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 You are in: Bureaus/Offices Reporting Directly to the Secretary > Policy Planning Staff > Secretary's Open Forum > About the Open Forum > Dissent Channel


Historical Research Memorandum No. 1390, August 1983
By the Office of the Historian, Department of State

Secretaries Rusk and Rogers and the Search for Alternate Policy Ideas
Secretary of State Dean Rusk had a strong interest in stimulating new policy ideas in the Department. He revitalized the policy planning function by replacing the moribund Policy Planning Staff (S/P) with the Policy Planning Council (S/PC). He encouraged his Deputy Under Secretary for Management to jolt the Department forward by introducing new management concepts and tools. A variety of programs were introduced to stimulate officers of the Department and the Foreign Service including more opportunities for service in other agencies, expanding university training, and seminars in new areas of international affairs such as science, technology, and population growth. Secretary Rusk also granted official status for the Open Forum Panel as a channel of alternative foreign policy ideas to him.(1)

On his first day in office on January 22, 1969, Secretary of State Rogers assured the Department officers of his commitment to a receptive and open establishment where divergent ideas were fully and promptly passed on for decision.(2) Again on September 29 Secretary Rogers issued a special Department Notice reiterating the Open Forum's mandate for bringing ideas "and well-thought-out dissent" to his attention and other top officers where such ideas might not reach through regular channels.(3)

"Diplomacy for the Seventies" and Department Reform
In 1969 Secretary Rogers charged Deputy Under Secretary for Management Macomber with the preparation of a detailed management reform plan for the Department. Macomber created 13 task forces including 250 Foreign Service, Department, and AID officers. These task forces completed their work in the autumn of 1970. Their 600-page combined report, including more than 500 recommendations, was entitled "Diplomacy for the Seventies: A Program of Management Reform for the Department of State."(4)

Task Force VII on the Stimulation of Creativity urged as its first recommendation that Department's top leadership develop and sustain an active interest in stimulating creativity in the Department and the Foreign Service. The Task Force argued that creativity could not flourish in the Department unless channels existed for new ideas to move to the top. The Task Force found existing channels for transmitting new ideas to the Department's decisionmakers to be inadequate.

Task Force VII further recommended that "the Planning and Coordination Staff be empowered and directed to perform the adversary function for the Office of the Secretary." The Task Force considered whether either the Secretary's Open Forum Panel or the Bureau of Intelligence and Research could play a role in strengthening the adversary role in the Department. The Task Force decided that the Open Forum lacked bureaucratic authority and continuing access to decisionmakers while INR's mission of research and analysis and relationship with other agency intelligence groups were inconsistent with an adversary function. The Task Force concluded that the Policy and Coordination Staff was the organization already in existence and mandated by regulation to provide for and stimulate innovation and creativity. The Task Force recommended that regulations be revised to give S/PC full authority and responsibility for recommendations coming to the Secretary from subordinate levels in an adversary proceeding.(5)

As a result of the Task Force recommendations, the Department in February 1971 issued a new Section 101, "Policy of Openness in Post Management" to the Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM):

101 Policy of Openness in Post Management
"As a matter of general policy, the Chief of Mission, the Deputy Chief of Mission, and the Principal Officer of a consular post shall encourage and support the free exchange of ideas and criticism throughout the mission. Staff members are encouraged to make known their ideas and opinions on operations, management and all other activities of the post. Officers who may conclude, after carefully weighing all views, that they cannot concur in a report or recommendation are free to submit a dissenting statement without fear of pressure or penalty. Every effort, of course, should be made to resolve differences within the mission. The policy of openness is intended to encourage the candid debate which at times may be necessary to reach a consensus on issues within a mission without appeals to the Department."(6)

Formalizing a Dissent Channel
Further steps were soon taken by the Department to give substance to the adversarial process in the Department recommended by the Task Forces. A Management Reform Bulletin in July 1971 directed wide-ranging modifications in the methods and organization of the Secretarial level of the Department--the "Seventh Floor". One of the changes called for was the expansion of the Policy Coordination Staff to allow it to play an "adversary" role for the Department principals.(7)

In a circular telegram to all diplomatic and consular posts in November 1971, the Director General of the Foreign Service prescribed basic handling, distribution and captioning instructions for expressions of dissent. Specifically, the dissent messages were to be "EXDIS", "inhouse" documents whose distribution would be limited to Department principals, their staff, and the Assistant Secretary of the geographic bureau concerned.(8)

The Open Forum Panel took issue with the instructions on dissent communications set forth in the Department's circular telegram. In a November 23 memorandum to the Secretary, the Open Forum asked for an action office to be designated for dissent channel messages once they reached Washington. Otherwise there would be no guarantee of proper, discreet handling in the Department. The Open Forum requested the Secretary to designate the Open Forum Panel as the action office for handling dissent messages in view of the Panel's demonstrated ability since 1967 to handle expressions of dissent it a private and effective manner.(9)

Director General William O. Hall found merit in the Open Forum Panel's suggestion for designating an action officer for the staffing of dissent submissions from the field but did not see the panel as the appropriate mechanism. He instead recommended S/PC be so designated because it was a permanently staffed office.(10)

On the basis of the Director General's recommendation, Secretary Rogers designated the Policy Coordination Staff as the action office for dissent messages and approved the distribution of dissent messages to the Chairman of the Open Forum except in instances of high sensitivity.(11)

Responding to Criticisms of the Dissent Channel Mechanism
A New York Times article on November 21, 1971 reviewed recent Department actions to define a dissent channel message and portrayed them as Department efforts to thwart dissent or at least curtail it. The following day the Department Spokesman, Charles Bray, provided to the press a more detailed explanation and comment on the Department's new procedures for the dissent channel. Bray sought to correct the misleading interpretations conveyed by the New York Times article. He read the text of the November 3 circular telegram on dissent messages. Bray stressed that any Foreign Service Officer was free to dissent from Department policy recommendations, and the Department was obliged to provide full consideration for such dissent. The transcript of Mr. Bray's remarks, together with a copy of the Management Reform Bulletin No. 9 of February 23, 1971, were sent to Senator Fulbright on December 17, 1971 in response to the Senator's letter of inquiry regarding the New York Times article of November 21.(12)

Developing Procedures for Using the Dissent Channel
The detailed procedures for submitting dissent messages within the Department and from posts abroad were carefully set forth in a Departmental Notice of May 3, 1972. The procedures for handling dissent channel messages were described as follows:

"Dissent Channel messages and memoranda will be initially distributed only to the Secretary, the Director of the Planning and Coordination Staff (S/PC), and the Executive Secretary of the Department. Subsequent distribution will be made by the Director of Planning and Coordination, in consultation with the Secretary when appropriate, taking into consideration the message's sensitivity and the drafter's distribution desires. As indicated by State 60302, the Chairman of the Secretary's Open Forum Panel will receive a copy of dissent messages at this point, except when the Secretary personally decides the sensitivity of the message precludes such distribution. Normally, distribution will also be made to bureau offices with an interest.

"The Director of Planning and Coordination will assign an action officer on his staff to respond to the dissent message or memoranda. A prompt acknowledgement will be sent to the officer in the case of telegrams and airgrams, indicating the distribution given the message within the Department. A follow-up message will be sent to the officer by the S/PC action officer after the merits of the dissenting view have been considered in the appropriate forum. This message will indicate the final disposition of the incoming dissent message."(13)

In October 1973 Secretary of State Henry Kissinger reaffirmed his support for the dissent channel in a circular message to all diplomatic and consular posts:

"Free expression. I urge embassies, and officers within embassies who have differing views on major issues from those reported by their colleagues, to make them available to me in the special and controlled channels provided by the Department for that purpose. I expect that all officers in the Foreign Service and the Department will keep dissenting views in the channels provided for. We cannot operate the Government or the Department if dissent is taken to the press. I of course will look directly to the Ambassador for advice; but on fundamental questions I believe that dissenting views and opinions should be heard. This should help to produce a more open spirit of the kind I am trying to encourage between the Department and the Congress and the Department and the American public. If we cannot have it within the Department, we have little reason to expect it in our relations with the outside. Expression of differing views will of course be subject to the Ambassador's control; however, I will expect that when his views are submitted, opposing views and compromises will be noted as well."(14)

Following a discussion of the use of the dissent channel during an Open Forum meeting in 1974, the Department again issued a detailed description of the mechanism for in-house dissent on substantive foreign policy issues. Separate procedures were defined for State employees, for AID employees, and for ACDA employees.(15)

The Open Forum continued to monitor the dissent channel to ensure prompt and responsive replies to questions raised. By 1975 the channel seemed to have reached an annual use of 15 dissent messages. The Open Forum continued to feel that the messages, with few exceptions, were well thought out and responsible.(16)

1 Department of State Newsletter, August 1969, p.1.

2 Ibid, February 1969, p.1.

3 FAM Circular No. 539, October 14, 1969.

4 Published as Department of State Publication No. 8551 released December 1970.

5 Ibid, pp.319-321.

6 Announced to the Department in Management Reform Bulletin No. 9, February 23, 1971.

7 FAMC No. 24, July 6, 1971.

8 State telegram 201473, November 4, 1971.

9 Memorandum from The Secretary's Open Forum Panel, through Executive Secretary Theodore L. Eliot, Jr., to the Secretary (S/P files).

10 Memorandum from William O. Hall to the Secretary, December 10, 1971 (S/P files).

11 Memorandum from the Secretary to William I. Cargo, Director, S/PC, December 15, 1971 (S/P files). Memorandum from the Secretary to Charles H. Thomas, Chairman, Secretary's Open Forum Panel, December 15, 1971 (S/P files).

12 Letter from David Abshire to Senator Fulbright, December 17, 1971 (S/P files).

13 The text of the Department Notice was printed in the Department of State Newsletter, May 1972, p.12.

14 Circular State telegram 209503, October 24, 1973.

15 Department Notice, May 8, 1974. Department of State Newsletter, June 1974, pp.8-9. The procedures were subsequently included in the Foreign Affairs Manual as 6 FAM 212.30.

16 Raymond F. Smith, "A Review of the Open Forum Panel," Department of State Newsletter, August-September 1975, pp.18-18. Neil A. Boyer, "The Dissent Channel: Who's Using It?," Ibid, October 1976, pp.28-29.

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