January 8, 2019

Q&A with former Ambassador Karl Hofmann: “Shutdowns have all the impact overseas you would expect: confusion, demotivation, and waste”

By Jennie Bragg

As the partial government shutdown extends into its third week, federal agencies – including the State Department and USAID – are feeling the very real effects of the furloughs. And with the consequences of a prolonged shutdown still unclear, Ambassador Karl Hofmann, former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of Togo and a career diplomat, explains how the ongoing shutdown is impacting America’s diplomatic and development capabilities right now.

With the government shut down, what’s happening in our embassies and consulates around the world?

Hofmann: First and foremost, shutdowns have all the impact overseas you would expect: confusion, demotivation, and waste.

While U.S. embassies, consulates, and missions remain open and operational, many employees at the State Department, USAID, and other development agencies have had to cease working until the shutdown ends.

During my 24 years at the State Department, I don’t remember being overseas during a shutdown.  But I certainly do remember being in Washington and preparing for them.  In one case, hundreds of State Department employees of one bureau would have been sent home and only two people would have remained on the job. This was considered a “model” plan but obviously it would have crippled U.S. diplomacy if the shutdown in question had gone on indefinitely.

In another case, I was a student at the National War College – all of the civilians were sent home for the shutdown, but the military students remained!  We all had to run to catch up on our coursework when we were allowed back to school.

In your mind, who is essential and who is non-essential at our embassies? 

Hofmann: Everyone is essential, otherwise they wouldn’t be there.  It is not cheap and certainly not without risk to put Americans at work in embassies and diplomatic establishments overseas.  We do it because American interests and values require us to do it.

There is no job more important to an embassy overseas than protecting American citizens in that country, and at the State Department, USAID, and our embassies, most employees are considered essential – meaning they continue to report to work during a shutdown. However, as the shutdown goes on and funding begins to run dry, additional diplomatic and development personnel could face furloughs. 

In terms of ongoing funding for humanitarian and development assistance, do you have any major concerns?

Hofmann: So far, humanitarian assistance and development assistance in general has been relatively unaffected by this shutdown, but that is likely to change.  The holidays are usually a period of slower activity (except in humanitarian emergencies of course – think of the 2004 tsunami, which occurred over the holidays and elicited a massive U.S. Government response).

But now that work should be ramping up, and the absence of USAID officers who need to give instructions, approve workplans, or authorize travel will increasingly be felt.  Development work is often hard and slow – but also urgent.  Anything that disrupts this vital enterprise only hurts American interests in the long run – because our interests are best served when increasingly stable countries can faithfully address their own citizens’ needs.  Why would we want to get in the way of that?

What do you think morale is like for most U.S. government employees working (or not working) around the world?

Hofmann: People who work for the U.S. government do so because they believe in public service. Those overseas have an added sense of commitment – because they are expatriating themselves, taking themselves far away from family and friends for years at a time.  In my case, my kids never got to grow up knowing their cousins, because we were away in Africa while my kids were young.  And our family endured years of anti-malaria preventative measures (daily drugs).  To me that was part of our commitment to serve.

Shutdowns anywhere, but certainly overseas, erode our public servants’ sense of worth, and the trust that is the basis of their sense of duty.  The best leaders and managers are reassuring their more junior employees that this will pass; that this doesn’t reflect a devaluation of their sacrifices and hard work in sometimes dangerous conditions.  But this is time wasted, when the American people’s business should be getting done.  

If an American citizen runs into trouble overseas, what happens right now?

Hofmann: If an American runs into trouble overseas, the local embassy will do everything in its power to assist.  Regardless of whether the embassy is open for normal business or not.  I know because I’ve done that, and I know many colleagues who have bent over backwards to help distressed Americans abroad.

What about American citizens trying to get a passport or visitors seeking a visa? Has anything changed?

Hofmann: Because passport and visa services are fee-based, those services should be continuing as normal under this shutdown, including at embassies overseas – but of course travelers should double check with the embassy directly.