USAID/OIG on Development Leadership Initiative: Some Good News, Some Problems

Posted: 2:24 am EDT
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USAID’s Regional Inspector General/Pretoria recently released its survey  of USAID’s Development Leadership Initiative  (DLI) in Southern and Eastern Africa (Survey Report No. 4-000-15-001-S).  Junior officer DLIs are the focus of the survey and are referred to simply as DLIs.  USAID’s southern and eastern Africa missions with DLIs were Angola, East Africa, Ethiopia, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, South Africa, Southern Africa, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. South Sudan received only mid-career DLIs and was not included in the survey.

The report delivered some good news: “Survey results showed that DLI had some successes; 92 percent of the DLIs who responded said they received assignments in their designated backstops, and 99percent reported receiving their second administrative promotion on time.”

Survey results also found the following problems.

Some new hires did not use the foreign languages they were taught.

Some DLIs raised concerns with the requirement to attend the Foreign Service Institute because the courses there were tailored for State Department employees working in diplomacy, not USAID employees working in development. The curriculums did not teach the vocabulary they needed for development work, they explained.

DLI respondents who filled positions at English- speaking posts asked why they could not postpone the training until it could be matched with an overseas assignment. Moreover, DLI respondents who could not use the languages they were taught immediately said they needed to get the training again to regain fluency.

 Since USAID employees constitute a small percentage of students at the institute, the officials said they did not have much influence over the curriculum. They tried to address this problem in the past by offering translated copies of key Agency documents in the USAID library, but few people used them. USAID pays approximately $1,520 per week of training at the Foreign Service Institute, and students generally attend for 24 to 30 weeks.

Supervisors did not always help DLIs prepare for future assignments.

Some said they were assigned supervisors who were not FSOs or U.S. direct hires, which meant that they could not provide insight on overseas assignments or Agency policies and procedures.

USAID/HR officials acknowledged that they did not formally monitor the quality of supervision provided to DLIs and said DLIs were responsible for reporting any concerns they had to mission managers.

USAID/HR officials said one of the consequences of the Agency’s staffing shortage was that there were not enough experienced supervisors for the number of new junior officers.

Some DLIs did not find coaches and mentors helpful.

USAID/HR officials said a DLI who remained in contact with his or her coach after going overseas would be a good indication of the program’s success. However, 69 percent of the DLIs who responded to the survey said they rarely or never made contact with their coach after leaving Washington. DLIs explained that their coaches were too busy to meet with them, too far retired from the Agency to help with current processes, or from a different backstop and thus unable to provide the technical guidance the DLIs needed.

Nearly half of the DLIs who responded to the survey said they were not assigned a mentor at their mission. Moreover, many said they did not realize that mentoring was part of the program overseas.

Some perceived that USAID overlooked Foreign Service nationals (FSNs).

While some FSNs said their office directors told them that employees called “DLIs” would be joining their team, nobody explained what the initiative was, what the role of the DLIs would be, or how they would fit into the mission’s existing framework. It also was not clear how work assignments would be shared among FSNs and DLIs.

FSNs said the lack of understanding negatively affected DLIs’ reception at post. It also led to the common misconception that USAID hired DLIs to replace FSNs. In fact, many missions created additional FSN positions to support the additional hires. DLIs commented that their relationships with FSNs were sometimes awkward or hostile because of unclear roles and responsibilities. DLIs and FSNs also reported problems from perceived and real inequalities for training and professional development.

Hiring practices changed midway through the initiative.

When the initiative began, USAID/HR recruited junior officers at the FS-06 level for all backstops and mid-career officers at the FS-03 to -02 levels for certain backstops. Midway through, however, the division began to appoint junior officers at the FS-05 level. This meant that people with fewer qualifications came in at a higher grade and for backstops that were not offered previously.

Survey respondents said this fact might affect retention. In addition, by starting the majority of DLIs at the FS-06 level, USAID has a large pool of similarly graded officers bidding for a limited number of assignments. Half of the DLI respondents who reported not receiving assignments in their designated backstops explained this was because opportunities within their areas of expertise were limited. While USAID/HR officials estimated attrition at about 10 percent, survey respondents said they expected to see a surge of DLIs resign from the Agency after their second tours unless USAID provides adequate opportunities for professional development.

Training was not always relevant.

DLIs who completed formal training and rotations were away from their offices so frequently that their supervisors found it difficult to assign them substantive work. This limited the amount of on-the-job training DLIs received. Conversely, DLIs who had substantive work assignments had to forego other opportunities for formal training and rotations.

Some DLIs explained that the value of formal training was diminished because they could not apply everything they learned in a timely manner. For example, they completed required training for agreement and contracting officers’ representatives yet they were not assigned to these jobs during the 2 years of their first overseas assignment. DLIs also completed a supervision seminar when they were not supervisors.

Some DLIs said the training and orientation they completed in Washington, D.C., before leaving for post lacked critical information on the realities of working in an overseas mission or in other cultures.

When asked about course content, USAID/HR officials said they relied heavily on contractors to provide formal training because Agency employees were not available consistently to provide it. The officials said requiring contract trainers to have USAID experience would be too expensive.

Here is a quick background of this initiative and its cost:

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that USAID’s workforce declined 2.7 percent from 2004 to 2009, while program funding almost doubled to $17.9 billion in the same period.1 At the time, USAID faced critical staffing shortages—especially in high-priority countries like Afghanistan and Iraq—and a high percentage of Foreign Service officers (FSOs) nearing retirement. All of these factors affected USAID’s ability to work directly with foreign governments and local partners, and increased its reliance on contractors and outside organizations to carry out its mandate for development.

USAID launched the Development Leadership Initiative (DLI) on May 24, 2008, to address diminished staff levels. Managed by USAID’s Office of Human Resources (USAID/HR), the initiative aimed to double the number of FSOs from 1,200 to 2,400 by fiscal year (FY) 2012 and targeted both junior and mid-career officers, referred to as “DLIs.”

The initiative aimed to prepare junior-officer DLIs2 for careers as FSOs through an intensive multiyear training program. DLIs spent between 4 and 12 months in the Agency’s Washington, D.C., headquarters to complete mandatory orientation, rotations, and formal training. Many also spent 6 to 9 months studying a foreign language. DLIs continued their learning during their first overseas assignment, which typically lasted for 2 years. There, they completed additional training and rotations, and gained hands-on experience in their area of expertise or “backstops.”3

The last class of 23 DLIs entered the Agency on September 23, 2012. At that time, USAID had hired 820 DLIs above attrition—approximately 68.3 percent of the number initially targeted. USAID/HR officials said congressional funding limitations prevented them from hiring the full number. As of January 31, 2014, obligations and disbursements for the initiative were approximately $640 million and $540 million, respectively.

Approximately 21 percent of DLIs were deployed to 16 missions in southern and eastern Africa for their first overseas assignments. Obligations and disbursements for these groups as of January 31, 2014, were $116.7 million and $95.3 million, respectively.

Read the full report here (pdf).

In October 2012, DLI had transitioned to the Career Candidate Corps (C3) program. According to management’s comments to this report, USAID plans to deploy C3s overseas as regular employees within newly established First Tour Officer positions. C3s will reportedly be also given credit for language skill proficiency during the recruitment process in an effort to increase the number of FSOs entering the Agency with tenure level proficiency in a Foreign language thus focusing more resources on language training for Language Designated Positions.

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