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The Danger Zone: Managing and Supporting Civilians in Difficult and Dangerous Locations April 13, 2010

Posted by Laura A. Hall in Analysis.
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Each Tuesday BFAD features a guest blogger- these are experts from a variety of backgrounds writing about what they know best.  This week features Laura Hall, Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in residence at the Stimson Center.

By Laura A. Hall

Deploying U.S. government civilians to difficult and dangerous places is nothing new.  Plaques to fallen colleagues in the lobbies of the Department of State and USAID remind us of those who have died in overseas operations. However, in recent years our nation has asked a lot more of our civilian government personnel, and not only in Iraq and Afghanistan.

On April 14, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia (HSGAC/OGM) will hold a hearing on personnel benefits and support for deployed civilians in combat zones.  This follows on the inquiries by Government Accountability Office, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, and the  House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Federal Workforce, Postal Service, and the District of Columbia.

The New Normal

Today, many embassies remain open under security situations which, in the past, would have led to certain closure.  More posts are at risk of attack in spite of the unwelcoming “fortress America” building standards.  Civilians have deployed embedded within military units.  An increasing proportion of assignments are so dangerous that families do not join employees overseas. The number of posts qualifying for hardship and danger pay has increased.  The scope and scale of civilian engagement has expanded, placing greater numbers and types of employees at risk.

And more names have been added to the plaques.

The decisions to send civilians to these missions have been made, in spite of their cost, because of the absolute centrality of civilian diplomacy and development to today’s missions. The history of PRT deployments – and more importantly, experiences where the military has had limited access to civilian advisors and partners – demonstrates this powerfully.  Their presence is equally vital to the international community’s legitimacy and effectiveness in lesser-known engagements in places like Darfur and Eastern Congo.  Even in traditional posts, like those in Pakistan and Mexico are increasingly dangerous as recent attacks have tragically proven.

These assignments are becoming the “new normal,” and have broad implications for recruitment, training, support, medical care, benefits, incentives, and career paths within the Foreign Service and the civil services of many departments.  They also raise serious questions about the roles of diplomats and development professionals in non-permissive environments, and how to manage risk while increasing access to populations and environments that are critical to U.S. engagement.

Key Congressional Questions

The upcoming HSGAC/OGM hearing, and follow-up work on legislation and requisite funding, should wrestle with a few key areas.

Protection: Personal security for deployed civilians remains a difficult issue of doctrine, cost, and appropriate roles and responsibilities.  Diplomatic Security personnel, military personnel, private security contractors, and local police forces all play a role in protecting diplomats and development professionals in the field.  The visual effect of civilians surrounded by armed guards or soldiers can be counterproductive, but the threat to American civilians remains high in many places: the titles of “diplomat” or “humanitarian aid worker” no longer afford much protection.  Heavy handed security teams can undermine civilian missions and alienate local citizens.  Occasional suggestions to arm diplomats and other civilians point to the real concerns many staff have about their safety.  This would obliterate the last shred of protection their peaceful missions provide and could potentially embolden minimally trained staff to take additional risks.  Even more counterproductive would be to determine that military personnel should take on primarily civilian tasks instead.   The subcommittee should press officials on long-term plans for developing clear policies, arrangements with DoD to provide security to enable civilian missions, the appropriate roles of DS and private security contractors, and rules of engagement for both civilian and security personnel.

Roles and Missions: Reflecting these new realities, Civilian Response Corps personnel are required to take new security and medical training to prepare them to deploy with the U.S. military, with international peacekeepers, or to remote and dangerous locations with little support.  The three-week training course is intended to prepare civilians to take care of medical emergencies, travel safely, avoid personal attacks, stay calm in combat environment, and to ensure they are not a burden to their military colleagues who are charged with keeping them safe.  The very existence of such a course raises an important philosophical point about the line between diplomats and warriors.  To the extent civilians are sent into places where they must be trained similarly to military personnel, it raises the question of whether we should be sending them in the first place.  The subcommittee and Department officials should reflect soberly on the accumulated experiences of the last decade and the implications of these new roles.

Managing Risk: Given the absolute necessity for civilian presence and missions, the important issue is how to manage risk effectively so that diplomats and development professionals can do their jobs.  Overly restrictive security policies can prove counterproductive, gradually eroding safety because they limit the same activities that are necessary to counterinsurgency and to combat violent extremists who threaten U.S. personnel.  The Civilian Response Corps has carefully watched this line and has developed rules of engagement, uniforms, equipment, training, and recruitment policies to be explicit about appropriate roles and to manage expectations.  The subcommittee should press officials on how these lessons learned are being applied more broadly to overseas areas beyond Iraq and Afghanistan.

Incentives and Compensation: The current system of civilian overseas benefits, which applies to all Federal civilian personnel in all overseas assignments, has been contorted to address the demands for these new deployments.  As the requirements for civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan and other locations have grown over the last several years, support and benefits have changed.  Incentive payments such as “danger pay” or “hardship pay” have been increased in Iraq and Afghanistan and pay caps and overtime restrictions have been lifted.  Foreign Service benefits have been extended to civil servants.  Assignments policies have been arranged to continue DC locality pay for some employees on “temporary” assignments, creating a disparity with those assigned permanently, or to allow families to remain in overseas post housing.  R&R breaks and other leave options have increased.  Sadly, “death gratuity” payments have been increased, too.  All of these benefits are undermined to a degree, however, by the disparity in base pay between domestic and overseas assignments for Foreign Service personnel; this creates negative incentives for overseas service and erodes the value of incentive and compensation benefits.  The CIA and military personnel do not face this pay gap and neither should others assigned overseas in service to their country.

Some have proposed extending military benefits to civilians, such as combat zone tax exclusions.  The military system of benefits and incentives is quite different, with the relatively small combat pay and hazardous duty pay and the more generous combat zone tax exclusion.  Family support is also vastly different for civilian and military personnel.  To the extent that missions and risks converge, it is fair to examine what benefits should also be similar.  Nevertheless, the subcommittee should note that the benefits approaches are unlikely to align worldwide, since there are no deployed military personnel in most of the difficult and dangerous locations where diplomats and aid professionals work.  The subcommittee should develop standards for determining what would constitute equity among civilian personnel (across departments/agencies and across different personnel systems, including contractors), assess the appropriateness of applying certain military benefits, and question the long-term effects on the overall system that these outsized incentives required for extreme locations may cause.

Care and Support: Medical care and support both during and after deployments comprise another area for consideration.  Post-deployment support and training has increased in civilian agencies just as it has in the armed forces.  The current system of directly provided medical care, medical insurance (many policies for civilians normally assigned domestically exclude coverage for exactly the kinds of risks employees are taking), and workers compensation is insufficient in many posts and imposes risks upon staff.  It would be better to fund greater clinical care at posts than to provide “hardship pay” to compensate for the negative health effects of living in those environments.  While pre-deployment/pre-assignment medical reviews are required for civilian employees at the Department of State, medical clearance requirements as a condition of hiring that are standard and critical for the health of the Foreign Service are not extended to civil service positions.  Federal hiring laws and regulations make it nearly impossible to require a medical review even for positions that include a deployment requirement, making it possible that some personnel will be hired but unable to deploy to the most difficult locations.  The subcommittee should ask what is being done to extend the lessons of the most extreme cases to a broader set of locations.

The Long Term: There are several new training programs and hiring processes that have grown up out of necessity for specific missions, even as the Civilian Response Corps was being established to provide a lasting capability.  The late arrival of funding and authorization set back the CRC by several years making it unable to fill all the requirements in Iraq and Afghanistan.  However, the processes agreed between Departments on how to call up and deploy the CRC and other civilians have not been utilized and the specially recruited and highly trained CRC personnel have not been called up for new engagements such as Haiti.  While the training requirements for civilians going to Afghanistan and Iraq have improved greatly with new civ-mil exercises and other familiarization, training in conflict management and interagency planning, which would improve their ability to do their jobs, has not been mandated. The subcommittee should ask hard questions about the long-term preparation for these missions and how the Departments are applying lessons learned as they prepare capabilities for future missions.  They should also ask how Departments will ensure these new capabilities are used in the future rather than reverting to ad hoc arrangements that come on line too late and at too great a cost in lives and lost opportunity.

Conclusion

The support and incentives provided have grown as civilian deployments have increased, though they have often been developed in reaction to problems or recruitment needs.  Long term, however, there are many policy and management questions that need to be resolved as these assignments continue and start to define the civilian workforce expectations for the future.

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