On Wednesday, September 5th, the Family Liaison Office (FLO) celebrated the 40th anniversary of its opening in 1978. The event took place in the Exhibit Hall of HST/Main State from 2 to 4 p.m. and was attended by some 120 people who either were connected with the FLO in some way or who wanted to show their support. This included many members of the FLO Staff, both past and present, a group of people from the AAFSW including our president, at least one State Department official who had been present when the office opened in 1978 and a number of current State Department employees as well.
As for the program, it consisted of fairly brief remarks from five people, one of whom participated by video. Susan Frost, current FLO Director, opened the program and then introduced me, a long-time AAFSW member and the first Deputy Director of the Office. Following my introduction, the Deputy Secretary of State, John Sullivan, delivered the Keynote Address. Since Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was unable to attend because of travel, he very kindly pre-recorded a video message for the occasion and later on, also sent an email. Mrs. Susan Pompeo made closing remarks.
The program was greatly enhanced by an extensive exhibit of FLO memorabilia that was assembled and mounted by Gabrielle Hampson of the FLO staff. One viewer with a long FLO history described the display as “a great historical piece.”
Also included in the display were short takes of a dozen or so people commenting on working in the FLO or in the Community Liaison Offices (CLOs) overseas.
A summary of the speakers’ remarks can roughly be divided into three sections –the past, present and future of the FLO.
I first commented on the years before the FLO—pre-1978. Women in the Foreign Service were almost always wives whose role was quite clear—support the ambassador’s wife and support your husband’s career. However, by 1960 change was coming. In that year, a Foreign Service secretary proposed the formation of an organization which would represent family interests irrespective of the employee’s rank. Thus was born the AAFSW.
In 1963, Betty Friedan wrote “The Feminine Mystique” in which she made the then revolutionary proposal that women could find satisfaction in work outside of the home. Somewhat later, in 1969, William Macomber, Under Secretary for Management, instituted a series of reforms, among them the so-called “1972 Directive.” This stipulated that wives could no longer be told to perform free services for the U.S. Government. Nor could they be rated in “Part B” of the employee’s annual efficiency report which neither husband nor wife could even see. Reactions to the “Directive” varied. Older women felt that all their loyalty and hard work had been devalued whereas younger women saw the “Directive” as paving the way for change.
Between 1972 and 1978, there was an enormous amount of activity aimed at bringing family concerns to the attention of senior management. It was in this period that the AAFSW played such a crucial role. On the basis of a world-wide survey, and under the leadership of the late Lesley Dorman, then AAFSW President, the “Forum” of the AAFSW prepared the “Report on the Concerns of Foreign Service Spouses and Families” which was delivered to then Secretary of State, the late Cyrus Vance, in 1977. The second recommendation of the Report was to open a Family Liaison Office. Crucially, the Secretary agreed with enthusiasm. Thus, in a “miraculously short time,” according to the “Washington Post,” the FLO opened on March 1, 1978. Janet Lloyd was selected to be the first Director and Joan Scott the first secretary.
Having summarized the period which led up to the opening of the FLO, I described the early days of operation. From the very first day, the phones began to ring. It was clear that the FLO was an idea whose time had come. We were deluged by all kinds of questions. It was clear that how we handled these questions—both those we could answer and those which we could not—would start to establish our reputation. There were also State employees who were condescending and very skeptical that the “little ladies” could accomplish anything of worth.
However, we soon found that other government civilian agencies, the intelligence community, the military and a number of foreign diplomatic services were interested in our formula. They came to inspect or invited us to their respective offices to speak. In the first year, we started to open CLOs overseas and added our first two additional staff members to deal with the great interest in both family-member employment and education issues for children.
The remarks of Susan Frost, current Director of the FLO, moved the Office into the present and on to the future. It is striking that essentially, the work of the current FLO was substantially laid out by the main issues listed in the 1977 “Report” – that is: expanding family member employment opportunities; offering assistance on education and youth concerns; providing referral and information on regulations, allowances, divorce, separations and evacuation and also on re-entry back into the United States after a foreign tour of duty.
“Today,” as Susan wrote, “the top concerns of Foreign Service families remain the same and continue to be FLO’s major areas of interest.” However, the breadth and depth of what the current FLO can offer far exceed what was available 40 years ago. For starters, the staff of three has grown to 26 members. This increase is not bureaucratic “bloat.” Rather it testifies to ever-increasing responsibilities such as supporting unaccompanied tours, managing the world-wide CLO program or guiding FLO’s internet and intranet presence. In fact, FLO’s internet site insures that about 90% of all FLO’s information is available to everyone, even if they do not have intranet access.
It is understandable that recent Foreign Service entrants think that the FLO has always existed. However, as both Susan and Mette have commented, during the last 40 years, the FLO has become an indispensable State Department institution, thanks to the incredibly talented, accomplished and devoted staff members who have worked in the Office over the years.
Certainly, the FLO can look back on the last 40 years with pride. However, they also know that there will always be ongoing or new difficult issues which need attention. In the past, the FLO staff members have always risen to the task and we know that we can count on them to meet new challenges in the future.
In conclusion, it was a great pleasure to welcome special guests who so warmly recommended the work of the FLO. As mentioned above, Secretary Pompeo very kindly pre-recorded a video message and later also sent an email in which he wrote: “Congratulations to the Family Liaison Office on their 40th anniversary—and to all the visionaries, staff and volunteers who deliver FLO services. Special kudos to our CLOs serving around the world who go above and beyond to support our great Foreign Service families.” Deputy Secretary John Sullivan praised CLOs when he commented that in his travels, he had noticed the FLO’s “flagship” program—the Community Liaison Office and its creative coordinators—the CLOs—are everywhere! In fact, at post, the only person often more visible than the Chief of Mission and the Marine Security Guards are the CLOs.”
It is also worth noting that the Deputy Secretary had previous direct contact with the Foreign Service through an uncle who was an active FSO for many years. Finally, in her concluding remarks, Susan Pompeo also lent her support. She has long been interested in quality of life issues for families living overseas and served on the Family Advisory Board of the agency which the Secretary previously headed before his current appointment.
As for the AAFSW, it can take great pride in its role of advocating for the FLO which has helped so many people and which is sometime described as “having changed the face of the Foreign Service.” However, as the saying goes, “The best way to wilt one’s laurels is to rest on them.” There will probably always be causes with which the AAFSW can usefully ally itself, provided it has sufficient facts to take a stand.