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his month’s


covers the

AFSA annual awards ceremony

and spotlights the 2016 award

winners. This makes for inspir-

ing reading, as we explore what our col-

leagues are doing to achieve our collective

mission. One friend now serving at the

Foreign Service Institute tells me she

scours the AFSA awards write-ups for case

studies to highlight best practices in her

training classes.

The annual awards ceremony is a

great AFSA tradition, one that recognizes

excellence and courage. The AFSA awards

programmakes our profession stronger.

AFSA gives a variety of awards—one

for Lifetime Contributions to American

Diplomacy, several outstanding perfor-

mance awards and, unique in the U.S.

government, four awards for constructive

dissent—at the entry level, mid-level,

senior level and by a specialist.

This year, after the kind of spirited,

principled debate that represents AFSA

at its best, only one award for dissent

was granted.

Governing Board


Awards Committee

members agreed on

the need for better, clearer guidance on

what constitutes dissent in the Foreign

Service—beginning with how to distin-

guish between dissent and the equally

important, but

distinct, act of tak-

ing initiative and

finding innovative

ways to approach


We resolved to

produce a more

robust definition of dissent in time for

next year’s nomination process. This

column is meant to contribute to that

thought process and invite your input.

We in the Foreign Service deploy

worldwide—to protect and serve, yes, but

also to understand the local context and

call it like we see it. Sometimes Wash-

ington wants us to deliver something we

know is not achievable in that context.

Sometimes we know that even trying

would cause a backlash and impede

achievement of other goals.

It is our obligation to point that out, to

offer our best judgment and, when pos-

sible, alternatives (see “Foreign Service

Core Precepts,” below). This is the basis

for constructive dissent as we have tradi-

tionally defined it. The State Department’s Dissent Channel is one way—the institu-

tional vehicle—to deliver that dissent (see

“The Dissent Channel,” next page).

The same obligations to speak up

apply for matters related to the manage-

ment of our own institution, not just for

classic foreign policy issues. We must all

think of ourselves as stewards of the For-

eign Service and act accordingly, working

to establish and maintain well-function-

ing embassy platforms and healthy career

paths for the next generation. Because the

Dissent Channel is restricted to “substan-

tive policy” issues, dissent on manage-

ment matters must be conducted through

other channels.

The AFSA awards program recognizes

constructive dissent on management

issues as well as foreign policy issues.

This year’s

Rivkin Award

winner is a great

example of the former.

Lest we come across as simply

nay-sayers (as we might to interagency

Ambassador Barbara Stephenson is the president of the American Foreign Service Association.

Calling It Like We See It




Excerpt from the Core Precepts

Decision Criteria for Tenure and Promotion in the Foreign Service

Leadership Skills/Openness to Dissent and Differing Views


Exhibits moral courage and intellectual integrity. Publicly supports

official decisions while using appropriate dissent channels in case of disagreement.

Resolves disputes using appropriate mechanisms.


Encourages frank communication with colleagues and subordinates.

Discerns when well-founded constructive dissent is justified; advocates policy

alternatives and guides staff to do the same. Recognizes employee dissent through

awards programs.


Encourages and expects personnel to express opinions and to use

dissent channels; accords importance to well-founded constructive dissent and

solicits, weighs, and defends its appropriate expression. Recognizes and supports

moral courage.