State Department is failing its staff at a critical time

State Department is failing its staff at a critical time
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Imagine the following situation: After a year-long hiring process, you get an offer to start your dream job in government. You quit your current position, terminate the lease on your apartment, pack up the spouse and kids and move to Washington to begin your new life.

But the dream quickly turns into a nightmare. No sooner do you check into your hotel than you are informed that your incoming class of new employees has been canceled because of COVID-19. And since you hadn’t formally started the job, you are not eligible for a paycheck. The only assistance your agency offers is a ticket home — the home that is no longer yours in the town where you are no longer employed.

Of the many tales of how the coronavirus has upended lives, this one is certainly not the worst and at least is not lethal. You still have your health, although you may not have your health insurance for much longer if you assumed your new employer would provide it. But it is a distressing story, made even more so by the fact that it could have been avoided.

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That is the situation in which 90 people about to become new Foreign Service officers now find themselves. They were supposed to report for duty at the end of March, but the State Department abruptly told them that for an undetermined length of time they have no job.  

A second class of about an equal number of Foreign Service specialists is equally affected, bringing the total to roughly 175. It didn’t have to be this way. The Office of Personnel Management has advised federal agencies how the “on-boarding process” for new employees can be conducted virtually or remotely. But the State Department maintains their new employees would have to start working a 40-hour week immediately and that it would be illegal to have them do less. This, despite the fact that the first several months of every new diplomat’s career is always spent in training, learning the intricacies of the government they are about to represent and the countries to which they are being dispatched.

State argues, however, that even the first seven-week course that the officers take cannot be done remotely. That is simply not the case; there is no reason such training wouldn’t be as effective. Virtually every university in the country has shifted to online learning for the remainder of this semester. Those graduating in May are not going to get a degree that says they got a second-rate education because they were not seated in a classroom for the final two months.

The State Department has a serious morale problem. First, there have been repeated attempts to cut the department’s budget by 30 percent. Then the Ukraine scandal, in which career officers were required to give testimony under oath that the White House did not like, which is why the president now laughingly refers to the department as “Deep State.”

And embassies all around the world are ordering staff and family members home because of the threat of the virus, while critical staff remain to do the nation’s business and take care of American citizens. If you think contracting the virus and being hospitalized is a terrifying prospect, consider what that would be like if that hospital were located in, say, Burkina Faso.

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Working for the federal government today increasingly seems akin to being a cast member in a rerun of “The Apprentice.” As a result, the number of people applying to take the Foreign Service exam to start that one-year process to become an American diplomat has fallen drastically in the past couple of years. Who would want to join an organization that sends people to “garden spots” such as Baghdad and Kabul and shows so clearly it does not care about them?

An institution is only as good as the people it attracts. Because diplomacy is our first line of defense, the ability of the people who conduct it determines how well our country is protected. When they fail, far too often the only option left for doing something about a problem overseas is to send in the Marines.

The term “creative bureaucrat” need not be an oxymoron. In times of crisis, creativity requires doing things in ways other than the routine manner. The State Department needs to show more concern for the people who work there, especially those who are about to embark on what the institution hopes will be a long and successful career.

Dennis Jett is a professor in the School of International Affairs at Penn State University and a former ambassador to Peru and Mozambique. Follow him on Twitter @DennisCJett.

Ronald E. Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and was ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan. Follow on Twitter @AcadofDipomacy.