Management Crisis Threatens “Foreign Relations” Series

A management crisis in the State Department Office of the Historian threatens the future of the official “Foreign Relations of the United States” (FRUS) series that documents the history of U.S. foreign policy, according to a newly disclosed report on the situation.

“We find that the current working atmosphere in the HO [Historian's Office] and between the HO and the HAC [Historical Advisory Committee] poses real threats to the high scholarly quality of the FRUS series and the benefits it brings,” the January 13, 2009 report to the Secretary of State said.  A copy of the report (pdf) was obtained by Secrecy News.

The report was commissioned in December by then-Secretary Condoleezza Rice following the dramatic resignation of the chairman of the State Department Historical Advisory Committee Prof. W. Roger Louis as well as escalating complaints from fellow HAC members, staff, colleagues, and others.  (See “State Dept: Crisis in the ‘Foreign Relations’ Series,” Secrecy News, December 11, 2008.)

At first glance, the new report is rather anticlimactic.  It does not even mention the name of the State Department Historian, Dr. Marc J. Susser, who has been the focus of the complaints regarding mismanagement.  It also does not explore, much less resolve, any of the specific personnel disputes that have arisen in the Office.  (“It quickly became apparent that emotions ran high and that there was a great deal of contradictory testimony,” the report says.  “Reconciling the contradictions seemed both unlikely… and unproductive.”)

But on closer inspection, the report makes at least two crucial points.  First, it confirms that the crisis is real.  Out of several dozen people who were interviewed and consulted, “only a single person suggested that there was no crisis, no problem beyond what is normal in an office.”

Second, regardless of who may be to blame, “we believe that effective management is the responsibility of the managers, not the managed….”  In other words, the Office leadership, including the Historian himself, has failed to manage the Office in an appropriate manner.

The review therefore delicately recommends “serious consideration of a reorganization” of the Office of the Historian.

The nature of such a potential reorganization was not spelled out in the new report.  Conceivably, it could imply removal of current management, or rearrangement of existing functions to place the FRUS series under new authority, or something else.  In the meantime, the search for a new General Editor of the FRUS series has been suspended pending a decision about how to proceed.  (The previous General Editor resigned abruptly last year in a sign of the growing turmoil in the Office.)

“At this point no decisions have been made as to next steps concerning the Office of the Historian,” State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood told Secrecy News on February 6.

There are several complicating factors that will impede prompt correction of the situation.  Bad management is not a firing offense in the U.S. government.  Even if the Historian has lost the confidence of a sizable fraction of his colleagues and subordinates, that does not mean he can be summarily removed.  To the contrary, he has strong civil service protections as a member of the Senior Executive Service.  By law (5 U.S.C. 3395) he “may not be involuntarily reassigned” within 120 days after the appointment of a new agency head.  Nor can the significant expertise of now-departed staff members be quickly reconstituted.  For these reasons, and because of the myriad other issues involved in restoring the vitality of the FRUS production process, no short-term resolution of the problem is in sight.

“The Historical Advisory Committee has long been concerned about two interrelated issues,” said the new HAC chairman Prof. Robert J. McMahon last week, namely “the obvious morale problems among the staff and an alarming turnover among experienced FRUS editors. Those two issues, in our judgment, will inevitably lead to a slowdown in the production of FRUS volumes and we are concerned that the series is already years away from coming even close to the legislatively-mandated 30-year deadline.”  (By statute, FRUS is supposed to present a “thorough, accurate, and reliable documentary record of major United States foreign policy decisions” not more than 30 years after the events described.)  The next scheduled meeting of the HAC is March 2-3.

I should mention that I have had some limited, negative interaction with Dr. Susser, the State Department Historian.  After I wrote something critical of FRUS and the Historian’s Office that he disapproved of, he removed me from the distribution list for hardcopy volumes of the series.  This action might have been justified as a cost-cutting measure, particularly since I am not a professional historian and Secrecy News is not a public library.  But the punitive aspect of the move was, I thought, unseemly.  (See “Secrecy News Purged from State Dept History Mailing List,” Secrecy News, June 12, 2008.)  However, I don’t consider that episode to be part of the current controversy.

It also bears mentioning on this 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln that the venerable FRUS series dates back to the Lincoln Administration.

No Responses to “Management Crisis Threatens “Foreign Relations” Series”

  1. Anger_Management February 12, 2009 at 1:51 PM #

    As I have noted at the Progressive Historians’ website (http://www.progressivehistorians.com/2008/12/weekend-open-thread.html), the report seems quite critical to me. Let’s go through it point-by-point.

    1. To restore an “atmosphere of trust between HO leadership and the compiler-historians, and between the HO and the HAC … will require diplomacy and leadership; i.e., effective management.”

    Subtext: The current office management has not demonstrated diplomacy and leadership — i.e., effective management. There is no atmosphere of trust between HO’s management, on the one hand, and HO’s employees and the scholarly community (HAC), on the other.

    2. “We find that the current working atmosphere in the HO and between the HO and the HAC poses real threats to the high scholarly quality of the FRUS series and the benefits it brings.”

    Subtext: Despite the denials of HO management,” the working atmosphere in the office does threaten the FRUS series; simply replacing experienced employees with new ones won’t solve the problem.

    3. The committee calls for a “reorganization” of the Historian’s Office and “whosoever is Historian” — an open question! — should have “clear and unequivocal work requirements that set forth improving morale and trust within the office as an immediate goal.”

    Subtext: The Historian, whoever it is (and will be), needs to work on morale and trust, preferably with close supervision from above.

    4. In point #3, the committee recommends no new hires until a “reorganization” is implemented.

    Subtext: The committee seems concerned about current management’s hiring practices.

    5. “… the State Department should consider the optimal placement of the HO within the Departmental structure so as to ensure effective management.”

    Subtext: The Public Affairs Bureau has not been doing its job, either, when it comes to “effective management” of HO. HO clearly needs more effective management from above.

    6. “We recommend that there be a careful and supportive study of information security issues in the HO that is designed to generate practical solutions to … information security workplace challenges….

    Subtext: The current management’s insistence on labyrinthine security procedures, determined in part by the Historian’s refusal to move the office to more secure facilities, has been creating “challenges” to the completion of their work on FRUS.

    7. “We recommend that the HO management, with the approval of its State Department Oversight authority and in consultation with the HAC, develop clear paths for the HAC and for office personnel to bring serious professional concerns to the attention of appropriate authorities up the chain of command.”

    Subtext: There have been no “clear paths” for office employees to make their grievances known; maybe this is why they have not used the “proper grievance procedures” touted by “Anonymous.”

    8. There is a “need for clear written procedures regarding re-appointment of members of the HAC.”

    Subtext: No more making use of administrative loopholes to “purge” HAC members who dare to criticize HO’s performance.

    9. “… we believe that effective management is the responsibility of the managers, not the managed, and that strong, effective management and leadership will be needed to rebuild and maintain a positive, high-performing team in HO.”

    Subtexts: (1) The Historian is responsible for failures in management. (2) “Strong, effective management and leadership are needed” — apparently, they are not present currently. (3) There is a need to “rebuild” a “positive, high-performing team” — i.e., somehow, the previous “high-performing team” was knocked down.

    In sum, the Review Committee’s report suggests a need for “strong effective management and leadership” in the Historian’s Office — something, which it implies, has not been present. “Whosoever” the Historian will be is an open question, at least as far as the Review Committee is concerned, pending a proposed “reorganization.” Whoever runs HO needs to work on restoring morale and trust within the office because this effects performance on the FRUS series.

    Sounds like a thorough indictment of HO’s current management to me.

  2. Imbroglio February 13, 2009 at 11:25 AM #

    One wonders where the complainants were when they were receiving perqs that far outweighed their levels of experience. Oh, I remember now, they were standing in line with their hands out, instead of working.

  3. Anger_Management March 2, 2009 at 3:20 AM #

    Douglas Selvage has posted an update on the Historian’s Office at History News Network.

  4. Anger_Management April 20, 2009 at 5:46 AM #

    A new article by John Maggs at the National Journal (subscription required) asserts: “An unusual revolt by State Department employees is expected to trigger the ouster of the bureaucrat heading the Office of the Historian, a unique squad of 35 academics charged by statute with impartially chronicling America’s foreign relations.

    State Department Historian Marc Susser and his aide Douglas Kraft will be removed and offered other civil service positions, based on a recommendation by State’s inspector general’s office that will be finalized and published in the next two weeks, according to current and former employees of the office.

    Although senior officials have not yet endorsed the recommendation, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert Wood last week began briefing staff historians on the decision, out of concern that several of them might soon quit or be forced out by Susser and Kraft. Susser’s office said on Wednesday that he was on leave “for the next couple of days.”

    Seems like the die has been cast. It will be interesting to see the official announcement and — as Maggs points out — the extent to which the decision might have implications for other offices at the State Department, especially for those responsible for overseeing Susser’s work.