The State Department Needs a Watchdog—Now, Not Later

A Foreign Service whistle-blower is doing her best to fight promotion irregularities. But she should have an inspector general to back her up.
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The U.S. Department of State has not had a permanent, Senate-confirmed inspector general (IG) since 2008. This is the longest vacancy of any of the 73 inspector general positions in government, and the effects of this are all but impossible to ignore. Whether it's the boondoggle that is the Jeddah New Consulate Compound, or the tragic attacks in Benghazi, the "systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies" (as an independent panel called it) of the State Department are in need of repair. That's not going to happen until an IG candidate is found, vetted, and installed.

To understand the importance of the position, it's useful to look at what the job entails. A good inspector general is an agency's fail-safe. A bureaucracy will always operate in its own self-interest. Budgets, portfolios of responsibility, head-counts, and independence from oversight are prime motivators for any organization. Accordingly, the leadership of the little kingdoms within a bureaucracy will always work to protect and perpetuate themselves.

An inspector general, on the other hand, exists in parallel. He or she is an outlet for reports of fraud, waste, and abuse, and can investigate and audit offices and operations. Because he or she isn't part of the bureaucratic hierarchy, an inspector general can oversee an agency with impunity, give voice to those with grievances, and shine a light on questionable activities.

The Government Accountability Office has long been critical of the seemingly permanent vacancy of an IG at the State Department. In 2011, the GAO focused on one especially problematic habit at State: "Specifically, the appointment of management and Foreign Service officials to head the State [Office of the Inspector General] in an acting capacity for extended periods of time is not consistent with professional standards for independence. In addition, GAO reported that the use of Foreign Service officers at the ambassador level to lead OIG inspections resulted in, at a minimum, the appearance of independence impairment."

All of this is what makes the case of Joan Wadelton so interesting. She is a former Foreign Service officer who has blown the whistle on promotion irregularities at the Department of State. She is accusing the Bureau of Human Resources of the Foreign Service of criminal wrongdoing. Specifically, she claims that Foreign Service Selection Board results are being doctored for internal political reasons, with certain favored insiders receiving higher placement on promotion lists. Concomitant with less-qualified persons receiving preference in promotion are capable Foreign Service officers being passed over. The latter group -- collateral damage in this situation -- then faces a more severe problem. In Foreign Service, once you reach a certain position of authority, you must either be promoted or forced into retirement. In this case, State employees are being unfairly passed over, and then fired for not being promoted in time. The inevitable upshot is the aforementioned "management deficiency."

If Wadelton's claims are substantiated, it means that less-qualified State Department employees are reaching senior positions and competent employees are being shown the door. It means, in other words, a self-perpetuating management catastrophe.

To be sure, Wadelton is no low-level ax grinder. She was one of the first members of the State Department on the ground in Iraq (where she served two tours), and was recognized for heroism for leading the first economic reconstruction team in Fallujah. More important, perhaps, was her success at creating the Congressional Liaison Office for the State Department -- a project decades in the making. Her annual performance reviews are exemplary, and each of them recommended promotion. But after falling victim to the broken promotion system and blowing the whistle on Human Resources, she was allegedly retaliated against, repeatedly passed over for promotion, and ultimately forced into retirement. She has filed suit, which is covered at length at DiploPundit.

Making enemies with HR is no small thing, as she explained by phone: "In the State Department, we don't have the types of big programs like at the Department of Defense, where, for example, you can be in charge of production of tanks, and you have control over money and so on. At State, it's through your assignments. It's basically what assignments you get, and those assignments help you get promoted. So if people can't get assignments, or if they can't get the next higher level of assignment -- you're supposed to keep going up from one level to a higher level in a natural progression -- you can't get promoted. So HR is enormously powerful."

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David W. Brown is the coauthor of The Command: Deep Inside the President's Secret Army and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Generally published under the pseudonym D.B. Grady, Brown is a graduate of Louisiana State University, a former U.S. Army paratrooper, and a veteran of Afghanistan. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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