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The Family Liaison Office: Celebrating 40 Years of Making a World of Difference

March 1st of 2018 was the FORTIETH ANNIVERSARY of the opening of the Family Liaison Office in the Department of State. Its establishment may well mark the only time that a volunteer organization (in this case the Association of American Foreign Service Women – AAFSW) succeeded in changing the structure of the State Department bureaucracy to insert a totally new function (the Family Liaison Office – FLO) which would provide needed support to Foreign Service family members, and by extension to the mission of the Department of State. Some of us can remember life before FLO and can only marvel at what the Office has become. Those who entered the Foreign Service more recently tend to assume that the FLO always existed, and find it difficult to believe that there was considerable opposition to the FLO’s establishment.

The “Old” Foreign Service: In the “old” Foreign Service, little thought was given to the welfare of family members, and the role of the wife was specifically defined. A section of “The Diplomat’s Wife,” written in 1956, encapsulates the old order as follows: “One of the wife’s most constant preoccupations should be to assist the wife of her chief (sic) at all times and in every way possible. They may ask you to take part in charitable benefits, amateur dramatics or women’s club work. You can help your husband tremendously by having a reputation for unfailing helpfulness.” This old order was not to last.

Changing Times: Already in 1960, there were changes. At the State Department, some wives were beginning to feel that their needs and those of their families were not adequately represented to management. June Byrne Spencer, a Foreign Service secretary who had married her FSO supervisor, proposed the formation of an organization that would be “removed from the considerations of employee rank and would represent families at every level.” As June Spencer wrote, “…jaws dropped, there was silence, it was heretical!” Thus was born the Association of American Foreign Service Women (later renamed the Associates of the American Foreign Service Worldwide – AAFSW), which ultimately went on to found the Family Liaison Office.

There were other developments. In 1963, Betty Friedan, a dissatisfied graduate of Smith College, wrote “The Feminine Mystique,” which was to have an enormous and long-lasting impact. The author objected to women being limited to experiencing life through their husbands, and suggested that women could also find great satisfaction in working outside the home. At the time, such assertions were revolutionary. The Department of State could not insulate itself from the effects of this very influential book.

For the wives of Foreign Service employees, one of the most important events took place inside the Department of State. In 1969, William B. Macomber was appointed Deputy Under Secretary of State for Administration. As part of the Macomber Reforms, the so-called “1972 Directive” was published. It stated for the first time that wives, who are not U.S. Government employees, could no longer be required to perform free services for the government. Nor could they be rated in a husband’s annual Employee Efficiency Report, or EER. (In fact, a wife’s evaluation was included in the secret portion of the then two-part EER.) The results of this directive were mixed. Older women felt that their considerable work and devotion to duty on behalf of the Foreign Service had been devalued. Younger women tended to see the directive as liberating and paving the way for concerted efforts to bring about change.

The AAFSW, the FORUM and the Foundation of the FLO: Women’s changing expectations in the developed world began to have substantial impact on diplomatic life. Independent of the AAFSW, a small group of wives at State, both younger and older, formed the Research Committee on Spouses. They distributed a short survey to FSOs, through which they documented that 35% of those polled would consider their wife’s prospects for work in selecting future posts. The Research Committee went to the AAFSW to reveal what they had discovered. They also pointed out that if employees began to consider employment opportunities for wives as a factor in selecting posts, it could turn into a management problem. The Committee also suggested to the AAFSW that it would be useful to gather additional information to get a better picture of the changing concerns of Foreign Service wives.

As luck would have it, Lesley Dorman became President of the AAFSW in 1976. She was idealistic, forceful and very accomplished at getting things done. She talked easily with everyone from the Secretary of State to junior employees. One of her first acts was to create the AAFSW FORUM, which became the AAFSW’s “think tank.” This new branch of the AAFSW sought to identify the major concerns people were beginning to express about Foreign Service life. For the first time ever, the FORUM identified five groups of issues: (1) family life, including education of children and medical care; (2) the modern Foreign Service wife, including employment, the formation of a skills bank and representation; (3) orientation for wives, including language training and area studies; (4) re-entry issues; and (5) women in transition through retirement, the death of a husband or divorce. The FORUM then sent 9,000 questionnaires to Foreign Service posts around the world, asking people to assess the impact of Foreign Service life on family members in the five groups mentioned above. The responses were carefully reviewed and collated. In March of 1977, the “Report on the Concerns of Foreign Service Spouses and Families” was presented to Secretary of State Cyrus Vance. (It is noteworthy that that “wives” had now become “spouses.”)

The new report contained eleven recommendations, the second of which was the establishment of the FLO. Secretary Vance responded positively to all of the recommendations. Of the FLO proposal, he wrote: “The concept is a good one and I support it…I believe that we should establish FLO or its equivalent with all deliberate speed.” That, of course, was what we had been waiting to hear.

FLO Inauguration: On the morning of March 1st, 1978, the Family Liaison Office was officially opened by Secretary of State and Mrs. Vance, who also strongly supported the new office. In addition to many employees, the ceremony was attended by the Under Secretary for Management, the Director General of the Foreign Service and senior representatives of the various bureaus. Janet Lloyd was introduced as the first FLO Director and I as the first Deputy Director. In his opening remarks, the Secretary complimented the FORUM for the quality of the initial Report, and reiterated his conviction that the Office would be an invaluable asset to our Department efforts to be responsive to the needs and concerns of the Foreign Service Family. He went on to say that the FLO would be “a central clearing house to which and from which information [would] flow between Foreign Service families and the State Department on all matters related to the family and family life in the Foreign Service.”

Also present were representatives from the Hill, other government agencies, the military, and a number of embassies. The opening received good press coverage, including from the Washington Post (3/2/78, page B3) in which Donnie Radcliffe commented that in a bureaucracy, it was a minor miracle that it had taken only a year from presentation of the report to the Secretary in March of 1977 to the opening of the office one year later. Because of the early publicity, the Office soon started to receive visits from other USG institutions as well as from embassies, all of whom were considering opening a similar office in their respective organizations.

Survival of the FLO: Early on, there were many challenges, not the least of which was survival. We had the solid backing of the Secretary and other members of senior management. However, in some quarters the FLO was regarded with hostility, condescension and suspicion. Some Personnel and Administrative Officers had been told that the FLO was established because they were doing a poor job. This was inaccurate, and I spent a considerable amount of time explaining to those employees why the Office had been created.

Some comments were condescending. Critics questioned whether the “little ladies” were capable of professional standards and commitment. Others dismissed us as bored housewives. It was through these minefields that we took our first steps. We endeavored to be as impeccable as possible, fully aware that any false step would be held up by someone as an indication of our incompetence. In the late 1980s, the FLO narrowly escaped being closed due to budgetary considerations.

First Steps: Literally from the moment the doors opened, the phone started to ring. Early on, a FLO/CLO (Community Liaison Office) mentality began to emerge. It was characterized by: (1) the will to safeguard and improve the quality of Foreign Service life; (2) a concern to provide people with individual non-bureaucratic support; (3) the patience and tenacity to advocate for change; and (4) a sense of outrage in the face of situations, policies or regulations which seemed unfair.

It is striking to note that even at the very beginning, most of the current FLO’s specialized functions existed in embryonic form. (Two comparatively recent exceptions are problems arising from unaccompanied posts, where family members are limited or not authorized, and the complexities of establishing a worldwide digital presence.) Almost immediately, it was apparent that the FLO was an idea whose time had come. Before the FLO was even two years old, the Under Secretary for Management wrote: “The Liaison Office has now become such an accepted part of our overall operations…that it is hard to realize that you have been operating less than two years.” The Director and I responded to questions about education for children and employment for spouses. Our first bilateral employment agreement was negotiated with Canada. In accordance with the AAFSW FORUM Report, we worked to establish pilot FLOs overseas (which then became CLOs) and to provide support for the new offices in the form of “FLO Guidelines,” suggesting what they might do and what information they should have available for their respective communities. When we dealt with the Department’s first big evacuation (some 400 evacuees from Islamabad), we also started to define the Department’s and our respective roles in evacuations. Providing support and information for divorced spouses was a very sensitive and difficult undertaking from the beginning. We also dealt with U.S. immigration officials on behalf of foreign-born spouses. In addition, we produced a number of widely used documents, including the “FLO Update” which later became the ”FLO Focus.” We also were involved in producing the “Washington Assignment Notebook.” To be able to respond to an ever-increasing number of inquiries, we expanded the staff to include an Employment Counselor at the end of 1978 and an Education Counselor at the beginning of 1979. Early on, other positions were added—someone to administer the CLO program and someone to provide assistance in times of emergency, such as an evacuation or a personal problem.

Precedents Set by CLOs: The CLOs overseas also set precedents. In 1981, as the Bonn CLO, I travelled to Moscow, St. Petersburg (then Leningrad), Sofia, Warsaw, Bern and later Brussels to inform people about the new office. It was the first time anyone had travelled to multiple posts to discuss only non-professional “family friendly” issues. Some post officials were not enthusiastic. In 1982, still as the Bonn CLO, I cooperated with the FLO Director to organize the very first CLO Regional Conference, which brought together in Bonn representatives from Belgrade, Sofia, Moscow, Warsaw and Budapest—all Iron Curtain CLOs. They regularly worked under great pressure at their respective posts, and it was enormously useful to bring them out to talk together about their special concerns. A little later, in 1994, as the Brussels CLO, I helped the CLO position come of age, when I was awarded the Department of State Superior Honor Award by the Bureau of European Affairs. Until then, most Superior Honor Awards had been awarded to FSOs, and never to a CLO.

FLO Now: From these very modest beginnings, the FLO has become a veritable State Department institution, which is recognized by many other U.S. Government agencies for the crucial support it provides to our Foreign Service Community, both in the U.S. and overseas. The size of the FLO operation has increased significantly; whereas the original FLO started with two staff members, there are now 26 when the FLO is fully staffed. This is not a case of bureaucratic bloat. Rather, the FLO has had to expand to meet ever-increasing demands for advocacy, programs, service and support. FLO’s main areas of interest are summarized below:

(1) The Community Liaison Office (CLO) Program has increased from a handful of CLOs to more than 225 at posts worldwide, staffed by some 270 employees who are supported by three staff members in Washington.

(2) Family Member Employment has become infinitely more complicated and the staff of the Employment Program now numbers six. People who are job searching need to know about the Global Employment Initiative (GEI), whose advisors assist 5000 family members annually; the Expanded Professional Associates Program (EPAP), which offers 400 Foreign Service entry-level equivalent positions used to fill in staffing gaps and other needs; and the Professional Development Fellowships, which assist recipients in defraying some of the costs of training and other professional development activities.

(3) The Education and Youth Program has two specialists who annually provide some 1300 families with information about schooling options, allowances or children with special needs.

(4) Crisis Management and Support Services: This team of two staff members provides guidance and assistance to employees, family members and CLOs dealing with personal preparedness, sudden departure from post due to an evacuation or other sudden departure, or personal concerns such as marriage, divorce or elder care. During a recent five-year period, FLO supported more than 50 evacuations, evidence of a great increase in the number of evacuations. In one year, they recently provided preparedness briefings to 2400 employees.

(5) Unaccompanied Tours Support: Unaccompanied tours have always existed, but never as frequently as now. At any given time, between 15 and 20 posts are described as having “unaccompanied status” or “limited accompanied status.” In a recent year, FLO briefed more than 1,000 Foreign Service employees on resources available during an unaccompanied tour.

(6) Expeditious Naturalization: FLO acts as liaison with the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in expediting naturalization for foreign-born Department of State spouses. Since 2006, more than 1,000 foreign-born Department of State spouses have been successfully naturalized.

(7) Reaching the Foreign Service Community: FLO’s website, state.gov/flo, attracts more than 350,000 visitors each year. To sustain this extensive digital presence, there are two Communication and Outreach Specialists. There is also a slot for a Social Media Specialist and for two Data Management Specialists. A look at FLO’s “A to Z Site Map” illustrates dramatically the variety and depth of information available.

In Conclusion: The evolution of the FLO to its current capacity has been the achievement of several generations of FLO employees. Each generation has expanded and improved upon the work of earlier colleagues. All have shared the commitment to safeguard and improve our Foreign Service existence.

AAFSW extends gratitude and admiration to the FLO and to the CLOs for the immeasurable support they have provided to the Foreign Service Community during the past 40 years. We congratulate you and look forward to celebrate FLO’s first half century of making a world of difference.

Mette Beecroft – AAFSW
First Deputy Director, Family Liaison Office