AFSA opposes mid-level lateral entry program to address mid-level experience gaps

Image via WikipediaThe leaked QDDR contained a couple of sections on staffing issues at both USAID and the US Foreign Service. See below:

Building USAID as the World’s Premier Development Agency


  • USAID experienced a 38% decline in its workforce between 1990 and 2007 resulting in diminished capacity to manage programming and resources
  • Reduced capacity has increased reliance on contracting to fulfill USAID’s mission
  • Other U.S. agencies and offices have assumed roles that affect USAID’s programming

QDDR Response 

  • Advance the following QDDR reforms, introduced as part of USAID Forward:
  • Triple mid-level hiring at USAID by increasing the cap on mid-level Development Leadership Initiative hires from 30 to 95 per year
  • Bolster USAID’s policy leadership by creating the Policy, Planning and Learning Bureau and the Office of Science and Technology
  • Build budget capacity through the Office of Budget and Resource Management, to prepare a comprehensive USAID budget proposal by FY13, to be reviewed and approved by the Secretary and Deputy Secretary and incorporated into the overall assistance budget
    Create a Working Capital Fund by charging a fee for acquisition and assistance awards to help align and fund USAID programs
    Introduce more outcome-level indicators to track program progress and launch a new evaluation policy starting in January 2011

Recruiting, Training and Retaining a 21stCentury Workforce


  • U.S. diplomats and development experts are the backbone of America’s civilian power. State and USAID must recruit, train and retain a 21st century workforce
  • Over the past five years, State and USAID have been called upon to significantly expand their presence and operations in frontline states such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq
  • Global civilian operations require a workforce that is ever more innovative, entrepreneurial, collaborative, agile and capable of taking and managing risk

QDDR Response

  • Close the experience gap by tripling mid-level hires in the Development Leadership Initiative at USAID and expanding limited-term appointments at State
  • Recruit and retain highly skilled Foreign Service Nationals by creating expert level positions at USAID
  • Seek more flexible hiring authorities to attract expertise; enlarge the pool of candidates with specialized skills
  • Expand Foreign Service Officer conversion opportunities for State Department Civil Service and Foreign Service personnel
  • Tie promotion to training and expand the range of training opportunities

AFSA apparently has not been invited into the QDDR discussion.  Susan Johnson, the President of AFSA has sent a Message on QDDR Draft Recommendations on “Recruiting & Training” (h/t to Digger of Life After Jerusalem). Excerpt below:

In its briefing to AFSA, the department has asserted that it does not intend to establish a mid-level lateral entry program at the State Department. We will work to ensure that this does not happen. What has so far been revealed about the QDDR draft recommendations relating to recruiting and training suggests that it seeks to address the (unspecified) mid-level experience gap in broad terms. AFSA’s position remains clear: We believe that mid-level hiring programs are not and have not been the best way to address mid-level experience gaps for the Foreign Service at all agencies. Like our military, the Foreign Service consists of commissioned officers, who serve on an up-or-out basis and are subject to the discipline of worldwide availability. Lateral entry is disruptive to the system and undermines morale in the same way it would if introduced into our military services.

At State, the “hiring surge” of the last few years has brought in thousands of new entry-level officers, many with strong academic credentials and extensive work experience. We believe that a better, more flexible, quicker and less costly way to address any mid-level gap is to identify and give opportunities for rapid advancement and training in supervision and management to the best of the entry level officers and to draw on Foreign Service retirees – in effect, our “Foreign Service reserve” – who have the needed experience, need no training, know how embassies and missions work, can mentor and coach, and are, by definition, short term. More flexible hiring authority to use retirees to fill mid-level experience gaps, with appropriate sunset provisions, is a tool the Secretary of State should have and should use.

In contrast to the State Department, the QDDR recommends hiring 95 mid-level technical experts at USAID. While AFSA recognizes the occasional need to bring in mid-level technical experts not currently available in the agency, we are not convinced that the numbers proposed are critical to carry out USAID’s work. The need at the FS-2 and FS-3 levels can be largely met in a cost-effective manner by appointing personnel with the same skills at the FS-5 and FS-4 levels. In any case, AFSA needs to be included in any work-force analysis in order to assure that only justifiable hiring takes place.

The QDDR recommends expanding opportunities for State Department Civil Service personnel to convert to the Foreign Service, seeking more flexible hiring authorities to attract expertise, and tying promotion to training. The current conversion procedures were negotiated with AFSA, and we continue to welcome qualified career Civil Service colleagues who utilize these existing procedures.

We have asked for a detailed briefing about the scope and nature of the mid-level deficit of positions at State and USAID, and expect to receive it shortly.
We remain ready to contribute constructive proposals to ensure that the QDDR process enhances the operation of the Foreign Service. We look forward to working with management to ensure that: (1) any mid-level needs are carefully and transparently identified and documented; (2) established procedures to fill such gaps are followed; and (3) any remedial measures proposed strengthen our professional diplomatic and development services rather than weakening or politicizing them.

Read the whole thing here.

Not too long ago, we talked to an FSO who was holding down the fort at his/her post, juggling three other jobs beside his/her own. He/She could not take any long vacation because the work does not get done while he/she is away — it just balloons up for him/her to tackle on the next work day.  That officer was a breath away from total burnout.

The experience gap is a particularly important issue to address in an agency not known for growing its leaders effectively.  State needs good leaders and managers to teach the entry level officers the ropes of the trade so to speak.  But if you have a shortage of midlevel officers, who will do the teaching and mentoring? And if you have midlevel officers already handling one or two other jobs, how will they find time to mentor their junior officers?

Given the budget situation being what it is, it is hard to imagine that the staffing spurts for the State Department in the last couple of years could be sustained in the coming years.  As well, the expected departures of boomers in the next several years (sooner if the economy picks up) gave us pause.  We are speculating that the experience gaps at the midlevels will actually get worse in the foreseeable future. 

This problem has been persistent in the last several years. We have not seen or heard any creative ideas to resolve this problem for the long term.  How much longer will the “when we’re fully staffed” be part of the FS wish list for Santa?  How many of the expanded limited appointments would be spouses and partners? How much expansion in the CS to FS conversion? Most limited appointments going to the warzones, how many are going to temporarily fill in the gaps in the hardship posts that are not in the warzones?     

We also note that a GAO report released in 2009 concluded that “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.”

We asked some FS folks about their thoughts on AFSA’s message and the midlevel staffing issues particularly in reference to the GAO conclusion above. Below is what we got, all in blind quotes for understandable reasons:

From a midlevel FSO currently posted in a warzone:

“I don’t have particularly strong opinions on this topic. (To confess my ignorance: I don’t even know what QDDR stands for). I can see how AFSA would be opposed to such a program; simultaneously, USAID has a mid-level entry program that seems to work fine. It seems like upping the number of mid-level officers might make bidding (a process I currently find nauseatingly Byzantine, right at the cross roads of high school popularity contest and begging for coins on the side of the road) more difficult, but if it’s good for the service, it hardly seems fair to complain.”

From an upper midlevel FSO currently assigned in WDC:

I heard several times in meetings here that in Summer 2011, there will actually be 40% fewer FS-02 officers than FS-02 jobs.  Then, of course, you have the recent huge hiring surge and no places to put those people, because the shortage is at mid-level, not entry level.  So bureaus are in the position of ceding massive numbers of mid-level jobs to entry-level just to get them filled.

[M]id-level entry is problematic for a variety of reasons, many of which involve fairness to those who came in the traditional way, not the least of which is negatively impacting career mobility.  The solution to all of this, of course, is to consistently fund DOS, instead of going through these boom or bust cycles that cause these bubbles to begin with.

From a senior FSO who retired from the FS:

I agree with AFSA on this issue. It is not 02 bodies that the service needs; it needs experienced, competent 02s. I can’t speak for PD, but I know that CA management has – and could easily acquire more of – a great deal of knowledge about its individual officers. I also know that CA still frequently fills positions because they need to be filled and there is an officer willing to go there, not because the officer is a good fit for the position, or is even competent. There are at least two SFS officers I personally know of who should never be allowed to run a house-cleaning service, let alone a large, sensitive consular section. Yet they continue to get assignments, and perform them badly.

Equally, CA has sometimes not removed officers from obviously bad fits because they were unwilling or unable to easily locate and recruit competent replacements. These two faults are not inexcusable, but they could be remedied.

I would say that CA needs to exercise more flexibility in assigning and moving officers, including – for example – asking selected 03 officers to fill open 02 positions; in re-training others; in conducting come-to-Jesus meetings with those who aren’t doing as well as they could; in letting known, irredeemably bad ones walk the halls; in asking consular-coned officers who serve most of their careers outside consular, to come back home for selected assignments; in guaranteeing that new officers receive both the training and the nurturing that they need to assure their competence, their confidence, and their pleasure in their new chosen profession, and to make them happy to do consular work. Etc.

A good private company would not run so haphazardly. I have enormous confidence in the basic competence of CA management, and its sense of responsibility. What I don’t have is confidence that CA takes its responsibilities seriously enough to change its overall philosophy.

From an FSO who has been in the service for 3-5 years, currently overseas:

I’m torn.  On the one hand, don’t we already do something like this – let people who have no clue about FS culture and practice run missions or offices, as long as they pay enough money to the right candidate?  On the other hand, I do believe that it’s a rare person who can come into an organization that’s as insular, interdependent, and self-reverential as we are and truly fit in well, or effect change in a constructive manner.

I’ve purposely written that to sound a bit whiny, because I think the position is a bit whiny.  Nonetheless, it’s one I hold.  What organism or organization doesn’t have self-interest in perpetuating its inertia?  I know we tried mid-level hiring once, and by accounts it was a disaster.  So maybe there’s another way to do it – isn’t that why we’re hired, to think creatively and flexibly? 

I was hired at the end of the post-DRI period, when hardly anyone was coming into the system.  People hired in the four years or so before me are shooting up the system rather quickly, but because of the huge bubble right behind me, I actually get into the bidding process and it’s going to be a nightmare.  So yes, it personally sucks for me…  but that doesn’t mean I oppose the ramp-up in hiring.  Maybe midlevel hiring is the way to fix that gap?  Or maybe just continuing the expanded hiring of JOs, knowing that it will eventually sort itself out.

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