appeal was filed by 22 June; Harris entered a separate appeal.
At the 5 August GB meeting, the EC reviewed complaints filed during and after the campaign. The EC confirmed its decisions but noted it could not determine whether campaign violations affected the election outcome.
The DOL Review Ground Exceeding Slow
Its final judgment in early February determined both slates—and AFSA—had violated campaign rules. A re-run election appeared in the offing. But vigorous pushback by virtually all GB members, emphasizing the cost/delay of a new election, persuaded DOL to compromise. Thus the 2011 election (as was the case a generation ago in 1973 following similar dispute) will be run under close DOL supervision. AFSA has never made the DOL judgment letter available to its membership.
AFSA remains a bifurcated organization. It is hardly a harbinger for effective action as an exclusive bargaining agent when Retirees vote more heavily than active duty personnel. That some of our “best and brightest” are so indifferent says more about AFSA than about the FS community.
As its foremost objective, AFSA must convince active FS personnel it is useful and relevant. Delivering on commitments will galvanize AFSA members and attract nonmembers.
More generally, AFSA must rebrand. New, younger GB leaders can engage active duty officers through innovative IT and greater institutional openness. Committee members should regularly change. Term limits for AFSA officers promise generational renewal; retirees should not dominate AFSA.
At the same time, AFSA should recognize that up-or-out rules have created a tranche of “young retirees.” AFSA should engage these veritable youngsters both for operational insights and to promote FS interests in government, on the Hill, and elsewhere in the U.S energetically.
Moreover, the election is agonizingly long. Months of extended voting need shortening. AFSA should implement electronic delivery of election material and design secure electronic voting for outside U.S. mail. Providing return envelopes with a standard “No Postage Necessary if mailed in the United States” (not a 44 cent stamp) might also encourage participation. Additionally, for future elections, AFSA e-mail membership lists need be open to all contenders. If recipients don’t wish further e-mail, “Unsubscribe” is the solution.
Even more basically, AFSA’s elections must return to diplomatic civility rather than channeling canines contending over hunks of meat. The Foreign Service faces wide challenges as the second decade of the 21st century begins. Key to attacking these challenges will be vigorously engaging the Foreign Service community with creative imagination.
David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving inter alia as a POLAD for the Army Chief of Staff. He is coauthor of Uneasy Neighbo(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.-Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.