US State Department staff discussion forum axed

By on 31/08/2017
The US Department of State issued a statement to employees stating that the 'Sounding Board' forum will be shutdown this week (Image courtesy: AgnosticPreachersKid).

An online discussion forum set up by Hillary Clinton to solicit ideas and feedback from US State Department officials will be shut down this week, employees have been told.

Sounding Board was launched in 2009, during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State – one of a set of social media initiatives from the department’s Office of e-Diplomacy designed to bringing communications in the US foreign service into the 21st century.

The intranet forum was designed to serve as a virtual ‘office water-cooler’, where the department’s globally dispersed workforce could exchange information and ideas for collaboration and send suggestions to department chiefs.

Within 18 months, it had received 1,600 ideas and 14,000 comments, with 27,000 page views per month, according to IT news website ZDNet.

Sounding board silenced

But employees were informed in a departmental email on 17 August that they will lose access to the forum at the end of the month, US news website Government Executive reported.

The site published a State Department comment on the issue. “The Sounding Board is in need of a technology upgrade,” an official said. “As part of the redesign process, a new portal will be built. In the meantime, the redesign portal and other existing engagement tools… will serve as platforms for employee engagement and idea generation.”

These “existing engagement tools”, the official added, include a direct email channel to the Director General, DGDirect@state.gov; the cross-sectoral public blogging platform Communities@State; and internal professional networking platform Corridor.

Wiping the record clean

However, staff were told in a second email on 23 August to save any content they wanted to preserve in local files before the end of the month, as the past contents of Sounding Board will not be archived, according to Domani Spero, author of foreign affairs blog DiploPundit.

“The State Department did inform employees that it is planning on establishing a ‘new forum for employee suggestions and responses’ but apparently it did not explain what was wrong with the current Sounding Board and why a new forum is considered necessary,” Spero wrote.

No timeframe has been given for the new forum to become operational and ideas submitted to the redesign portal appeared to be restricted to the redesign only, while the department’s proposed alternative employee engagement platforms are not suitable for a “community back and forth discussion”, the blogger argued.

Since the archive will not be retrievable, the exercise in fact amounts to a “demolition” of the forum, said Spero. “And it’s not just the demolition of the employee forum itself, but a demolition of the employees’ collective ideas, contributions and memories,” he wrote. “In reality, it would erase the last seven years of the institution’s collective work.

“Does the National Archives and Records Administration …have anything to say about this planned destruction of a government record?”

Alternative outlets

Domani Spero is a self-described “obsessive-compulsive observer, diplomatic watcher and opinionator” who monitors events at the State Department and across the diplomatic world and “owns up to conducting public discourse as a private citizen”.

“If you feel a rant coming because your boss asked you to take his/her dog for a walk during/after office hours, please feel free to send it here,” writes the blogger, whose Italian pseudonym roughly translates as “See you tomorrow, I hope”.

The shut-down of Sound Board follows an unprecedented reaction against President Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim countries earlier this year, when about 1000 Foreign Service officers opposed the move via the State Department’s long-standing ‘dissent channel’. This was established in the 1970s to give diplomats a way to challenge policies or proposals without fear of repercussions.

Previously, the largest number of people using the channel to challenge a government policy was about 50, when diplomats called for Barack Obama to follow through on his threat to punish the Syrian government for using chemical weapons against civilians in Damascus. The mass criticism of Trump’s policy attracted unwelcome media attention, and a comment from then-presidential spokesman Sean Spicer that those unhappy with the policy could “get with the programme or they can go”.

About Liz Heron

Liz Heron is a journalist based in London, who specialises in international news. She worked on daily newspapers for 16 years, reporting extensively on both general news and education. She was Education Editor of the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and has contributed to a wide range of British media including The Independent, The Guardian and the BBC.

One Comment

  1. AmyFaiola

    31/08/2017 at

    hi Everyone When Is the Government going to Shut Down is that going to
    Effect everyone.

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