Is This Iran Watcher London Position Not Bidlisted About to Go to a “P” Staffer?

— Domani Spero
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Remember that position at the US Embassy in London last year that “mysteriously” appeared, got pulled down, then re-advertised under curious circumstances? See London Civil Service Excursion Tour Opens — Oh Wait, It’s Gone, Then It’s Back, Ah Forgetaboutit?). Well, it sounds like there’s another one; and this one is roiling the American Foreign Service Association, for good reasons.

With the bidding deadline around the corner, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) wants to bring to your attention an FS-02 IROG position in London that has been the subject of some discussion between AFSA and the Department.  In AFSA’s view this position should be available to all eligible bidders now; however, the position has yet to be posted.  On October 1, AFSA’s Governing Board met to discuss the Department’s refusal to include the FS-02 Iran Watcher position in London (IROG Position Number 67700008) in this Summer’s Open Assignment Cycle, instead proposing to include it in the pilot Overseas Development Program.  The Governing Board passed a unanimous motion strongly objecting to the Department’s decision and instructing its General Counsel to advise AFSA on avenues of redress for this apparent breach of contract.  AFSA, the professional association and exclusive representative of the Foreign Service, had previously expressed concern to the Department about including the position in the pilot Overseas Development Program that was created two years ago pursuant to an informal agreement between the Department and AFSA.  AFSA’s concerns center around the position’s uniqueness, Farsi language designation, and the significant number of interested, qualified Foreign Service bidders for the position.  The position is the only one in London and the only Iran Watcher position in an English speaking country.

The Foreign Service needs to build up its Iran expertise including language capability.  The best known Persian speaker at State is probably the State Department Farsi spox, Alan Eyre, who since 2011 has been the public face of the United States to many Iranians and Persian speakers. In 2013, when State/OIG looked into the process of establishing “language designated positions,” we learned that State had established 23 LDPs for Persian-Iranian. Those are jobs where the selectees will be required to have official language training and reach a certain level of proficiency prior to assuming the position. That’s the number for the entire agency, by the way.  In 2012, 8 students studied Farsi at the Foreign Service Institute.  We have no idea how many Farsi speakers have attained the 3/3 level at State but we know that studying a hard language does not come cheap.

The OIG team estimates training students to the 3/3 level in easier world languages such as Spanish can cost $105,000; training in hard languages such as Russian can cost $180,000; and training in super hard languages such as Chinese and Arabic can cost up to $480,000 per student. Students learning super hard languages to the 3/3 level generally spend one year domestically at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and then a second year at an overseas training facility.

So — what’s the deal about this Iran Watcher London position?

Rumor has it that a staffer at the Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman‘s office, the Department’s fourth-ranking official allegedly wants this position.

If the State Department is not listing this position in the Open Assignment Cycle bidlist, that means this job is not/not up for grabs for Foreign Service officers. One less FSO studying Farsi next year!

If State includes this position in the Open Assignment Cycle bidlist then only FS employees can bid and a CS employee cannot be assigned to London unless there are no qualified FS bidders (we’re told that’s not going to be the case here).

If State is listing this position under the Overseas Development Program, it means this is potentially for a two-year London assignment, open to Civil Service employees only, and requires a 44-week language training for presumably an S-3/R-3 proficiency in Farsi.

And if this position goes to a Civil Service employee, the chance of that employee serving overseas is a one-time fill. He/She goes to London for two years then return to the State Department. Unless the State Department moves to a unitary personnel system, CS employees typically do not serve on multiple tours overseas.  Which means that State could be spending between $180,000 – $480,000 to teach — whoever is selected for this London position — Persian language to an employee who can be assigned overseas just once.

Now, perhaps the more important question is, in light of AFSA’s protest — if State gives in and list this London position in this Summer’s Open Assignment Cycle, would that really make a difference? Sure FSOs can bid on it, but will anyone of the qualified bidders be …. um…the right fit?

Maybe we can go through this “call your friends in London upstairs” exercise, and see what they say (pick one):

  1. don’t bother applying for the job
  2. don’t waste your time on this one
  3. forgetaboutit, selection already done
  4. all of the above

And you’re wondering why watching bureaucratic life and backstage machinations can make one jaded?  If indeed this job is going to go, as rumored, to a “P’ staffer, all job-related announcements would just be bureaucratic theater.

But don’t worry, everything will fit in the end. Just like a puzzle box.

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