Peace Corps’ Enigmatic Five-Year Rule: Updating the ‘In-Up-Out’ Myth

by W.M. Evensen ( Peru 1964-66)

Long ago I decided to make the cross-country trip to attend Peace Corps’ Fiftieth Birthday Party. I wanted to revisit the heroic beginnings, marvel at Peace Corps’ low-cost accomplishments, the indigenous leaders discovered, the NGOs invented. As it turned out, I found out some modern day things about the Peace Corps that left me bummed and bewildered.

My trip to the 50th ended up shattering my most cherished Peace Corps belief: Sargent Shriver’s clever answer to bureaucratic Alzheimer’s, his legendary ‘In-Up-Out’ Five Year Rule, that limited staff to five years service. Because of Shriver’s trenchant ‘In-Up-Out’ Five Year Rule, bureaucratic careerism would not hamper the Peace Corps. Instead, the Agency would be re-born, again and again, by the hiring of newly returned PCVs - the ‘Up’ element: the best of the best - to run a forever young agency.

Shriver knew plenty about bureaucracy from his years of working with the Illinois Board of Education and of running Joe Kennedy’s gargantuan Chicago Merchandising Mart (Guinness Book of Records: World’s Largest Office Building). He knew bureaucracy could kill any innovation no matter what good it proposed.

Shriver’s radical personnel policy would keep the Peace Corps agency administratively on its toes, as its leadership recycled every five years. Washington’s standing bureaucracies, however, hated the idea of a separate bureaucracy and limits on years of continuous service. But in Shriver’s mind, that was exactly what was needed to protect this important foreign policy initiative of President Kennedy’s emerging peace agenda.

RPCVs should know, despite its glorious reputation, Shriver’s brilliant idea is now on the chopping block; and what’s going to replace, what many thought was Shriver’s greatest contribution to modern society, depends largely on RPCVs. Let me explain.

Before getting to the D.C. Celebration I wanted to know why the Peace Corps had come to this deplorable questioning of a core tenet of Peace Corps life - The Five Year Rule. After a year of probing I’ve discovered two disturbing facts. First, the legendary ‘In-Up-Out’ Five Year Policy has never been in effect. When the idea was written into law in Sept. 1965, the ‘Up’ element - hiring of the best RPCVs - was nixed by President Johnson’s bureaucratic advisors. There would be no special hiring preference for Peace Corps Volunteer service, the policy was just an ‘In’ and ‘Out’ term limit.

Secondly, Five Years was never supposed to be the limit. Its originator, Dr. Robert Textor, recommended eight years to Franklin Williams, Peace Corp’s Administrative Officer, who acting as Chairman, Plan to Keep Peace Corps Permanently Young, Creative, and Dynamic, recommended the ‘Out’ limit be 6-to-8 years. Somehow, translating the idea into law, five became the magic number - number of years of continuous service and corresponding number of years they must absent themselves from the agency.

No wonder the Five Year Rule is on the block. The idea was gutted and truncated at birth. But what authorities have proposed to correct these two problems, and how they have been going about achieving their objectives, is what caused me, a Venice Beach activist, to get involved.

If you are going to become involved in this brouhaha, you need to read two source documents:  1. Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps  © 1965 by Dr. Robert Textor Appendix III origin of ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy, website; & 2. Peace Corps Agency Assessment (PCAA): Five Year Rule Chapter (FYR), conducted by a Consultant Team (CT), appeared on Peace website Summer 2010.

Recounting how I came to discover these two disturbing facts will lead you to the key players and to how they regard this innovative personnel policy. This story of discovery will bring you up-to-date with a review of the 50th. What you decide to do will define what happens to this revolutionary innovation, as it turns out, long waiting to be proven. As you will soon note, I am an advocate for an Exception-less ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy.

As I prepared for the journey I learned more about the Five Year Rule than I ever intended to know. Core truths of the Peace Corps are supposed to be simple and enduring, not something you micro manage. Yet that is what I learned Peace Corps management has been forced to do over the decades - seeking Exceptions to a Five Year Rule that was never supposed to be Five. Even crazier, the absence of an ‘Up’ element, hiring of the best RPCVs, excised from Shriver’s bill in 1965, is the obvious cause of so many of Peace Corps management’s modern day problems.

The agency was having so difficult a time that in 2009 Congress ordered the Peace Corps to conduct an Agency Assessment. Summer of 2010 the Peace Corps Agency Assessment (PCAA) PDF appeared on the Peace website. In that lengthy document an entire chapter was devoted to the Five Year Rule (FYR) and its proposed Recommendations. 

Over the decades, I developed an aversion to reading these types of faux research reports, so I only perused the FYR chapter when it first came out. I did note that there were Exceptions galore. During the Naught Decade of the 21st Century these Exceptions grew and some, like HCN (Host Country Nationals) and Security Officers, were given unlimited Exceptions.

Pretty risqué. Much of my law enforcement experience comes from training police officers for California’s Peace Officers Standards & Training Commission (POST). San Diego’s senior officers felt that failing to rotate officers from sensitive postings could result in corrupting influences gaining hold.

Proposing more Exceptions as a solution to Peace Corps’ problems with the Five Year Rule made me wary of spending too much time reading the PCAA analyses. I was happy that I was too busy to read the FYR chapter with a fine-tooth comb.

When Sargent Shriver passed away in January 2011, panic set in. I submitted an Op-Ed piece to several newspapers about the proposed changes coming to Shriver’s fabled Five Year Rule and how the Rule should be saved and used for improving overall federal bureaucratic effectiveness. No one bit at my bait. 

In March I tried to interest John Coyne in urging people to read the PCAA, as offensive as I found it. John bounced me to Stanford University Professor Emeritus Robert Textor who pointed me to the website to read his 1965 book, “Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps” especially Appendix III that speaks to the origin of the ‘In-Up-Out’ Rule, which Peace Corps historians have credited him with formulating.

Over the next two months Dr. Textor and I spoke on the phone many hours, covering every aspect of the Rule. The first thing I learned was that in Dec. 1961 he recommended the ‘Out’ limit be eight years. Later in ‘65, Peace Corps Administrative Officer Franklin Williams recommended to Shriver that the ‘Out’ limit be 6-8 years. How it became a five-year limit remains a mystery. Technically, Peace Corps’ ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy was designed to recruit the best RPCVs (’Up’ element) to work as staff, replacing those who had run their 6-8 year gamut (’Out’ limit).

By the time May rolled around, I forced myself to read the PCAA chapter on the FYR, but nothing else. It was both good and bad. Seeing that I was alone with my criticisms, I wrote the Peace Corps Director and complained about the Consultant Team (CT), their flawed research design and inadequate survey data to buttress their claims. I didn’t realize at the time, because I didn’t read the Opening, the CT had been appointed by the Director. None the wiser, I urged him to ignore their work and to initiate a real scientific study of the FYR. The Director acknowledged receipt of my letter with a one-liner.

Like any other RPCV who only comes to town every two or three decades, I did not like criticizing the Peace Corps, but the study the CT conducted was bogus in that it did not address the Peace Corp’s failure to focus on RPCVs. How could they study the effect the FYR had on management if they didn’t compare RPCV staff with non-Peace Corps staff, who, the CT said, were having problems enjoying certain DC administrative jobs.

The CT did an excellent job in outlining the benefits of the Five Yea Rule but then shot itself in the foot saying, “If this were our business, we wouldn’t run it with a Five Year Rule.”

Of course, the Peace Corps is not a business. It is a public service, a government-financed non-partisan process for delivering & supporting peace-minded U.S. citizens who have volunteered for a two-year overseas assignment working with impoverished people for mutual problem-solving/educational purposes. In this fragile on-the-ground relationship, the Agency must stay fresh and relevant.

After sending the Director my May 5th letter, an RPCV archivist of Peace Corps history, told me where the CT’s membership was listed in the PCAA. After I read who the CT members were, I re-read the Chapter on the FYR and diligently combed over every fn.

On June 6, I wrote the Director and corrected my mistake about not knowing the CT members included RPCVs. I had re-written my May complaints into a new memo of 16 Questions, citing relevant PCAA page numbers to assist the Inspector General in answering them. Again, I begged the Director to conduct a professional study of the FYR.

Fighting real estate developers in Venice, California and reading their consultants’ overstuffed Environmental Impact Reports (EIR) prepared me for the hubris of the PCAA’s take on the Five Year Rule. By the end of their analysis, the CT threw caution to the wind, acting as if no one would contest their blithe Is this any way to run a business analogy, and boldly recommended “more Exceptions” to cure Peace Corps Washington’s employee retention problems with boring jobs.  It seemed like a no-brainer to recruit PCVs, who had been living in the bush for two years, to come to Washington for a year or two as they readjust to civilization. But only once did the CT breakout RPCV vs. non-PCV staff data.

Before boarding Amtrak’s Southwest Chief, the RPCV archivist informed me that in Sept. 1965, when the Peace Corps law was signed, Peace Corps Volunteers were NOT given preference in staff hiring. They were not to be recruited, which would amount to preferential treatment. I could not conceive of what that meant operationally until I was in DC and learned one night that U.S. Marine veterans were now recruiting Peace Corps Volunteers.

I decided that when I got to the Celebration I wouldn’t wear an ID badge, only my chullo. Two months after writing my 16 Questions to the Director and to the Peace Corps’s Inspector General, I had no reply. Why wasn’t I surprised?  I’ve been on the point of a lance before, a solo act with a great view of the action.

Peace Corps taught me early on that if you want to know what people really think, ask them their opinions while they’re inside their homes. Whenever traveling I try to live with locals, instead of hotel personnel. In DC I found some RPCVs, recently returned from service, who loaned me their sofa bed.

On Sept. 22nd after a stupendously successful Advocacy Event on Capitol Hill - something like 700 RPCVs knocked on their Representatives doors - I went to the Kennedy Caucus Room where NPCA was holding a Reception for RPCVs. Suddenly, I found myself face-to-face with NPCA President Kevin Quigley, who received a copy of my May & June letters to Director Williams, and who did not reply to either one.

Feeling like a social pariah, I reluctantly introduced myself, “I’m Grumpy, the guy from Southern Cal who’s worried about the fate of the Five Year Rule.” To wit, President Quigley replied, “You should know, Peace Corps is going to re-study the Five Year Rule.”

It was like hearing a jury pronounce you Not Guilty. I was thrilled and went out and hobnobbed at the Black Rooster with old-time RPCVs. Later that evening an RPCV from DC told me that a 10 year U.S. Marine veteran ran Los Angeles’ Peace Corps recruitment operation.

I couldn’t believe it. How could a veteran Marine understand a PCV’s motivation any more than I could understand the motivation behind wanting to know how to kill with a gun, kill with a knife, and to kill with my bare hands? You know, simultaneously sticking thumbs into eye sockets till they pop.

There are different core motivations ruling the two choices of war and peace, different heroic standards. When asked by a PCV prospect, ‘How did you get through the rough spots? Did the Marine tell him that he took his AK-47 outside and blew off a few hundred rounds; or that he and his bros left a big tip at the cat house to prove how generous Marines were to locals?

Before applying to the Peace Corps in ‘63, I had already served in the U.S. military. So I was excited to confirm President Quigley’s news with Director Williams and ask him face-to-face why Marines were needed to recruit Peace Corps Volunteers?

I first met Director Aaron Williams in March 2011 at UCLA’s 50th Peace Corps Anniversary Celebration. When he passed by the Peru booth, I suggested that the Peace Corps actively attempt to takeover the “Peace Corps-type work,” that military strategist and author Bing West complained, “the military was forced to do.”

The Director looked down at me wearing my chullo and smiled. We chatted momentarily about The New Yorker’s new military writer Dexter Filkins and, then, he moved on to Bolivia.

Now, in the early afternoon of Sept. 23rd I had the Director in my site. After participating in an engaging panel, he swiftly departed the Sam Farr “Soft Power’ film showing at the Capitol’s underground tourist facility. I waited outside the door. As he swooshed by I hollered, “KQ said there was going to be a study of the Five Year Rule”; and he responded, “Yes, we’re looking at things now.”

I couldn’t resist, “Tell me, sir, how does a ten year Marine veteran get to run a major recruitment office for Peace Corps Volunteers?

To wit, our tall and able leader literally danced away. Doing a looping 360, he dropped his answer into an imaginary hoop, and responded with a smile, “Because he’s qualified.”  Wherein he stepped into a waiting government SUV that disappeared into the afternoon rain.

I was bewildered. Admittedly, the Director is a very agile player. I admire him for his long and illustrious public service career. But as he drove away, I had this foreboding sense that something monumental was afoot. The Inspector General (IG) had been ordered by Congress to examine Peace Corps management issues and the sacred Five Year Rule. How would the IG study be conducted? Would there be an unwritten agenda as there was with the PCAA study of the FYR?

As I said before, I didn’t read any other parts of the PCAA. Late in life you have to discriminate as to what you’re going to read or you’ll be dead before you know it and all you ended up doing was reading a big study whose end was to justify pre-ordained decisions. Like, more Exceptions.

Granted, I learned about these Exceptions by reading the PCAA’s chapter on the FYR, which anyone can do from home. But by going to the 50th Celebration I learned from the Director and the NPCA President that the Peace Corps is officially re-studying the Five Year Rule. Moreover, I learned Marine veterans were now staffing the Peace Corps.

The 50th Celebration was an exhilarating experience - especially drinking pisco sours and dancing the huayno with fellow PCVs. Even a Peruvian secretary from The Sixties attended the Peruvian Embassy’ Reception! Former President, Dr. Alejandro Toledo, one of Peace Corps Peru’s gran exitos, gave an emotional speech expressing why Peace Corps Volunteers were more important to the 3rd World than the Internet. Sunday, marching with thousands of RPCVs, proudly carrying their Host Country flags and dressed in colorful indigenous costumes, was a grand participatory event, exemplifying what PCVs have done for our country.

I decided to let all these new developments sink in while I took a circuitous route home, traveling coast-to-coast in an almost-horizontal recliner seat. On the final night of my 17 day journey, the romantic dreams of Peace Corps’ past kept being disrupted by the modern day image of a Marine Corps veteran recruiting potential PCVs. Eventually this oxymoronic vision brought me to a hard-to-ignore realization. The ten-year Marine veteran was “qualified” because there was no requirement for Peace Corps staff to have successful served as a PCV.

No wonder, the PCAA’s CT did NOT examine the difference between RPCV and non-PCV staff; they’re all in the same bureaucracy. RPCVs couldn’t be recruited, which was inconceivable to me. Obviously the experiential difference between the two is the source of many of Washington’s management problems that the CT wants to correct by making new Exceptions.

In retrospect, it is miraculous that the Peace Corps was able to survive 50 years, even though successful PCV service was NOT a requirement for Peace Corps staff, political appointees excepted. Without an ‘Up’ element, the Peace Corps’ FYR was only a term limit without any of its originally intended benefits.

The Peace Corps was definitely in a jam. The choice was either make more Exceptions or, as I suggest, re-invent ourselves. Knowing the authorities were proposing the route of Exceptions, I wrote the Director (10 15 11), congratulated him on his decision to study the ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy, and, then, I cut to the chase, and urged him to make RPCV service a requirement for staff a bottom-line issue. This would allow the Peace Corps to recruit RPCVs and, hopefully, prevent the growing use of Exceptions to the Rule, especially those Security Officer Exceptions that have serious unintended consequences, i.e. PCV Kathy Pusey’s murder.

I told the Director these management anomalies actually inhibit, if not destroy, attempts to cultivate an esprit de corps, which is essential for an ‘In-Up-Out Rule’ to succeed. In short, I urged him to roll back the regulatory clock to 1965 and do what Shriver couldn’t do and make 24 months of PCV service a requirement for staff.

Requiring staff to have successfully served as a PCV will enhance all operations. I reasoned it’s the same type of leadership requirement as in the Marine Corps; their boot camp is 12-16 weeks; Peace Corps Volunteers serve 24 months. These should be the minimum requirements to become a non-commissioned officer of their respective Corps. If you can’t complete the minimum requirement, you have no right managing Marines or PCVs. Without boot camp under your belt, you cannot lead the Marines.

By its nature, a non-partisan volunteer-based agency devoted to peace-making should have minimums for years of continuous service, especially when you consider 85% of PCVs never served in any other branch of the government (PCAA). Who knows how many of these RPCVs could fill senior Peace Corps staff positions? Some PCVs have been presidents in their public service worlds. Some have created substantial positive bureaucratic change. This reservoir of RPCV talent is a tremendous, albeit under-utilized, resource that Peace Corps management needs to access before adding more Exceptions.

I speculated that to win Congressional approval of this proposed rollback, Peace Corps would need to scientifically evaluate the Shriver/Textor/Williams ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy once and for all and, thereby, end ruling by Exception and its slow death of a thousand cuts. Offering Congress an ongoing evaluation of the process with the prospect that an ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy might work in other federal agencies could generate wider support in Congress, as well as on Main Street.

I concluded with the belief that five years was not the magic number and that he needed to examine Dr. Textor’s work to decide what is the best ‘Out’ limit, 5, 6, 7, or 8 years?

First week of November I received a letter from Director Williams. In the business of social change correspondence, it was a multi-paragraph letter of substance. The Director was specific. He was taking a “second look” at the Five Year Rule, and he planned to examine Dr. Textor’s book, “Cultural Frontiers of the Peace Corps” which includes Appendix III: ‘In-Up-Out’ Rule.

From my perspective, as the lone wolf in this dust up, once I realized the ‘Up” element - hiring the best PCVs - had never been in effect, it meant a whole new ballgame. More creative options could be put into play to solve the problem(s). Shriver’s ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy had never been tested. Maybe now’s the time?

Why the ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy was never fully put into effect is a matter for historians to settle. I know by 1965 the federal budget bureaucracy (PPBS) had already re-focused Peace Corps objectives in Latin America. By September ‘65, Shriver’s brother-in-law had long been absent from the WH. Bobby was now a U.S. Senator, not the Attorney General. Sarge had to move on, with or without the centerpiece of his Policy. Still, he knew a Five Year term limit would create a whole new mindset and its own benefits.

At this crucial juncture in the first century of a U.S. Peace Corps, half past - half future, I enthusiastically answered the Director’s 11 02 11 letter, complimented him, and urged him again to make 24 months of successful Peace Corps service a staff requirement and thereby allow the esprit de corps to have a nurturing effect on the health of the Agency. In return, the Peace Corps had to change the ‘Out’ element from 5 years to 6, 7 or 8. Before that number was picked, Peace Corps needed to consult with Dr. Textor’s documents on the website and with him. To facilitate the Director’s “second look,” I enclosed Dr. Textor’s phone number.

I even took the perverse position that if the rollback didn’t happen, and Peace Corps was forced to accept a world of Exceptions, that he should hunker down and take the position that the esprit de corps was more important and that he’d fight to eliminate the embarrassment of endless Exceptions to an obviously neutered innovation

In closing my 11 17 11 letter I felt that for the Peace Corps to win Congressional approval for such a grandiose renewal, the ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy needed to be accompanied by a detailed research & evaluation component focused on identifying immediate problems and, ultimately, on deciding whether the ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy holds value for the agency and, possibly, for other branches of government.

As of November 2nd, the Director has said he’s amendable to taking a “second look” at what is the clearest explanation of the ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy and its benefits. That is a big window of opportunity that will soon close.

Maybe you have an experience or an idea related to the current ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy review that you’d like to share? Now is the time to make an impact on deciding in what form this radical Peace Corps innovation will survive the next fifty years.

Read the Textor FYR materials on Stanford’s website. Then, on the Peace site. Read  the PCAA’s Chapter on the FYR and their Recommendations; then read the Inspector General’s Report due early 2012.

You should also know that on Oct. 6, 2011 Peace Corps Inspector General Kathy Buller testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Sub Committee, (Peace website). In my opinion, her testimony did NOT focus on any of the beneficial reasons for an ‘In-Up-Out’ Policy but only on how the Peace Corps’ FYR impedes the standard bureaucratic way of doing business.

Once you’ve done this background reading - and assuming you’ve earned some ribbons battling bureaucracies and that you understand Shriver’s motivation for creating a separate bureaucratic world for the Peace Corps - you should get involved and inform the Director of your input, the more specific, the better.

Check out also the Congressional Committees that are ruminating over the Peace Corps’ future. Who knows, your Representative might be sitting on a relevant Committee, like mine is.

In the last two years, the Director’s position on making PCV service a requirement for staff has moved from not being interested in 2009 to “taking a second look.” If you like the ‘In-Up-Out Policy’, this “second look” by the Director may be the only battleground ever for this unique Peace Corps-specific innovation. It is time to update the myth. It’s your call.

William M. Evensen, former railroad switchman and UCLA Political Science. graduate, served in Peru as a community development worker (1964-66). As Associate Director of UCLA’s experiment to engage poverty communities in problem solving, he also earned an MA in Community Development (1968-73). Since then William has, as Constitutional Capers (1976), been an activist, satirist, researcher, writer, and publisher.


His story about Peace Corps Vacation appears in 50 Years of Amazing Peace Corps Stories Vol. 2: ‘Amazon Jungle Walking Tour’ (2011). Currently, he’s working on two books: 1) his memoir of a working class activist and 2) biography of Abbot Kinney, Venice Cal’s founder, a Progressive Capitalist and Social Activist.