The Foreign Service Journal - June 2017
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JUNE 2017


The Golden Rule of Professionalism


Matt Tompkins is currently a vice consul in Santo Domingo, and previously

served in Guatemala City. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he held intel-

ligence and policy positions with the FBI and served as an Army officer. His

Speaking Out column on nonpartisanship relating to election participation

appeared in the October 2016




n its opening months, the Trump

administration has inmany ways con-

tinued what it started in the campaign

and transition. Previously unbroachable

norms have been discarded, including

habituated expectations of transparency

and press access, a more genteel style of

political discourse, andmany foreign and

domestic policy positions that until very

recently would have been considered long-

resolved areas of bipartisan consensus.

(This observation is neither to criticize

nor commend. The administration has in

most cases proudly claimed the moniker of

unconventional, and both supporters and

detractors have typically agreed.)

For many of us in the Foreign Ser-

vice—and in the Civil Service writ large—

this has been an unmooring experience.

The ideal of an apolitical bureaucracy

seems nice, but in the face of unprec-

edented decisions and actions that seem

to go beyond simple left-right partisan-

ship, many seem to be struggling with the

impulse to resist.

In the State Department, this has

translated into a newly resurgent interest

in understanding the specific limitations

on political advocacy imposed by the

Hatch Act and the Foreign Affairs Manual

to better determine in what ways we as

executive branch employees are permit-

ted to resist or advocate.

I amwriting today to make a case for

the opposite response: This is a time to

double-down on our nonpartisan profes-

sionalism, not to test its limits. The norm

and function of an apolitical bureaucracy

is more important and valuable than any

one leader or policy: we must be able to

continue serving effectively 10 presidents

and 100 controversial policies from now.

Privileged Access

We hold positions of privileged access,

giving us more information and influence

over the process of policy formation and

implementation than normal citizens. For

that privileged access to mean anything,

political leaders must trust that our advice

and implementation will be expert and

unbiased, based on knowledge and

experience rather than personal political


Public advocacy destroys that trust,

ensuring that both our political masters

and the voting public know that we do

have a preferred “side” and implying that

our level of agreement will affect the vigor

with which we support, implement (or

even resist) the decisions of those voted

into office.

It’s easy to look at a policy that you

consider to be objectively, undeniably

and absolutely wrong-headed and say,

“But it’s not partisan to resist



sion.” The problem is that by resisting a

decision we disagree with, we make our

policy preferences a relevant and accept-

able point for discussion.

That may seem trivial when it’s a mat-

ter of advocating or resisting by simply

declaring that you consider a single given

policy decision to be disastrous. But what

about the next time, the next president,

the next Secretary? Once we’ve made it

a legitimate point of consideration, who

could blame newly elected officials for

feeling the need to assess the level of

actual or likely agreement with their poli-

cies before entrusting their implementa-

tion to the bureaucracy?

By asserting that policy implementa-

tion might be contingent on our opinion

of the policy, we will have set things back

100 years to a time when the hallmark of

bureaucratic dependability was political

loyalty rather than professional compe-


Yes, some might say, but some of the

policies and statements from this admin-

istration just go too far. They demand

response. They demand resistance. In

recent months, I’ve witnessed a ground-

swell of colleagues express that sentiment

to varying degrees.

A number of them—in my Facebook

feed at least—have articulated this

imperative with a quote fromDesmond

Tutu that seems to capture well the

general sentiment: “If you are neutral in

situations of injustice, you have chosen

the side of the oppressor.” Surely there is

truth to this in a tautological sense—it is a

good quote.