The Family Liaison Office—Making a World of Difference for 40 Years
Each generation has redefined and built on the work of earlier colleagues, sharing a commitment to safeguard and improve the well-being of our Foreign Service community.
BY METTE O. BEECROFT
The first regional FLO conference was held in Bonn in 1982. Here, at the embassy, are (front row, from left) Bonn Community Liaison Office head Mette Beecroft, FLO Director Marilyn Holmes and Budapest CLO Deltre Girjak. Back row, from left: Belgrade CLO Betty Dunlop, Sofia CLO Bonnie Anderson, Moscow CLO Linda McCall and Warsaw CLO Joan Zerolis.
Courtesy of The Family Liaison Office
On March 1, the Family Liaison Office celebrated its 40th anniversary as a full-fledged operational component of the Department of State. The occasion is noteworthy on several counts. Designed to provide much-needed support to Foreign Service family members, FLO established an entirely new and vital function at the U.S. Department of State. As significant, it was arguably the only time that a volunteer organization (in this case the Association of American Foreign Service Women, or AAFSW) succeeded in changing the structure of the State bureaucracy.
More recent Foreign Service entrants may understandably assume that the Family Liaison Office has always existed. They may find it difficult to believe that at the outset, there was considerable opposition to establishing it at all. My husband became a Foreign Service officer in 1971, so I still remember life before the FLO and can only marvel at what the office has become.
FLO’s current capacity and effectiveness are the achievement of generations of FLO employees, each building on the achievements of their predecessors’ work on behalf of the Foreign Service community. Here is some of that less-well-known history.
The “Old” Foreign Service
Prior to the 1970s, little attention was paid to the welfare of Foreign Service family members. The role of the wife was specifically and narrowly defined. A passage in The Diplomat’s Wife, a book of helpful advice for wives of American Foreign Service officers written by Richard Fyfe Boyce in 1956, sums up the old order: “One of the wife’s most constant preoccupations should be to assist the wife of her chief (sic) at all times and in every way possible. They may ask you to take part in charitable benefits, amateur dramatics or women’s club work. You can help your husband tremendously by having a reputation for unfailing helpfulness.”
Coming into the Foreign Service with a newly minted Ph.D. in French literature from the University of Pennsylvania, I was unprepared to be directed by a senior diplomatic wife to become involved in amateur dramatics or women’s clubs. I hoped to do something more substantial, even if some of the traditional activities might be good fun. I was also somewhat surprised at the stress placed on attire and table settings in the so-called “Wives’ Course” at the Foreign Service Institute.
But the winds of change were beginning to blow. The Wives’ Course itself began to evolve, with course managers placing increased emphasis on cultural, societal and political developments in the United States for FS wives to better know their own country. At the same time, less emphasis was placed on etiquette. Course managers decided that FS wives in the course either would already be familiar with that information or would acquire it “on the job.”
As early as the 1960s, wives at the State Department were beginning to realize that their needs, and the needs of Foreign Service families, were not being given adequate attention by State Department management. In 1960 June Byrne Spencer, a Foreign Service secretary who had married her FSO supervisor, formally proposed the establishment of an organization that would be “removed from the considerations of employee rank and would represent families at every level.” She described the reaction: “Jaws dropped; there was silence. It was heretical!” (June Spencer recounted that scene to me one of the last times she attended an AAFSW program, in December 1999.) Thus, in 1960, the Association of American Foreign Service Women (later rebranded as the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide) was born. Eighteen years later, AAFSW founded the Family Liaison Office.
Other developments marked the era. In 1963 Betty Friedan, a dissatisfied graduate of Smith College, wrote The Feminine Mystique, arguing that women should not be limited to experiencing life through their husbands, and that they could derive great satisfaction from work outside the home. At the time, such assertions were revolutionary. The Department of State could not insulate itself from the impact of this controversial but influential book. In 1971, when my husband entered the Foreign Service, I was one of only a few wives with a Ph.D. Fairly rapidly, however, an increasing number of wives began to arrive with advanced academic degrees and considerable work experience. It was only realistic to expect that Foreign Service wives would seek to use their education and employment experience once they were at post.
A key turning point occurred inside the Department of State in 1969, when William B. Macomber was appointed deputy under secretary of State for management and instituted a series of operational reforms. As part of these Macomber Reforms, the “1972 Directive” was published. It stated for the first time that wives of Foreign Service officers, who were not themselves U.S. government employees, could no longer be required to perform free services for the U.S. government. Nor could they be rated in a husband’s annual employee efficiency report (EER). Previously, the wife’s evaluation had been included in the classified “Part B” portion of the EER, to which the rated officer did not have access.
The results of this directive were mixed. Older women felt that their previous work and devotion to duty on behalf of the Foreign Service had been devalued. Younger women tended to see the directive as liberating, paving the way for change. I often found myself both explaining to older women why younger women wished to work, and clarifying for younger women why their older colleagues did not support that idea.
AAFSW, the Forum and the Foundation of FLO
Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and FLO Director Janet Lloyd cut the ribbon at the March 1, 1978, opening ceremony for the Family Liaison Office.
Courtesy of The Family Liaison Office
Women’s changing expectations began to have an effect on diplomatic life. Independent of AAFSW, a small group of wives at State formed the Research Committee on Spouses in 1975. They distributed a short survey to FSOs, through which they documented that 35 percent of FSOs polled would consider their wife’s prospects for finding work in selecting future posts. The Research Committee then briefed AAFSW, pointing out that if FSOs began to consider employment opportunities for wives as a major factor in selecting posts, it could become a management problem. The committee also suggested to AAFSW that it would be useful to gather additional information to get a better picture of the changing concerns of Foreign Service wives. My husband and I and our two children returned to the United States in June 1975, and I was eager to get involved in the issue, especially since I had seen the changing situation from overseas.
As luck would have it, the late Lesley Dorman became president of AAFSW in 1976. Lesley was idealistic, forceful and accomplished at getting things done. She talked easily with everyone from the Secretary of State to junior employees. One of her first acts was to create the AAFSW Forum, which became AAFSW’s de facto “think tank.”
The forum set out to identify the major concerns that people were beginning to voice about Foreign Service life. For the first time ever, the forum, of which I was a member, identified five groups of issues: family life, including education of children and medical care; the modern Foreign Service wife, including employment, the formation of a skills bank and representation; orientation for wives, including language training and area studies; re-entry issues; and women in transition through retirement, the death of a husband or divorce.
We sent 9,000 questionnaires to Foreign Service posts around the world, asking recipients to assess Foreign Service life in these five groups of issues. I was part of an army of volunteers who prepared the questionnaires for distribution. We filled, stamped and sealed envelopes, a tedious manual process fueled by intense determination. Then as now, spousal employment was of paramount interest. However, the responses revealed an array of other concerns, as well, which people were becoming increasingly willing to express. Forum members carefully reviewed and collated the responses. In March 1977, AAFSW presented the “Report on the Concerns of Foreign Service Spouses and Families” to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. (Note that “wives” had now become “spouses.”)
This report contained 11 recommendations, the second of which was to establish the Family Liaison Office. Secretary Vance responded positively to all the recommendations. Of the FLO proposal, he wrote: “The concept is a good one and I support it. … I believe that we should establish FLO or its equivalent with all deliberate speed.”
On March 1, 1978, the Family Liaison Office was officially opened by Secretary of State and Mrs. Vance, who also supported the new office. The ceremony was attended by the under secretary for management, the Director General of the Foreign Service and senior representatives of the various department bureaus. Janet Lloyd was introduced as the first FLO director, and I as the first deputy director. In his opening remarks, the Secretary complimented the forum for the quality of its initial report and restated his belief that FLO would be an invaluable asset to the department’s efforts to be responsive to the needs of Foreign Service families. He described his vision for the new office: “A central clearing house to which and from which information (would) flow between Foreign Service families and the State Department on all matters related to the family and family life in the Foreign Service.”
Also present were representatives from Capitol Hill, other executive branch agencies, the military and a number of foreign embassies. The opening received good press coverage. In The Washington Post, Donnie Radcliffe wrote that it was a minor miracle that it had taken only a year from presentation of the report to the Secretary in March 1977 to the opening of the office. Because of the early publicity, FLO soon started to receive visits from other U.S. government departments and agencies, as well as from foreign embassies—all of which were considering opening similar offices inside their organizations. On three separate occasions in 1979, I was invited to speak to groups at the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency about the functions of the Family Liaison Office, how we had identified needs and what we hoped to achieve. Since the structures and operations of other agencies differ from those at the department, they were eager to see how they could adapt the functions of FLO to their requirements.
Challenges and Growth
Early on, there were many challenges—first and foremost, survival. We had the solid backing of the Secretary and senior department management. However, in some quarters FLO was regarded with hostility and condescension. Some administrative and personnel officers—as management and HR officers were then called—wrongly believed that senior management’s support for establishing FLO was an implied criticism of the job they were doing. I spent a considerable amount of time speaking at personnel labs, stressing to often-skeptical and resentful employees that FLO had been created and established in response to changes in U.S. society and Foreign Service life. Among the new realities: spouses wanted to work; divorce was on the rise; parents were becoming more knowledgeable and vocal about their children’s educational needs; and security-related evacuations from posts were increasing. Personnel and administrative officers already had enough to contend with. Changes in societal expectations and Foreign Service needs necessitated new responses from the Department of State—hence FLO.
Some critics questioned whether the “little ladies” were capable of professional standards and commitment. Others dismissed us as bored housewives. Janet Lloyd and I stepped cautiously through these minefields. We endeavored to be as professional as possible, aware that any false step would be held up as an indication of incompetence. In my conversations, I also made it clear that we were not motivated by radical feminism. Rather, we were trying to help create the best possible quality of life for all Foreign Service employees and family members. I stressed that if family members are dissatisfied, the employee cannot function at his or her best, so it was in the department’s interest to better support family members.
From the moment the doors opened at FLO, the phone started to ring. Soon a “FLO mentality” began to develop inside the office, which I described as: the will to safeguard and improve the quality of Foreign Service life; a desire to provide people with individualized support; the patience, tenacity and courage to advocate for change; and a sense of active injustice in the face of situations, policies or regulations that seemed unfair. To explain how FLO was different, I often commented that FLO is “in” the bureaucracy but not “of” it. We accepted our position inside the system, but we were determined to treat people who sought assistance as individuals, not just as one more case.
Most of the specialized functions associated with FLO today existed at the beginning, albeit in embryonic form. (Two exceptions are comparatively recent problems arising from service at unaccompanied posts, where family members are limited or not authorized, and the complexities of establishing a worldwide digital presence.) Before FLO was two years old, the late Ben Read, then under secretary for management, wrote to me: “The Liaison Office has now become such an accepted part of our overall operations … that it is hard to realize that you have been operating less than two years.”
The director and I dealt with questions about education for children and employment for spouses. We negotiated our first bilateral employment agreement, with Canada. In accordance with the AAFSW Forum Report, we established pilot FLOs overseas— now known as Community Liaison Offices—and I drafted the first “CLO Guidelines,” suggesting what they might do and what information they should have available for their respective communities. When we dealt with the department’s first big evacuation (some 400 evacuees from Islamabad in 1979), we worked to define the department’s and FLO’s respective roles in such events.
Providing support and information for divorced spouses was a sensitive and difficult undertaking from the beginning. The number of divorces was both surprising and distressing, as was the bad behavior of some employees who withheld information and assistance from the spouses whom they were divorcing. I inadvertently became FLO’s first divorce counselor as I began to assemble sources of support for divorcing women who contacted me. At the request of our deputy chief of mission in Moscow, I wrote a rudimentary guide on dealing with divorce at post. Subpoenaed to testify in an alimony hearing as an “expert witness,” I provided information on the role of a traditional Foreign Service wife overseas at that time, and what she was prohibited from doing. The information I provided led the judge to determine that alimony should not be reduced because the wife had in effect “earned” the alimony during some 20 years of supporting her husband overseas. We also worked with U.S. immigration officials on behalf of foreign-born spouses.
We produced a number of widely used documents, including the “FLO Update,” which later became the “FLO Focus”; and we helped create the “Washington Assignment Notebook.” To respond to a rapidly increasing number of inquiries, we expanded the FLO staff, adding an employment counselor at the end of 1978. At the beginning of 1979, I wrote a proposal to add an education counselor. We added other positions, as well—someone to administer the CLO program and someone to provide assistance in times of emergency, such as evacuation.
The CLOs overseas also set precedents. In 1981, while serving as the CLO at Embassy Bonn, I travelled to Moscow, Sofia, Warsaw, Bern and Brussels to brief people about the new office. It was the first time a Department of State employee had travelled to multiple posts to discuss such “family friendly” issues. At the outset, some post officials were not enthusiastic. In 1982, again as the Bonn CLO, I cooperated with the FLO director to organize the very first CLO regional conference, bringing together representatives from our embassies in Belgrade, Budapest, Moscow, Sofia and Warsaw—Iron Curtain CLOs who regularly worked under great pressure at their respective posts and who wanted to talk together about their special concerns. In 1994, as the Brussels CLO, I received the Department of State Superior Honor Award from the Bureau of European Affairs. Until then, most Superior Honor Awards had been awarded to FSOs—never to a CLO.
Cutting the cake at FLO’s 40th anniversary event on March 1 at the State Department are, from left, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan; Mette Beecroft; Susan Pompeo, the spouse of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and FLO Director Susan Frost.
U.S. Department of State / Mark Stewart
FLO could easily have failed, but in 1978 that thought never occurred to me. I was so convinced of the necessity and utility of FLO that, as the saying goes, “Failure was not an option.” Personally, I have found it enormously satisfying to see FLO grow and rise to the occasion whenever new demands are made of its highly dedicated staff. Each generation has redefined and built on the work of earlier colleagues, sharing a commitment to safeguard and improve the well-being of our Foreign Service community. While taking pride in the past, FLO also faces new and continuing challenges, such as the need to facilitate employment for spouses and to provide support for families of employees who are sent to unaccompanied posts.
From modest beginnings, FLO has become a full-fledged State Department institution, recognized by many other U.S. government agencies for the crucial support it provides to our Foreign Service community, both in the United States and overseas. FLO has grown from just three staff members to 26 when fully staffed to meet ever-increasing demands for advocacy, programs, service and support. FLO’s main areas of current interest are summarized below:
• The Community Liaison Office program has increased from a handful of CLOs to more than 225 positions at posts worldwide, staffed by some 270 employees who are supported by three staff members in Washington.
• Family member employment has become infinitely more complicated, and the six-member FLO staff help job-searchers understand the global employment initiative (GEI), whose advisers assist 5,000 family members annually; the expanded professional associates program (EPAP), which offers 400 Foreign Service entry-level equivalent positions used to fill in staffing gaps and other needs; and professional development fellowships, which assist recipients in defraying the costs of training and other professional development activities.
• The Education and Youth program has two specialists who annually give some 1,300 families information about schooling options and allowances for children with special needs.
• The Crisis Management and Support Services’ two-person team gives guidance and assistance to employees, family members and CLOs dealing with personal preparedness, sudden departure from post due to an evacuation or other emergency, or personal concerns such as marriage, divorce and elder care. During a recent five-year period, FLO supported more than 50 separate post evacuations. In one recent year, they gave preparedness briefings to 2,400 employees.
• Unaccompanied tours have always existed, but never as frequently as now. At any given time, between 15 and 20 posts are described as having “unaccompanied status” or “limited accompanied status.” In a recent year, FLO briefed more than 1,000 Foreign Service employees on resources available during an unaccompanied tour.
• Expeditious naturalization. FLO acts as the liaison with the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in expediting naturalization for foreign-born Department of State spouses. Since 2006, more than 1,000 foreign-born spouses have been successfully naturalized.
• Outreach to the Foreign Service community. FLO’s website, state.gov/flo, attracts more than 350,000 visitors each year. Two communication and outreach specialists maintain this extensive digital presence. We also have a social media specialist and two data management specialists. FLO’s “A to Z Site Map” illustrates the variety and depth of information available.