Stretch Assignments as Double Edge Swords

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According to this
2009 GAO report“As of September 2008, about 34 percent of mid-level generalist positions at posts of greatest hardship were filled by officers in upstretch assignments17—15 percentage points higher than the upstretch rate for comparable positions at posts with no or low differentials. Furthermore, as of the same date, 25 of 34 (over 70 percent) of all overseas generalists working two grades above their rank were located at hardship posts.”

Elsewhere in the report, it states that “as of December 2008, State had 85 fewer mid-level generalist officers than positions (see table 2)—an improvement on the deficit of 316 that we previously reported. However, as of the same date, State faced a 28 percent greater deficit at the FS-02 level than it did in 2006, with mid-level positions in the public diplomacy and consular cones continuing to experience the largest shortages of staff overall.”
The GAO reports that “positions filled by officers in upstretch assignments can compromise diplomatic readiness.”  It also says that “Another potentially adverse effect of staffing gaps is that important post-level duties, such as reporting and staff development, may suffer from inexperience when entry-level officers are staffed to mid-level positions. While officials at post said that some officers in stretch positions perform well, others told us that the inexperience of entry-level officers serving in mid-level capacities can have a negative impact. For example, the economic section chief at one post we visited stated that reporting produced by an entry-level officer in a mid-level position lacked the necessary analytical rigor. The political section chief at the same post noted that a mid-level position responsible for reporting on terrorism was staffed by an officer serving two grades above his current grade level with no previous reporting experience.”
A good chunk of the GAO discussion in this report talks about “inexperienced entry-level” officers staffing upstretch mid-level positions or the “no experienced mid-level officers” diverted from key responsibilities by the need to “supervise inexperienced entry-level staff.”

Stretch assignments can work. We have an example of 1-2 stretch assignments that went very well for this entry level officer. What the report did not talk about are mid-level officers stretching up into Senior Foreign Service positions that potentially can have a cascading effect not just on diplomatic readiness but in the “bringing” up of the next generation of leaders and managers in the FS.  

Here is one example from the recently released OIG report on the US Embassy in Guatemala. This is from 2008 but just recently posted online.  The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between April 14 and May 6, 2008, and in Guatemala City, Guatemala, between June 9 and 26, 2008.
Two striking things about this report. One, under consular management: The report says that “The consul general is finishing his tour in the summer of 2008, and the atmosphere should improve under the leadership of the deputy.  Another factor in staff morale is that the consular section does not hold regular staff meetings, American and LE staff almost never have meetings together.” Ooouch!  Two, under the entry–level program: “An Ambassador or DCM sighting in the consular section is a rare event.”  
Ah rare event — must be kind of like Elvis sightings.
A few other details:
  • An FS-01 officer, stretched into the Senior Foreign Service position of consul general, heads the section, which has three other mid-level managers, nine entry-level officers, two eligible family members, and 24 local employees. 
  • The consul general has been the primary interface with the adopting families and their advocates. He invests ample time in monitoring the status of the cases, answering inquiries, and engaging with the Guatemalan Government towards the prompt resolution of cases. […] Absorbed with adoption issues, the consul general has neglected general consular management issues. Ideally, this officer should have delegated some of the casework to others while continuing to be the main interlocutor with the Guatemalan authorities. With the consul general leaving in the summer of 2008, it will fall on the deputy and the incoming consul general to find a better management balance.
  • The consul general mandated that local employees scan the nonimmigrant visa application forms and all supporting documents, such as bank statements and job letters, into the computer system. This was adding minutes of processing to each case. The consul general imposed this procedure and was oblivious to concerns expressed by employees about the workload burden on the staff. 
  • The consul general has made the unit’s work harder by mandating several projects that were unnecessary. For example, he instructed them to reconcile in detail, nonimmigrant visa fees collected by the bank with, nonimmigrant visa adjudications. He required that this cumbersome operation cover all transactions back to 2006. The level of detail, andstaff time involved, greatly exceeded the Department’s accountability requirements. In any case, the consul general should not have required fraud prevention staffers toassume the duties of an accountable consular officer. Almost beyond comprehension,the consul general demanded a detailed analysis involving different exchange rates based on the fact that the bank exchange rate changed periodically. The consul general pursued this over the objections of several employees.
  • Some inefficiencies predate the current consul general. The OIG team found the fraud prevention and nonimmigrant visa units burdened by the “showback” program, an initiative that began innocently, but later turned into the perfect storm. In the 1990s, the consular section started requiring 10 percent of all applicants issued temporary agricultural worker visas (H2B visas) to report back to the embassy to prove their return to Guatemala. This was not a burden in 1997 when only 254 such visas were issued, but became a serious problem in the early 2000s when H2B visa issuances had risen ten-fold. Consular management made matters worse by broadening the “showback” procedure to all H2B applicants.  In 2003, the Department instructed the Embassy to cease this “showback” requirement. Rather than following this guidance, the embassy “suggested” this procedure to the employing agencies, which in effect was the same thing. In 2006, the embassy issued 5,070 H2B visas, and the system was out of control. In 2008, the incoming deputy consular chief put a stop to it. In the OIG team’s view, the consul general should have put a stop to it long ago.
  • The consular section has not been complying with the requirements in 9 FAM 42.83 for terminating inactive immigrant visa files. As a result, there are file cabinets full of cases, some dating from the 1970s. This is exacerbating severe space constraints. The section faces a large burden and probably many years before it will be able to complete the process of terminating these old files, but it has to be done.
  • Entry-level officers do not attend country team meetings save for an initial introduction, and the front office has not ensured that the consul general, the supervisor of most entry-level employees in the Embassy, provides feedback on country team meetings.
The Section does not hold meetings so how would ELOs know about the goings in the country team meetings even if the CG was in attendance?  Management in this case obviously was poorly executed.  Evidence of leadership? Nowhere mentioned.  Makes one wonder what kind of leadership and management lessons the entry level officers actually learned from their tours in Guate during this time. Makes one also wonder how this kind of derailment impacts an officer eying the SFS.       
There was once an FSO on a stretch assignment in Timbuktu … I’m having a hard time trying to pin the tail of this thing … so later…
Related Items:
GAO-09-874 | Department of State | Additional Steps Needed to Address Continuing Staffing and Experience Gaps at Hardship Posts | September 2009 | PDF