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Holding the Pen September 1, 2010

Posted by KG in FS Life, State.

There’s a lot of material out there about the specialized vocabulary of the State Department (see, as one example, EFM’d).  Though I contend its no different than the internal language of military folks, engineers, musicians, or kindergartners, it is pretty entertaining to utter a sentence amongst a group of colleagues and then realize that what you said contained English pronouns, English conjunctions, and a bunch of acronyms and jargon.  No surprise then that people like to write about StateDepartmentese, especially when you’re plunged in headfirst during A-100.

Our processes  — the slow, challenging, and sometimes frustrating bureaucratic movements that color most of our daily actions — are also aired on occasion, usually through the lens of paperwork management, the joys of ConGen, or trying to pack out or get travel orders.  As a daily part of life that’s also not a surprise. 

On September 6, I hit the five-year mark with the Service, as do my wife and about 90 of our A-100 colleagues.  And after five years I’m hitting a cognitive milestone as well — understanding the “whys” behind the jargon and the processes.  Part of me feels like its Stockholm Syndrome, having been in so long the outside world doesn’t make sense.  That’s a negative portrayal; a more kind one would be that the tough lessons from working (and failing!) in the system are finally getting internalized.

Explaining the jargon is the easy part.  We’re a culture as much as anything else, and our language is designed to keep things concise, without repeating the same old long constructions over and over again.  Telcon, septel, EER, SCIF, the acronyms of our bureaus, the acronyms of our neighbors.  All shortened to facilitate rapid communication, once you’re fully indoctrinated.

The processes are a little harded to explain, but here’s one example.  For months I’ve been wondering why I was putting my extension next to my name when drafting a paper.  It seemed like an odd requirement.  Surely the clearers could look me up in our global address system, right?  Wrong. 

Working on an active desk in an extremely busy bureau has given me a real appreciation for exactly how busy management can be.  Many of my high-level superiors have no time to log on to their computers, let alone look up an address.  They do their clearing on paper, and if they have a question, a phone is way faster than email.  Hence the phone number.  Its helpful to be called directly by a superior or lateral colleague who can walk me through edits he/she wants, or add in issues I didn’t think of because my experience is so limited.

That begs the question: why clear in the first place?  You worked hard on that paper, you stayed late, you agonized over paragraphs.  And you have an advanced degree!  And now your painstakingly crafted words have been struck through in multiple colors, gone as fast as you can click “accept all changes in document.”  Boy does that burn. 

Another hard lesson learned.  When I’m working on taskers, I’m not the author.  In our peculiar lexicon, I’m not even the writer — I’m the drafter.  The best euphemism I’ve heard to describe it is that when you’re the drafter, you “hold the pen.”  The semantic/symbolic breakdown of that phrase is illuminating.  You’re holding the tool for constructing the Department’s documents.  The writer of the paper is the Department, not you — you are making the writing happen.  The thoughts in those documents aren’t supposed to be yours, they’re precisely supposed to be collective.   The clearance process has it’s drawbacks, but it also plays an important purpose in getting things done right.

I don’t deny that there are processes in our building that scream for innovation, or irk to the point of distraction, or are outdated reminders of the days before computers and internet.  But as days go on it’s heartening to realize that sometimes there are reasons behind everything, ones not readily apparent but there to keep the wheels of the business turning.  Institutions, especially ones as old as our nation, are built as much on processes and habit as they are on product. 

This post dedicated to my two fans on the seventh floor who have jobs that are as process as can be.  You know who you are.



1. L - September 3, 2010

Yes we do!

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