The Foreign Service Journal, September 2010

T his issue of the Journal fea- tures coverage of AFSA’s an- nual awards ceremony. As such, it is the ideal time and place to explain and promote one of the most commendable — yet least-known — programs in the U.S. government. In the vast galaxy of organizations, the American Foreign Service Association is the only one that encourages, rec- ognizes and rewards the courage to speak up in an effort to improve the system from within. The first of these honors, the Chris- tian A. Herter Award, recognizing constructive dissent by Senior Foreign Service officers, was established in 1968. Two others followed: the Will- iam R. Rivkin Award for mid-level of- ficers and the W. Averell Harriman Award for junior officers. And in 2000, AFSA established the F. Allen “Tex” Harris Award for advocacy and constructive dissent by Foreign Serv- ice specialists. Any employee can nominate an- other — superior, co-worker or subor- dinate — for these prestigious awards. The criteria, full details on the nomi- nation process and lists of past winners are all posted at These awards recognize “individu- als who have demonstrated the courage to challenge the system from within, no matter the issue or the con- sequences of their actions … the will- ingness to confront or challenge con- ventional wisdom, intelligently and tenaciously, by asking the tough ques- tions and coming up with some un- conventional answers.” Although the language describing the awards has evolved over the years, AFSA alone has honored “wave-makers” — and for more than four decades. Consider that fact for a moment. Doing battle with authority is certainly not a major facet of the Foreign Ser- vice’s public persona. When people think of us at all, they tend to do so in terms of good manners, a carefully balanced approach, extensive use of the passive voice and, perhaps as much as anything else, conflict avoid- ance. In the real world, however, only the Foreign Service, acting through AFSA, publicly commends members who are willing to advocate and pursue changes in policies or management practices. No similar program exists in any other organization. It is therefore a cause for concern that the number of nominations has steadily declined over the last few years. There are several possible ex- planations for this troubling develop- ment, but here are two. Confusion with State’s Dissent Channel. While both the State De- partment’s Dissent Channel and AFSA’s constructive dissent awards program have that word in their titles, they are significantly different. The originator of a Dissent Channel mes- sage puts it into the hands of depart- ment officials who have been assigned responsibility for dealing with it, ef- fectively ending any further efforts at advocacy. The sender is protected from retaliation, but he or she is also enjoined from pursuing the matter. In stark contrast, AFSA’s construc- tive dissent program lies entirely out- side official channels and therefore carries a potential risk for nominees, as well as nominators. This possibility may dissuade some people from par- ticipating. In fact, however, statistics show that the recognition is of consid- erable benefit to a Foreign Service ca- reer. Winners of AFSA’s constructive dissent awards have had a significantly higher rate of promotion than their peers, as the lists of chiefs of mission and other senior officials clearly re- For more than four decades, AFSA has been alone in honoring the Foreign Service’s “wave-makers.” S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 0 / F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L 13 Recognizing Those Who Have Made a Difference B Y E DWARD L. P ECK S PEAKING O UT