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Article March 7th, 2017

The state of the State Department

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Federal agencies are hierarchical but the State Department is even more so, says @hhigginbottom

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State Department employees can use a 'dissent channel' to voice their displeasure with a policy

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The first travel ban prompted more than 1,000 employees to use the 'dissent channel

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Heather Higginbottom's career may be rooted in Washington, DC, but in recent years her horizon has stretched far beyond the beltway. It has stretched to the needs of more than 270 US diplomatic missions around the world; to policy programmes such as efforts to give power to remote communities in Africa; to the challenges of instability in the Middle East; to curtailing Iran and North Korea's nuclear ambitions - the list goes on, and on.

Higginbottom, though, is not one to make a fuss. Calm and measured, her response to such a demanding list of challenges would be to stress that this goes with the territory - you can't expect anything else when signing on to serve as deputy secretary of state for management and resources, the second most senior role in the US State Department.

Now, though, and much like her fellow Obama administration alumni, she is adjusting to life away from the hustle and bustle of government life. But although the media spotlight may have faded, there's no sign of her slowing down. Later this month she starts work as chief operating officer at the global anti-poverty organisation, CARE, and she has also been keeping a close eye on events at her old stomping ground.

Cabling and connecting

Of the many eye-catching moments of the past few weeks, the Trump administration's executive order of 27 January - temporarily banning visas for citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries and suspending the US refugee resettlement programme - is one that made waves around the world. Higginbottom, however, was struck not only by the order itself but also by the decision of her former colleagues to register their concern via what is known as the "dissent channel" - a communication tool that usually stays behind closed doors. Not so this time.

"The dissent channel was created in the Vietnam era, and is an opportunity for foreign service and civil service professionals to ensure their perspective on a particular policy is heard directly by the secretary of state or by their front office," she explains. "Every dissent channel cable will be responded to, but in four years I didn't see very many myself - I could probably count the number on one hand. The biggest cable was about our Syria policy and it had 51 signatures. But the executive order regulating travel had more than a thousand."

Although the sheer number of signatories to the dissent cable on the recent executive order is a testament to the order's contentiousness, Higginbottom is keen to stress that the dissent channel itself is a very valuable tool, regardless of the number of signatories. It's something that benefits staffers and leadership alike. "The State Department is incredibly hierarchical - as are many federal agencies - but State maybe even more so," she reflects. "So it is really notable that this channel was created to enable staff at all levels to disagree with a policy and make sure that either the secretary or key staff were listening and responding."

Her former boss, John Kerry, agreed. After receiving the cable concerning the policy on Syria, he used it as a way to meet many of the signatories face to face. "With Syria, Secretary Kerry saw it as an opportunity," she reveals. "Even though he didn't agree with the arguments laid down in this cable, he really respected the signers and relished the opportunity to sit down and talk and explain his thinking. It was important to him."

Asked whether the dissent channel is simply a good idea or more representative of a broken internal communications process, Higginbottom opts for the former. "I don't think the communications process is broken. But in an organisation that is as complex as the State Department, the process has to have some formality and rigour to it," she says. "You're not always going to have consensus on a policy or decision - people will disagree. Some of the examples are for extraordinary situations such as the war in Syria and the executive order regulating travel to the US - these are the moments when people want to be sure that their voices are heard."

Check mate?

The existence of the dissent channel was by no means universally known - I had a 20-year career in government and never heard of it until I saw it in the news recently. But it certainly raises interesting questions in terms of what channels or checks and balances are available to civil servants if they have a problem or a concern - particularly at a time when one party is in control of both the executive and the legislature.

"It is a unique time," agrees Higginbottom. "I think if we're really going to be serious about checks and balances, we do need people who are engaged in the political process - whether it is town hall meetings or just paying attention to these issues because you want to have really good oversight and people taking their responsibility seriously and being held accountable. When one party is controlling Congress and the White House, you do really need to think about whether the checks and balances are also comprised of citizens, not just elected officials and the different branches of government. That's what we are seeing now, and I think that's important."

She also reveals that despite the partisan rhetoric that echoes across the campaign trail, seasoned staffers at the State Department were relaxed about the transition of power. "I was struck by the fact that, as my tenure was coming to an end, people who had been at the department for a long time - the foreign service and civil service - were quite sanguine about it. They were used to transitions and had seen it before. They felt that foreign policy was a little different and less centred on the ups and downs of the political process."

The problems with the executive order on travel, she continues, stemmed from the fact that the normal procedure was not followed. "The fact that the experts who know these programmes weren't a part of the process is perhaps what contributed to a very high number of people signing on," she points out. "And I think this reinforces the importance of having the dissent channel as a check and balance."

Another issue to consider is the way that a new administration achieves support and buy-in from the permanent staff. I remember the transition from Clinton to Bush very clearly, and recall sitting across from extraordinarily talented people from the Bush administration articulating the basis for a new approach to certain policies and gaining buy-in as they did so. What was less helpful, though, was the focus on hitting the ground running and achieving a huge amount by the arbitrary deadline of 100 days. Higginbottom agrees that this is not ideal.

"There is a tension there," she says. "You don't need to do as many things in the first couple of weeks as we saw. There are different ways of living up to what you promised in the campaign or of changing things - you need some quick wins, but you can also start a process and get people on board. There are lots of ways to do it, but we are completely beholden to feeding the news cycle. Anyone who walks into an agency as a political appointee is not going to be successful unless they sit down and listen to the people who are going to make them successful."

Maintaining influence

The State Department is sited in the Foggy Bottom neighbourhood of Washington, DC, only a few blocks away from the White House. However, even this short distance from the crucible of power that is the west wing and the Oval Office means that it sometimes has to fight to be heard. And this is an issue by no means limited to the Trump administration. "The question will be whether any of the secretaries of state will have influence with the White House going forward," says Higginbottom. "It was certainly an issue in our administration, as power is concentrated in the White House and you have to manage relationships with agencies and the individual secretaries themselves. I do think that the professionals at the State Department are happy to have a confirmed secretary who is listening and reaching out, but we'll have to see how that progresses and how it can be integrated into the policy apparatus."

And this type of open communication is something that should be deployed by all departmental staffers - not just the leadership - she adds. "You're reading a lot in the news and you're seeing different policy decisions being made, but it is really about figuring out how to communicate effectively to teams up and down the hierarchy and across these agencies, to say either the process isn't working or you have real concerns," she explains.

But irrespective of your political allegiance, keeping the best and brightest hard at work in their roles over the next four years is of paramount importance, she concludes. "We're already facing a major demographic challenge in the functioning of the federal government, with a lot of the workforce at the retirement age or soon to be," she says. "This is real expertise we're going to lose, and we don't want to add to that flow. If they feel they have real input and can constructively impact the process then they will stay, because they believe in what they do. But this starts from the top - cabinet secretaries have to set the tone and bring these processes into the White House decision-making processes."


Heather Higginbottom was speaking to Danny Werfel and Dan Tangherlini on a recent edition of the Gov Actually podcast. Check out the full conversation here and subscribe to Gov Actually on iTunes


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