Those were the days my friend….We thought they'd never end

Those were the days my friend
We thought they’d never end

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A lot gets lost over time and 50+ years of history is a long time for an agency. Reading this past weekend the long, and deadly prose written report: The Peace Corps A Comprehensive Agency Assessment– published in June 2010 by the agency–I realized how much of the original spirit of the Peace Corps has evaporated in five decades of service.

This report written by six people, with lots of advisory committees, attempts to evaluate the agency, and make recommendations for the future. It was done at the suggestion of Peace Corps Director  Aaron Williams (2009-12) who said during his Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearings that his intention, once confirmed as director, was to “carry out an agency-wide assessment of the Peace Corps as a means of strengthening, reforming, and growing the agency.” Aaron said that “the agency-wide assessment would serve as a valuable tool for the agency to better articulate a strategic vision for the Peace Corps for the next ten years.”

Why anyone would read this report is beyond me. It reads like a bad novel, and having written a few bad novels, I know what that prose is like. Here’s an example of an impossible sentences: “The Peace Corps at fifty is ready for a strong new beginning-rooted in the vibrant past of those early days, yet ready to harness twenty-first century American intellectual power, innovation and commitment to result.” What bullshit!

Then, they say (and this is only on page 5!) “Excitement, engagement, and effectiveness are the terms that should characterize the Peace Corps as it moves into the future. As the agency prepares to turn fifty, the agency needs to position itself to be one that looks less in the rear-view mirror at its rich history, but rather, looks forward firmly believing its best days are yet to come.” (Where’s the video of the PCV cheerleaders rallying around this rah-rah quote to carry us all to victory?)

There are some 200 plus pages of such dribble and as I work my way through the document, and the many, many vague recommendations the writers make, I’ll have more to say on other blog entries. But for the moment all this ‘assessment’ language reminds me of what was said and done in the early days of the Peace Corps.

I suggest that the current administration might be wise to look themselves into the ‘rear-view mirror’ and see what Shriver and the other senior staff 50 years ago, how they did it, why it worked, and use those days as the way forward.

Here are a few examples of what I mean.

Shriver was asked early on about creating a long-term budget estimate, to which he replied by laughing and saying, “That’s a legitimate question, but how the hell do I know where we’re going to be in five years?”  Shriver would top that off by returning the Peace Corps appropriations to the Treasury. He gave back $1.9 million for fiscal year 1962, and $3.9 million for 1963. It was an unprecedented move by a government agency. When is the last time the Peace Corps (or any other agency) returned money not spent at the end of the fiscal year?

Then there is Warren Wiggins. He would write his staff in the first years, “We do not rely upon the rule-book. We operate fast and stay legal, but if something goes wrong, just operate fast.”

Shriver had no time for timid proposal or the bureaucratically inhibited response. He demanded boldness and intellectual daring. “There will be little tolerate of a ‘tomorrow’ philosophy, or ‘it can’t be done because it hasn’t been done before’ attitude,” he told those early employees of the Peace Corps. At the Director he also demanded total commitment from employees. Weekends work and early-morning phone calls to one’s home became standard. And Shriver wanted his Washington staff out in the field, working as Reps with the Volunteers. Harris Wofford went to Ethiopia as CD; Tom Quimby to Liberia; Frank Mankiewicz to Peru. Shriver himself, by 1963, had visited thirty-six of the forty-four countries in which the Peace Corps had program.

Shriver did not want a Peace Corps where the desk-bound bureaucrats made plans, unaware of the actual conditions under which Volunteers work. To make sure that didn’t happen, in 1962, he set up the Evaluation Division, the first of its kind in the federal government.

In recent years, the Peace Corps senior staff never went anywhere. Jodi Olsen, the Deputy Director under Gaddi, wasn’t even allowed to travel by Gaddi, and she was the only senior official at the agency who had served as a PCV.

Instead of traveling, the Peace Corps has now gone wild setting up ways and means to ‘evaluate’ the agency’s goals from ‘afar’.

This is not new. Maureen Carroll (Philippines 1961-63) tells that when she was the CD in Botswana in the early 1990s she’d come to work on Monday morning and her office floor would be littered with paper that had been faxed out from PC/Washington over night, all of PC/Washington wanted to know something. The faxes covered the floor, like so much mice droppings.

Now, in this new decade of the Internet and iphones, starting in 2007, the Office of Strategic Information, Research and Planning (OSIRP) was created and “charged with enhancing the agency’s strategic planning and reporting, evaluation and measurement, and date governance efforts.”

It appears that the agency has pulled together several ‘offices’ in PC/HQ under one giant umbrella. The office does four basic surveys. The first is the Volunteer Reporting Tool, an electronic data management system started in 2009. This ‘tool’ allows posts to “periodically collect detailed qualitative and quantitative data from all Volunteers on activities that relate to the three goals of the Peace Corps.”

The office (OSIRP) second monitoring tool is the Project Status Report which measures the progress of projects toward meeting their goals.

Then there is the “Annual Volunteer Survey to “asses Volunteers’ impressions of their service.”

The last ‘tool’ is the Results Based Field Evaluation. (Don’t you love these names?) This study, began in 2008, ‘collect information from host country counterparts, beneficiaries, host families and stakeholders to help inform Peace Corps on the impact of the Peace Corps’ work primarily focusing on goal one and goal two activities.”

Wouldn’t you think that with all these ‘tools’ the Peace Corps would get it right?

And this is just the beginning of the Peace Corps ‘tools’ for self-evaluation.

There is something called the “Administrative Management Control Survey” as well as reports from the Inspector General Office, also the report adds, “The Peace Corps benefits from the countless number of Ph.D. dissertations, M.A. theses, and academic studies on various aspects of the Peace Corps’ work.”

Really?

I’d like anyone of today’s Senior Staff to quote to me anything that they learned from reading what academics or for that matter what RPCVs had to say on their academic research of the Peace Corps.

Since the 1990s, I have been giving lists of Peace Corps books to Peace Corps Directors and other ‘new’ (mostly Political Schedule Cs appointments) the names of books that tell the story of the agency and not once has any of these people come back to me and commented on what they read. The majority of the senior staff come into the agency totally ignorant of the history or the books written by RPCVs. It is all “On the Job Training” for them.

All of this brings to mind a story of a Peace Corps Director that I heard about in the late Sixties. This was during the days when CDs really ran their own countries. A Peace Corps HQ official went out to Brazil to see why the Latin America Regional Office wasn’t getting any reports from this post. (The Peace Corps went to Brazil in 1962 and left in 1980.)

Meeting up with the CD on the top floor of the Peace Corps Office in Brazil, the Washington guy had official mail for the Country Director and while they stood together making small talk in front of an open window, the CD casually fingered through the mail, tossing out through the open window mail he didn’t want.

Slowly, the visiting HQ official began to realized the CD was throwing away (unread) all the ‘official’ mail he had brought with him from D.C. When he glanced out the window, several floors below in the interior courtyard of the building, were hundreds of such official letters from Peace Corps/Washington, tossed away unread by this Country Director.

So much for what Peace Corps/Washington wanted to know what was happening in Brazil. This CD was running his own operation and not listening to Peace Corps/Washington.

As Warren Wiggins told his staff years ago, “We do not rely upon the rule-book. We operate fast and stay legal, but if something goes wrong, just operate fast.”

Those were the days!

Next what the Peace Corps is doing right. Two new and wonderful changes in the agency.


6 Comments

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  • So great to see that little brochure again! I’d love to see the inner pages, too. Why? Because I shot every picture in it. This was the assignment that got me and writer Jim Walls sent around the world. (I did the actual PC Vols pix off my own bat.)
    The prose of Jim Walls may not have the ear of Coyne, but he was a great, smart little dude to travel with.

  • You did it again John…thanks for looking out for us, for Peace Corps! As a Response Volunteer (Crisis Corps) I am able to talk to current Volunteers, and they want to hear about the 60’s and Shriver. They do not want Peace Corps to change, that’s why they joined. They love my war stories, and ask for more. I tell them about the aggressive efforts of USAID to take over Peace Corps, Aaron Williams was their last hope!

    Remember what Sarge told me…”If not us, who?”

    FlacoBob

  • Agree with John that the 2010 report is indigestible.

    In the field, among the locals, each PCVs character and actions is “the Peace Corps.” Strategies to integrate or harmonize “the Peace Corps” with US diplomatic and USAID policies are shortsighted and often counterproductive.

  • Buried in the bureaucratic gobbledegook of the Assessment are major changes to the Peace Corps. In the five years since it was delivered to Congress, those changes have been institutionalized. Peace Corps Response has been opened up to non-RPCVs and Peace Corps has 42 “partnerships” with NGOs, for-profit international corporations, universities and the US government. Peace Corps is aligned with the mission statements and policy objectives of all of these organizations.

    Ron and Bob, one of those partnerships is with USAID. USAID works with the Coca-Cola company on water issues and Peace Corps Volunteers are right there in the mix. The Peace Corps logo appears right along side the USAID logo and the Coca-Cola brand.

    These changes came about at the direction of first, Aaron Williams, RPCV from the 60s and now, Carrie Hessler-Radelet, RPCV from the 80s. The Strategic Plan for Peace Corps 2014-2018 is committed to reinforcing and expanding these new policies, but you need a translator to understand it.

  • Thanks Joanne, we need to stay clear of USAID. Their motto: “We build monuments not communities!”

    Our mission, return to the 60’s and Sarge!

  • Bob, You are the heart of Peace Corps. But,”we” have no power to influence the direction of the Peace Corps-unless a new President would appoint you PC Director!!

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