We were critical — now the State Department deserves credit

We were critical — now the State Department deserves credit
© Greg Nash

Public Service Recognition Week, celebrated this past week, marked the 36th year for this nod in the direction of those who choose to spend their careers serving the public rather than making a profit for themselves or others. 

So as we close it out, it is fitting to recognize the extraordinary lengths to which so many of our public servants have gone in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. We wrote in early April about how scores of people aspiring to join the Foreign Service were promised employment in the State Department only to be told days before they were to report that their hiring was delayed indefinitely. 

After some involved bureaucratic gymnastics, they now have been informed that they can begin their careers as Foreign Service officers and specialists later this month. To do this will require them to have their oath of office administered virtually and their initial training begun online, neither of which has been done before. Overcoming the hurdles to make this possible required imagination and enormous effort at State, as well as new flexibilities granted by the Office of Personnel Management and the Office of Management and Budget. 

ADVERTISEMENT

In addition to those who soon will join the Foreign Service, the department has enabled a number of civil service employees to be brought onboard.

All this comes during the incredible challenges posed by COVID-19. State Department personnel in Washington and abroad have reported 262 cases of the virus and five deaths. While some embassy services were curtailed, others had to be ramped up to assist the tens of thousands of Americans trying to get home from overseas. The department coordinated the repatriation of over 76,000 Americans on 810 flights from 126 countries. In addition, it handled more than 66,000 calls to its call center. 

The State Department has a long, proud record of evacuating Americans overseas, but the magnitude and geographic scope of this effort is unique. It is important to remember that evacuations don’t just happen. Planes don’t just show up, nor do passengers in many cases. Airlines must be found and charter fights organized. American citizens, many of whom never have registered with an embassy, must be located and told of their choices. Some want to leave; some change their minds, even at the airport. Some need help with transport to airports, even from remote locations.  

Another challenge those working in the 275 American embassies and consulates around the world face is limitations of the local health care services. In many places in the developing world — the very countries from which American citizens clamor to be evacuated — the services are rudimentary in the best of times and wholly inadequate to deal with the current crisis. Knowing that poses an additional concern for embassy employees and their families. Recognizing this, on March 15, the department began allowing any employee who has determined they are at a higher risk if exposed to COVID-19 to return to the U.S.  

Yet while some may leave, other embassy personnel must remain. Evacuating American citizens demands people on the ground. After evacuations take place, some U.S. citizens will remain.  Other U.S. interests need protection and advancement. Those who remain will be at risk, particularly given the rudimentary health care in many countries. But staff will remain because they have jobs to do.  

ADVERTISEMENT

Risk always has been a part of being an American diplomat. That is why there are 250 names of diplomats who died in the line of duty overseas on the plaques maintained in the State  Department lobby by the American Foreign Service Association. There likely will be some new names; that is part of the profession, and it is a part that new entrants accept by joining.  

We salute these new diplomats joining a justifiably proud Foreign Service. And we salute the management of the department for working through an enormously complex thicket of regulations, security problems and bureaucratic rules to bring them on board.

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.