The Foreign Service Journal - May 2017
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MAY 2017



• Third,

we need to make it easier for State officers to volun-

teer to serve on a task force or in a coordination unit, especially

for extended periods of time. Given workforce shortages, it is

likely that any task force or coordination unit is going to be very

diverse and not necessarily experienced in international health—

and that’s OK. The establishment of the Pandemic Response

Team—and OES’ commitment to lead a task force with MED

support if one is stood up—ensures that the core teamwill have

the necessary expertise, but additional personnel will surely be

needed. Pandemic response requires expertise in the areas of

geopolitical, consular, legislative and public affairs, among oth-

ers. It also requires skilled staff assistants, office management

specialists and management officers.

The Ebola Coordination Unit eventually consisted of two OES

civil servants whose permanent assignments involved interna-

tional health issues, an ambassador-designate awaiting confir-

mation, an American Association for the Advancement of Science

Fellow with an advanced degree in pharmacology, a Bureau of

International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs evacuee

from Yemen, a medical evacuee, an unassigned management

officer and an office management specialist temporarily reas-

signed to support the team from the Office of the Counselor.

What we lacked in experience was more thanmade up for by

dedication and long hours. This shouldn’t be a surprise—it’s the

norm for State Department crisis management. Yet though this

rag-tag teamdeliveredmonth after month, burnout was a very real

issue, and the ECU lacked a mechanism to rapidly transition in

new staff, particularly those with skillsets matching current needs.

• Fourth,

State must continue to affirm its role within the

interagency community during a pandemic. The department’s

forward-leaning approach and reliable support in recent outbreaks

has strengthened its reputation as coordinator and facilitator, as

well as expanding the interagency’s appreciation of the numerous

foreign affairs equities involved in any successful response. State’s

seat at the interagency table provides a window into the complexity

of a pandemic, particularly after it hits America’s shores, allowing

senior State representatives to shape the response even if some

measures are outside of their immediate mandate.

Each outbreak will be unique, and we do not yet know how

current or future administrations will choose to structure the

U.S. government’s overall response. During the avian influenza

outbreak of 2005, State took on a coordination role, leading an

interagency task force that worked to support the international

response. By the time the Ebola Coordination Unit was estab-

lished in 2014, the National Security Council was clearly in charge

of a multiple-agency effort that included deployment of military

personnel, civilian health and development professionals, and

large numbers of nongovernmental organization workers.

State’s role was much more narrowly defined. We supported

the president’s and the Secretary’s efforts to secure financial and

other support; participated in press events and congressional

briefings; coordinated with the United Nations as they slowly

built up a presence in West Africa; helped formulate policies

concerning travel to and from the affected areas; and coordinated

with embassies in the affected areas. Each time a State task force

or coordination unit is established, senior State officials should

determine what role State will play and convey that clearly to the

ambassador, the regional bureaus and other agencies.

Strategic Approach Needed

Finally, to return to our first lesson learned, State’s senior

officials must think strategically about mitigating the impact of

future, and potentially more frequent, pandemics on the depart-

ment's mission.

State needs to maintain—even in the face of anticipated bud-

get cuts—the Pandemic Response Team and the broader Office

of International Health and Biodefense, which works to increase

other countries’ capacities to prevent, detect and respond to

infectious disease outbreaks on their own. Regional bureaus,

MED, Human Resources and Diplomatic Security need to plan

for greater flexibility in meeting posts’ needs and requirements

for evacuations, changes in staffing (increases in some areas;

reductions in others) and visits by the regional medical officers;

as well as plan for potential long-term effects on bidding patterns.

Our diplomatic engagement was essential during the Ebola

outbreak, and the State Department must continue to form the

backbone of international efforts aimed at better preventing,

detecting and responding to the infectious disease threats of the

future. It is a matter of national security.


State has made demonstrable

progress in acting on the

lessons learned during the

last decade, and there is

tremendous opportunity for the

new leadership to bolster these