How to Join the U.S. Diplomatic Service Without Taking the Foreign Service Exam

— Domani Spero
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Yup, it can be done, if you have some expertise lacking in the Foreign Service, say a nuclear physicist needed in Japan. Or  we imagine, if you’re a tattoo artist who can decipher ISIS tattoos, there maybe work for you (seriously, is there?).  It can also happen if you or your folks know the right people in WashDC.  Or technically, if you’re in the right spot at the right moment, and there is an “urgent need,” it just might be you.

The State Department has updated the categories of non-Foreign Service employees it is able to assign to diplomatic missions overseas this past spring, adding ” Urgent, Limited Need” as a seventh category to the list. Foreign Affairs Manual 3 FAM 2293 (pdf) spells out the rules for appointing not just Department Civil Service employees but also “other individuals” from outside the Foreign Service under a limited non-career appointment (LNA). This is how post may end up with a political ambassador’s chief of staff who has never worked in the Foreign Service, or a speechwriter who is not a Foreign Service officer. Or how posts overseas get their Security Protective Specialists (SPS) who are all hired under LNAs.

3 FAM 2293 TYPES OF LIMITED NONCAREER APPOINTMENTS UNDER SECTION 303 OF THE FOREIGN SERVICE ACT (CT:PER-726; 04-18-2014) (State Only) (Applies to Foreign Service and Civil Service employees)

a. Consistent with Section 502 of the Foreign Service Act (22 U.S.C. 3982), the Department’s goal is to ensure that positions designated as Foreign Service positions are filled by assignment of career and career-conditional members of the Foreign Service.

b. Pursuant to Sections 303 and 309 of the Foreign Service Act, the Department appoints Civil Service employees and other individuals from outside the Foreign Service to LNAs as:

(1) Hard-to-Fill (HTF) Candidates: Positions that have not attracted sufficient bidders through the Foreign Service assignments process and thus may be filled by Department Civil Service employees. The procedures and eligibility requirements applicable to HTF positions as well as the scope and frequency of available positions may vary from year to year. Each HTF program will be announced by an ALDAC after consultation with the Foreign Service’s exclusive representative;

(2) Expert Candidates: For these positions, bureaus are to request temporary FTE from the Office of Resource Management (HR/RMA) before presenting an Action Memorandum to the Director, HR/CDA. For example, expert LNAs include, but are not limited to, positions that cannot normally be filled with Foreign Service personnel, such as certain attorney positions at embassies and missions that are filled by lawyers from the Office of the Legal Adviser, and a nuclear physicist position that was temporarily required in Japan.

(3) Developmental Assignment Candidates: These assignments provide experience and exposure to Foreign Service operations for Civil Service personnel through two methods–bureau candidate only advertised positions, for example, A Bureau positions at ELSO and Overseas Development Program positions advertised via CS merit promotion announcements.

(4) Volunteer Cable Candidates: Volunteer cables are sent, as agreed annually with the exclusive representative in the Bidding Instructions, when there are no qualified bidders for a vacancy that has been advertised. The regional bureaus initiate the volunteer cable exercise as a request to HR/CDA to send such a cable based on Foreign Service need. If a Civil Service candidate is selected, the Director General must prepare a Certificate of Need in accordance with 3 FAM 2295 (see also 3 FAM Exhibit 2295 for an example of this certificate);

(5) Schedule C and Other Outside-Hire Candidates: These appointments include, but are not limited to, chief-of-mission office management specialists, eligible family members, and other outside hires;

(6) Exceptional Circumstance Candidates: The Department’s Director General of the Foreign Service and Director of Human Resources (Director General) may designate certain positions to be filled under an “exceptional circumstance” category (see 3 FAM 2294 below).

(7) Urgent, Limited Need: These limited non-career appointments support specific or exceptional mission-critical needs that existing Foreign Service personnel cannot meet. These needs are considered to be of limited duration, not justifying the creation of a new category of a career Foreign Service employee. HR/RMA will authorize the FTE for these positions. Every two years, the Director General or designee will review each category of LNA falling under this paragraph in consultation with the Foreign Service’s exclusive representative, to determine whether the specific need still exists and existing Foreign Service personnel cannot meet the need.

NOTE: The seven categories in 3 FAM 2293, subparagraphs b(1) through b(7), are the only categories by which a Civil Service employee or other individual from outside the Foreign Service may be appointed to the Foreign Service pursuant to an LNA under Section 303 of the Foreign Service Act. The Department’s procedures for appointing Civil Service employees and other individuals from outside the Foreign Service as LNAs outside these categories are subject to negotiations between the Department and the Foreign Service’s exclusive representative, prior to institution of further categories.

 

The regulations note that “In the event that no bids for exceptional circumstance positions are received from members of the Foreign Service after the positions have been advertised for the required 15 working days, or the Director General determines that the member(s) of the Foreign Service whose bid is (are) not suited to the assignment, the Department may select a Department Civil Service employee or other candidate for appointment to an LNA for assignment to this position, based on a Certificate of Need signed by the Director General in accordance with 3 FAM 2295.”

However, the FAM does not explain fully how the “Urgent, Limited Need” or ULN appointments will be handled. Will these positions be advertised or will it be as painless as the Director General (DGHR) designating the positions as ULNs?  The brief explanation under this category says that “These needs are considered to be of limited duration, not justifying the creation of a new category of a career Foreign Service employee.” And yet, it also says that the DGHR will review LNAs under this category every two years.  How many reviews will be required before a determination needs to be done to justify a regular position?  Will the DGHR similarly be required to issue a “Certificate of Need?” Currently, the FAM only says that a “Certificate of Need” is required when the Department fills a position with an exceptional circumstance candidate or fills a volunteer cable position with a Civil Service employee, but silent when the position is filled under the “Urgent, Limited Need” category.

Most important of all, who is tasked with making a determination that an Urgent, Limited Need exists — the 7th floor, the functional bureau, the regional bureau, post management, the ambassador, a special envoy, a special rep, any top gun in the alphabet soup?

Or would your fairy godfather works just as well?

We must note that according to the regs, LNAs are normally limited to the duration of the specific assignment for which the candidate is hired and normally may not exceed five years in duration. But — the DGHR may propose to extend the limited appointment beyond five years.  Similarly, only the DGHR is tasked with the issuance of a “Certificate of Need.” We are sure that DGHR has the statistics on how many LNAs have been hired under these seven different categories, or for that matter, how is it that two decades on, the temporary Hard-To-Fill category has now become part of normal staffing, but —  those numbers are not for public consumption.

We suspect that Schedule C hires, as well as candidates for Exceptional Circumstance and Urgent, Limited Need categories need not have to bother with usajobs.gov like regular people; that’s the job site for applicants who do not know anybody traveling on the special lanes. And really, if you have the right names on your digital Rolodex, this system works perfectly in your favor.  Ugh! Why bother filling out the KSAs (knowledge, skill, ability) when you can take the short cut.

These new changes bear paying attention to in light of news that a son of a Democratic donor, who was a former WH volunteer snared in the Cartagena Prostitution Scandal is now a full-time policy adviser in the Office on Global Women’s Issues for the U.S. State Department.

We can imagine a time in the future when Schedule C and other non-career appointees may proliferate at the Front Office level. It’s already happening at HQ level, how long before it starts showing up at missions X, Y and Z. Who’s going to say “no” if a political ambassador ask that his/her chief of staff or social media advisor, or speechwriter be designated as a Schedule C or an “Urgent, Limited Need” position?

For those not too familiar with staffing lingo, Schedule C positions are excepted from the competitive service because “they have policy-determining responsibilities or require the incumbent to serve in a confidential relationship to a key official.” According to OPM, appointments to Schedule C positions require advance approval from the White House Office of Presidential Personnel and OPM, but appointments may be made without competition. OPM does not review the qualifications of a Schedule C appointee — final authority on this matter rests with the appointing official.

Are we wrong to presume that final authority on the hiring of Urgent, Limited Need appointee also rests with the appointing official?

Now, we think this is a challenge for the Foreign Service — FS personnel is worldwide available, which means they can be sent anywhere in the world where they are needed. In practice, with the exception of the first two tours upon entering the Service, employees typically only go where they “bid” to go; they are not “directed” or “forced” to go anywhere they don’t want to go.  Even employees who pick assignments in the war zones are volunteers (or voluntold). Better to have volunteers than draftees.

But the world is changing right before our eyes, and the State Department’s personnel and org systems are not changing fast enough to adapt to the needs of our times.  We are convinced that ULN is not going to be the last category on the FAM list and that the State Department will continue to expand the categories of non-career personnel “joining” the Foreign Service under an excuse of not having enough qualified people to send there, wherever there may be. Whether that is actually true or not is hard to say.

For instance, Diplomatic Security’s High Threat directorate reportedly has gaps in its staffing. That’s totally expected given that assignments are dole out a year in advance. What about standing up a new office with the Global Coalition Against ISIL under General Allen?

Not long ago, we’ve heard that several rounds of directed assignments weren’t enough to fill all the vacancies on the S Detail.  Is that reflective of service discipline?  Perhaps. But if you have difficulty filling in the slots for the Secretary’s security detail, one has to start asking the hard questions. And ‘would these positions qualify for urgent, limited need category,’ should not be the main question. Go do a root cause exercise.

We’ve also heard that Office Management Specialists (OMS) has a high attrition rate and that a good number of Civil Service OMS are in the front offices at embassies overseas instead of FS OMS. But surely, you’ve all heard about the FS OMS complaints of lack of a career path?  Go do a root cause exercise.

If the QDDR should have some concrete utility this year, it ought to take a look foremost at the personnel systems of the State Department and how it can make the institution stronger and adapt to the needs of our times.  And perhaps the time has come to seriously look at a unitary personnel system that is agile, and flexible, if we want to see State as our lead foreign affairs agency in fact, not just in name.

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