Where do the responsibilities of a loyal civil servant begin and end?
It is an important question to consider now, when the incoming Donald Trump administration may be compiling an “enemies list” of Energy Department employees, the person nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency seems to question its mandate, and the president-elect rejects out of hand the analysis of a foreign government’s actions by career intelligence specialists.
There has been spirited debate among critics of Trump whether potential political appointees should serve in the new administration. Some have argued that it is a moral obligation. Others offer grudging support. Still others counseled in favor but later warned against doing so after meeting with the incoming administration’s representatives.
What about career employees? Rosa Brooks’s advice was that it is “absolutely vital for all decent people currently working within the federal government to stay in place” but advised them to identify “personal red lines” that would necessitate resignation.
At the State Department, where Trump has nominated ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as secretary, there is trepidation among career officers that a politicized workplace could force them to choose among their loyalties to the incoming president, the State Department as an institution, and national interests. Although career foreign service and civil service personnel are accustomed to operating amid layers of institutional equities, their primary loyalty must be to the Constitution — the subject of the oath, dating in its current form to 1884, that all employees swear.
To friends and former colleagues at State, particularly new officers who have not previously served through a change of administrations, here are a few suggestions regarding how to reconcile professional loyalties:
Engage incoming political appointees. Explain what you do and why. Be helpful during the complicated transition. Don’t roll your eyes if they tell you how much fun they’ve had at Mar-a-Lago. Answer questions forthrightly, especially when they are skeptical or less than well-informed. It is essential for the proper functioning of the department — and for your and your colleagues’ professional happiness — that political appointees who may start off skeptical of State (or government in general) come to appreciate it. Also, although not every new political appointee will be able to find Juba on a map, many will have valuable experience and perspectives you don’t.
Defend the institution. Most Americans don’t often think about civil service protections, so they value them insufficiently as a bulwark of democracy. Convey to incoming appointees that politicization will ultimately harm both national interests and the administration’s reputation. Support the relevant professional association and union when they defend institutional safeguards, whatever you think about their other activities. At the same time, convey by your example a commitment to providing the best nonpartisan advice you can and a determination to avoid professional entanglement in domestic politics. If you park in the basement garage, lose the election bumper sticker — whether it says “Stronger Together” or “Make America Great Again.”
Fix what’s broken. The Obama-Trump transition could mark a dramatic shift in foreign-policy philosophy and perhaps organizational temperament. Although campaign promises to “drain the swamp” might not have been aimed directly at Foggy Bottom’s marshy topography, at least some Trump supporters would like to take a wrecking ball to the State Department as a symbol of the foreign-policy establishment. And while the transition may pose a challenge for those seeking to portray long-term consistency in U.S. foreign policy, it is an opportunity for institutional reform, if well-channeled. Think about what State does well and what it does poorly. Compile specific recommendations about things that can be fixed and how. Tame the clearance process. Reform entry-level hiring. Flatten the hierarchy. Dream big!
Reconcile yourself to life in a large organization. Working for State is an awesome multiplier of personal foreign-policy influence. That’s why the competition for foreign and civil service jobs at the department is so fierce (well, that and the groovy globe sculpture in the courtyard). The downside of life in a large organization is that you are identified with decisions over which you have no control. I worked for four different administrations during my time at State, and each one of them did something I thought was jackass stupid and something that made me proud. That is the compact accepted by public servants. Also, console yourself that, although now an epithet, “bureaucracy” was initially a great invention — a professional system optimized to handle complex public administration (thank you, Confucius, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Dorman Bridgman Eaton, et al.). The Founding Fathers meant for the gears of government to turn deliberately — even for the all-powerful star of The Apprentice.
If you can’t deal, leave. A public service career in government is a noble calling, but it is not the only valuable thing you can do with your life. Aside from principled resignations (which we’ll get to in a minute), there are many appropriate reasons to leave government service — to pursue career opportunities, develop skills/experience, for family reasons, to make more money, or simply because bureaucratic life isn’t for you. Public service comes in many forms — military service, humanitarian work, teaching, civil rights litigation, consumer protection, environmental investigations, public interest journalism. Pursue a new path that inspires you. See the world outside of the State Department cafeteria! Escort senior citizens across busy intersections. Adopt a pet. Get your dad to give you $1 million to start your own real estate business! Who knows what might happen?
But if you’re going to stay, serve with professionalism. Dissatisfaction is not an excuse to undermine operations through policy sabotage or slowdowns. America deserves government employees’ conscientious best efforts, and a new administration deserves the chance to pursue its vision for American foreign policy. Although civil servants retain freedom of speech rights, public criticism of an administration you serve is not usually consistent with professional duty. Given the stereotype of government workers as partisan and entitled, sniping at the White House would be counterproductive anyway. That would undermine trust in the State Department and the civil/foreign service and could subject you to a “yuuuuuge” POTUS Twitter storm. Anyway, the media will be only too happy to instrumentalize stories of disgruntled bureaucrats. [Ed. Yep…]
Fight for what you believe in. Consistent with loyalty is the obligation to be principled. The State Department is exquisitely structured to foster argument. Although the clearance process is sometimes abused, its original purpose — to carefully scrutinize potentially risky initiatives — was pure. Insist to the staff secretariat that major policies be promulgated in writing. Demand that memos include opposing views or write a separate memo yourself. Be just short of obnoxious if you have to. Make and utilize bureaucratic allies, both from State and other agencies (and Congress as appropriate). For as long as you can, argue the merits of your position. But when a decision can no longer be appealed, respect and implement it, even if you think it imprudent (unless it is unconstitutional, otherwise illegal, or so dangerous you must resign).
Create a paper trail. Leaking classified documents is criminal and, except in grave circumstances, an abrogation of moral responsibility. While policymaking at State is informed by sensitive material, debate over foreign policy in a democracy should be as open as possible. If you can do so while respecting policy sensitivities, reach out to people at universities and think tanks (some of us will even buy you coffee). Consult with congressional staff members. Whether you just want to maintain a tick-tock on a debate that didn’t go your way, or you want to write a memoir someday, preserve key chronologies — classifying them when appropriate. These can facilitate popular oversight of government operations by ensuring the historical record is accurate — particularly important if a policy or decision will be reviewed by either the legislative or judicial branches.
Use the Dissent Channel process. The Dissent Channel offers employees the ability to convey critical views directly to the secretary of state and compel an answer. Its establishment in 1971 was a victory for good government. If you can influence policy in no other way, the Dissent Channel allows you to critique a decision that you believe ill-considered, impractical, unwise, or illegal. It is not meant to be used routinely, however. Particularly regarding charges that a policy might be unlawful, master the legal terrain before you start typing. Understand differences in the relative “bindingness” of international treaties, the Foreign Affairs Manual, other U.S. laws, nontreaty international agreements, executive orders, policy proclamations, guidelines, and precedent. You’ll want to construct a flame-proof argument (that can hold up in the face of “big league” public scrutiny … since, if it leaks, that’s exactly what you’ll get).
Should employment become intolerable, honorably resign. Resignations of civil servants over issues of principle risk ceding even greater control to those who precipitated the departure. But if you’re considering walking away, ground the decision on the threat to American interests or rights, rather than a single lost argument or someone’s latest tweet. Even if you disdain the limelight, do not go quietly. If the cause is so great as to make you give up your career, there should be public debate. Continue to engage on issues you care about from outside government. Although moving directly into immediate post-State employment may to some eyes undercut your argument that your departure was principled, not just opportunistic, civil servants do not take lifetime vows of poverty. Understand your professional options, ensure your skills are up to date and marketable, and have savings to tide you over.
Above all, prevail. Although a martyr’s cloak may offer temporary solace, resignation (even use of the Dissent Channel) marks failure of a sort. It would be far better to succeed, persuading a new administration of your wisdom and utility. I hope the talented and principled career State Department employees I worked with will stay. You don’t have to sit passively and wait for instructions from the White House. Act as your own internal transition team. Craft persuasive arguments and proposals that resonate with the new administration. Be bold — seize the opportunity.
Oh, and also redecorate. As long as a real estate developer used to living in a gilded penthouse is president, State might as well seek funding to replace the linoleum hallway floors and the tired aluminum blinds. In its current dilapidated condition, the Truman building is just sad.
Photo credit: NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images
Like this article? Read an unlimited number of articles, plus access to our entire 47-year printed archive, the FP App, and the Digital Magazine when you subscribe to FP Premium for just 99 cents!