A Worrisome Possibility: The Candidacy Of James Arena-DeRosa

I met David Searles back in the mid-nineties in PC/HQ. He had just written his book about the Peace Corps and was visiting the agency and come to see me as I was then editing Peace Corps Writers & Readers in those pre-internet years. David has had careers in international business, government service and education. He was with the Peace Corps for five  years, 1969-71–three years as the country director in the Philippines, and two years at headquarters as a Regional Director for North Africa, Near East, Asia, and Pacific (NANEAP), and as Deputy Director under John Dellenback. He went onto earn a Ph.D. from the University of Kentucky and published two books: A College For Appalachia (1995) and The Peace Corps Experience  (1997), both by The University Press of Kentucky. He lives now with his wife in Owensboro, Kentucky. David wrote me after seeing the news about the possible appointment of James Arena-DeRosa. Here is what he had to say:

The present candidacy of James Arena-DeRosa for the position of Peace Corps director raises some important issues concerning what this unique organization needs as it prepares for its second half-century of service to the world, to the United States and to the volunteers who carry out its mission.  The fact that he is currently a nine-year veteran of the agency almost by definition suggests that he is not the right person for the job of director.  The Peace Corps needs a constant inflow of new blood if it is to be successful.  That is why Sargent Shriver in his wisdom instituted the five-year rule nearly 50 years ago.

I should make it clear at the start that I do not know Mr. Arena-DeRosa and my comments are not directed at him personally; they are meant to address the overriding issue – or is it a principle – of the need for an ever renewing staff and administrative leadership.

When Shriver founded the Peace Corps, he incorporated a number of significant departures from prevailing organizational norms. None was more innovative than the personnel plan he called ‘in, up and out’. Later called the five-year rule, the plan required members of the management and administrative staff of the Peace Corps to leave after five years to make room for new people. The aim of this policy was to ensure that the Peace Corps was led by a staff that was constantly refreshed by new blood and to prevent the bureaucratic calcification that handicapped so many institutions.

One easily forgets just how dramatic a departure the five-year rule was. In the early 1960s the conventional wisdom said that a long-serving cadre of proven managers was key to organizational success. Corporations were led by company veterans who had worked for only one employer; the military depended on men who had dedicated their adult lives to the armed forces; academia and the church were no different. Even Congress, despite the requirement of regular elections, was led by members who measured their incumbencies in decades not years. In such a setting Shriver’s policy was not just innovative, it was tradition shattering.

Now, as during some other times in the Peace Corps’ existence, the five-year rule seems to be considered outmoded or unnecessary.  This is, in my opinion, bad policy, as is amply illustrated by what happened in the early 1970s.  On his arrival the third Peace Corps director, Joe Blatchford, discovered that many overseas staff, especially those serving as country directors, were well beyond their five-year limits.  Once he realized that the implementation of his ‘New Directions’ were being thwarted by these same folks, he vigorously enforced the five-year rule, sent dozens of staff members home, and brought in a new batch (me among them) who were not locked into an existing way of seeing and doing things.  The hew and cry from the ‘old-timers’ was awful to behold, but change happened.

Presently there is another somewhat worrying practice in the agency – worrying at least to those who support the spirit of the five-year rule.  Many former staff members having been away for a period equal to the time of their service – as permitted under the legislation – reappear on staff rolls. These men and women are dubbed by the first-time staff members as ‘retreads.’ One wonders if they also bring back the past, rather than look to the future.  (In this connection it is interesting to note that a New York Times crossword puzzle asked recently for a one-word definition of “hackneyed work based on an old idea.” The answer was ‘retread.’)

There is an immense satisfaction in serving on the Peace Corps staff – for me it was the best job I ever had.  A few years ago a departing staff member nailed it when he said in support of the five-year rule “otherwise we’d be tempted to hang on to those bountiful tits forever.”  Staff turnover in the Peace Corps is a blessing, not a curse.

It is easy to criticize the five-year rule: (1) There is precious little institutional memory; (2) Personal relationships between staff and host country are more tentative when the American half of the equation keeps changing; (3) The staff member who initiates a program is often gone when it is implemented; (4) Just when a staff member becomes familiar and comfortable with the language, customs, and conditions of service he or she leaves.   

But the advantages are even more important:

1. There is a constant influx of new ideas and a constant replenishment of the enthusiastic dedication to mission that is essential in the Peace Corps world.

2. The bureaucratic ossification that bedevils so many institutions is kept to a minimum. Nothing would so diminish the agency’s effectiveness as an ‘old corps’ mentality that sees the past as sacred.

3. Faced with the Herculean task of achieving – or at least contributing to – world peace, in time staff members encounter burnout just as do others in high stress positions. The constant influx of new, even ‘starry-eyed,’ newcomers maintains the level of enthusiasm and optimism essential to Peace Corps success.

4. The removal of inadequate staff members is assured. In any organization the best performers regularly receive or seek out opportunities to advance, satisfy ambitions, or replenish bank accounts. They move on; the mediocre remain and in time dominate.

On balance, the advantages of the five-year rule outweigh the disadvantages. This is especially true now that many staff positions are held by former volunteers. They bring with them two or three years of Peace Corps experience, which significantly shortens the learning curve. Add to this the possibility under existing legislation of a sixth year of service in special circumstances – and the presence of some retreads – and the agency’s need for stability is being met. But without regular staff turnover both abroad and in Washington, one can almost predict a gradual hardening of the bureaucratic arteries that will eventually make the Peace Corps another of those government entities that do not listen, are not responsive, and seemingly do not care. Prevent that outcome; keep the five-year rule; and extend the search for a new director to the largest pool of talent possible.

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  • Jody Olsen has been there for how long? She has how many waivers for the five year opportunity law and how did she get these. Was it the ‘classified’ excuse that has become popular or the fact that doctors have this rule waived permanently based on a need to be ‘classified?’

    We need to enforce the five year opportunity law for all employees, including the ‘volunteers.’ They should be treated equally and have the same options as the staff.

    Some points-

    The institutional memory was the excuse for the creation and funding of NPCA, morepeacecorps, etc. These are fully funded by the US government and they recently closed the fund that was supposed to make them self funding. We now have these and the cost how much? 5 million, ten million? They have no 5 year opportunity law?

    The ‘personal relationships’ at the agency are what are holding us back. We constantly have to deal with legacies from Kennedy or the democratic party that use PC and it’s agency status for jobs, money and a place to retire when they’re done. The five year opportunity law gets people work, like RPCVs. It also makes it less attractive to the political bureaucrats. Congress also doesn’t want and will always vote against any type of term limit, like five years. So, we’re up against these and a staff that wants the law changed. There is also legislation to waive the 8 year presidential term limit.

    The arguments that the staff gets comfortable just before they have to leave is really the nature of development work and any RPCV knows this. The new five year budgets that are ‘sustainable’ are an argument that came from development workers in a survey that went to Congress. This is simply another excuse for more money and farming out PCs to ngos and other programs like PEPFAR. They cost 47,000 a year or 57,000 with the other budget and get paid 5% of that? The NGOs and programs would be better off hiring their own people. PCs need the five years just like the staff if the sustainability argument is used for something other than more cash and a five year budget that can’t be changed and is voted on outside the regular US government budget by Congress just before the Presidential elections.

    A few years ago the Director of PC OIG was before Congress(something that isn’t done anymore or not reported) and lobbied for the end to the five year opportunity law. Congress wouldn’t waive it. He insisted that the offices of OIG be an independent agency and he got what he wanted, The Office of OIG is an independent agency. They perform a law enforcement function at PC and this is also an intelligence issue. DSS employees have a new five year law that led to counter intelligence problems overseas. The five year law was probably the issue rather than the CIA.

    The retreads are there because of the enforcement of the five year law and this is the complaint, while people like Jody Olsen get waivers for unknown reasons. There is also an integument that PC is already what we’re worried about it becoming. So, Obama is going to appoint another Harvard/Kennedy pal to an agency that is used for it’s work and money and pass on a logical succession for PC that would be the Director of the NPCA. We could still be the agency Congress wants and be more professional in our hiring.

    We need to be more professional in our hiring, but we suffer from the perception of being and agency and a ’boutique’ for political pals, dems or legacies from Kennedy or Harvard or someone like Obama that is a big fan. His 250,000 ‘volunteers’ and their $1 above poverty wages and a semester of school reference PC and we just signed an MOU with CN&CS. We are an excuse for a legacy that might not be serving the people who are hired; this is what we need to avoid and it’s impossible with ‘gradual hardening of the bureaucratic arteries.’

    I think we need someone who has worked in PC that has done everything like the rules state. I’m available, but don’t know Obama too well.

  • David is one of my favorite people (I worked as APCD under him in the Philippines), but think the discussion of the 5-year rule in the context of a Peace Corps Director is a little misplaced.

    I, too, do not know the individual being discussed, and realize the discussion has nothing to do with his relative merits.

    I can see, however, that a more serious debate could be held on the merits of the rule applying (or not) to the Director. I think the decision should go off on the example it sets for the rest of the agency that even the director position should be governed by the spirit of the 5-year rule. I really do not think that the applicability is the same as to the more traditional staff position that was being addressed by the rule (and, I think, by David’s discussion of it).

    We need the enthusiasm and freshness for the Director of the Agency in the same way we need it in the trenches. Even Sarge might not have been as exciting and engaging in his 10th year!

  • I am a retired Peace Corps “lifer.” (I and about 45 other people were grandfathered into career positions thanks to the agency jobs and low levels we happened to be occupying in 1984. It was that year that Ronald Reagan dissolved that Nixon creature, “ACTION,” which had collected all the Kennedy-era volunteer programs under one umbrella, for the express purpose of lowering their individual profiles.) As such, I most definitely see both sides of this issue. My career encompassed two huge and opposite areas of interest at the agency: PR, via recruitment and selection, and agency operations, via positions in the Africa region. It was a unique background that gave me first-hand knowledge of issues in two camps usually ignorant of each other and often allowed me to get bickering sides to reason.

    At the same time, I was grateful for the constant turnover of staff around me, because they kept me vital. We complemented each other well: I could ground them when they asked me to, while they kept my eyes open constantly to the new. Having been in that unique position, then, I’d be all for keeping a few valued key players around for a while but also for maintaining the five-year rule as the standard. I know such a situation is pie-in-the-sky–I have no idea how it could be implemented fairly–but in my situation it worked.

    On lacking an institutional memory: What I discovered is that the core problems of running the agency never changed–they still haven’t–with or without dinosaurs like me. The tension between recruitment and medical processing, for example, is as strong as it ever was; the needs of the two functions are diametrically opposed and conflict seems inevitable and intractable, no matter who is in charge. And the age-old question, “what is the Peace Corps? Development or US public relations?” will never go away because the two representative sides will never truly understand each other. They’re literally in different worlds.

    Finally, FOS’s comments about Jody Olsen must be responded to: say what you will about her ultimate effectiveness, she has not received any series of “waivers” to stay at the agency indefinitely. She has,in fact, worked at the Peace Corps only when her party was in power. (She’s there now as a caretaker until the Obamas bring in somebody of their own.) The fact that she was always brought back speaks volumes about her perceived value, even though she was cut off at the knees by Bush II and I began to see her continued employ there in essentially a eunuch role as a sop to the Bush I folks. But good or bad, she has not been bending any rules to stay at the Peace Corps.

  • We needed to see Olsen’s history BEFORE she was allowed to be Director. I’m not going to argue the five year on, five year off(not like 2 on 1off, 3 off, 4 on, etc) allowable by the opportunity law – that is the law. It can be taken advantage of like citizenship. Those who follow the law just don’t get ahead.

    Blaming politics for her waivers of the five year law is another excuse that makes PC an “‘agency’ that obeys Congress’ political whims.” PC may be an executive agency with a political appointee running it, but that doesn’t mean it should be one of Obama’s pals, his wife, his kids, Bill or Hillary. The President can appoint a career professional like the NPCA Director just as easily as his nephew or grandpa. We don’t need a ‘caretaker’ Director for a US government agency leading the world. Caretakers work at graveyards. She got her work by being allowed more time at the agency. Others weren’t allowed equal time.

    I’m available for Director and clear the five year opportunity law fine. I’ve never worked for PC as a staff member and never will unless I can run it.

  • A very interesting comment from Cherry.

    I always wondered what became of ACTION, of which I had the misfortune to be part of for 2 or 3 of my five years. Thanks for filling me in.

    In 1984 I had other things on my plate (getting back into the international business world) so I missed the whole thing. Good riddance, I say!

    As I recall recruiting was a separate part of ACTION and not directly a part of the Peace Corps, and so its people wouldn’t have felt any obligation under the five-year rule and could legitimately be excused from following it after the breakup.

    David Searles

  • David, my first job at the Peace Corps after being a PCV was as a recruiter, and we were, indeed, “ACTION” recruiters. But the job I held in 1984 was in the old Travel Office, (Carol Lemon, Ginger Stefanides…) which was also considered, along with other admin functions, part of ACTION, even though we worked exclusively for Peace Corps volunteers and staff.

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