How U.S. Officials Can Craft Innovative Human Rights Policy

Reflections on Navigating the Bureaucratic Landscape

An outside view of the UN headquarters during the 63rd United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 2008.  Eric Thayer / REUTERS

Former U.S. officials who reflect on their time in office tend to come from the government’s most senior ranks. The public typically hears less about the cut and thrust of policymaking that takes place several levels down the bureaucratic chain. As I reflect on my experience in two political appointments over five years, I feel the need to reanimate those times and places with stories of successes, failures, and important lessons learned as my colleagues and I pushed an agenda that championed human rights.

It is no secret that Washington is filled with people eager to get political appointments. For many years, I was not among them. By early 2007, however, I found myself unusually enthusiastic about Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama, and I volunteered (for the first time in my life) to work for the policy side of his campaign. When Obama was elected president in 2008, I was still not focused on joining the administration. But when the call came one January afternoon in 2010, I did what a lot of people do when asked to serve and accepted.

Although serving in a presidential administration is a privilege, it can also be very stressful. And it is a humbling experience. In government, as the former Obama adviser David Axelrod noted recently, “you’re always a supporting actor, never the star.” For many of those who come from academia, the think tank world, or any job where one never had to get permission to speak on a topic, joining the government can be disorienting. Some colleagues described it as “soul crushing.” At the least, it can right-size almost any ego. 

And that goes for the people who actually get jobs. Many people who worked for the Obama campaign waited months or years for appointments at the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development. Some waited an entire presidential term, and others never got the call. USAID had no political appointees for almost the entire first year of the

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