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Over a year ago, the Department informed AFSA that it wanted to change the criteria for those seeking entry into the Senior Foreign Service under the “Professional Development Program.” While AFSA supported many of the changes included in the PDP, we expressed deep concern about the so-called “service needs” proposal. Currently, those FSOs interested in opening their window must have served at least one tour at a 15% or higher hardship post. The Department told us it wanted to mandate that FSOs complete a tour at a 25% or greater hardship differential post from entry into the Foreign Service (or a tour at an unaccompanied post from entry), AND a second tour at a 20% or greater differential post after tenure.
During the extended negotiations, the Department’s justification for this radical shift changed constantly. Initially, the proposed changes were necessary to fill vacant positions at greater hardship posts. AFSA pointed out that the Department’s own data revealed that vacancy rates at 20% and higher differential posts are actually lower than the vacancy rates at 0% and 15% posts. Next, the Department claimed that the real problem was that there were too few and/or subpar bidders at certain hardship posts in Africa and South Central Asia. We countered that the recent changes to Fair Share rules and bidding privileges will drive more bidders to 20% and higher posts, alleviating that possible concern. But then the Department changed its rationale a third time, arguing that FSOs need to be exposed to service in high differential posts to build the leadership skills necessary for promotion into the SFS.
AFSA fought back, and took the dispute all the way to the Foreign Service Impasse Disputes Panel (FSIDP) where we argued strenuously that this move is unnecessary (based on the Department’s own data), directly contradicts the Foreign Service Act of 1980, harms members of the Foreign Service, and is untenable. Implementing this proposal would result in a less diverse SFS, we argued, and it contravenes both Section 101 of the Act (which states that “the members of the Foreign Service should be representative of the American people”) as well as Secretary Tillerson’s stated goal of a more diverse Foreign Service. Unfortunately, the FSIDP sided with the Department.
Our position has remained consistent: if the Department can identify a realproblem, AFSA is committed to working with the Department to solve it. Not only did the Department fail to provide evidence of a genuine problem, its proposed solution to its ever-evolving alleged problem is contrary to the Act’s SFS promotion criteria in that it undermines the legal authority of the Selection Boards. Adoption of the Department’s proposal guts the SFS promotion process by transferring decisions regarding the future leadership of the Department from the Selection Boards to HR. Instead of competing for promotion on the strength of their performance evaluations, FSOs will now compete in a “scavenger hunt” for the limited number of positions at 25% or higher posts to meet an arbitrary criterion to be allowed to open their windows and be considered for promotion into the SFS by the Selection Boards. We are quite certain this change will lead to unforeseen difficulties, not only for FSOs but also for regional bureaus, especially those with many FSO positions to fill at 15% posts.
This change in criteria will have an adverse impact on many Foreign Service employees who will not be able to meet the requirements due to the lack of available positions and their own or their family members’ personal situations, thus, undermining the diversity of the SFS. We argued—and provided concrete examples—that many of the greater hardship posts are even more challenging to serve in for tandem couples, for those with medical concerns, for families with children with special needs, or for LGBT FSOs where privileges and immunitiesmay not be granted to their spouses and families. And what about for those who are consistently promoted at the first opportunity—our “fast risers”—are they expected to focus only on hardship posts as they move up?
Unfortunately, now that the FSIDP has ruled, the Department announced this change on December 29 with the release of 17 STATE 127376. We believe this change is likely to result in numerous grievances from FSOs who bid, year after year, on greater hardship posts but were not assigned to such posts, and so we urge all FSOs to keep records of bidding. The Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB) “has long recognized that agencies are responsible for providing Foreign Service Officers with opportunities to advance their careers… [T]his provides a necessary protection in an ‘up or out’ promotion system and is grounded in the FSA and agency regulations.” Further, “a Foreign Service agency has an affirmative obligation to provide each of its officers with fair and reasonable opportunities for development and retention in the Service… [T]he agency cannot simultaneously engage in a process that deprives its officers of those very opportunities…”
AFSA has repeatedly told the Department that it wants to help solve problems in filling FSO positions at greater hardship posts, if they truly exist, but to date the Department has failed to provide any evidence of an actual problem. While AFSA will continue to be collaborative in its labor management relationship with the Department—and we are pleased that our negotiations with the Department yielded many positive changes in the PDP compared with earlier versions—we will not be complicit in the pursuit of a “solution” for which there is no problem. Further, the Department’s changes to the PDP will further complicate bidding simply because there are not enough hardship positions to meet demand. There is no guarantee that talented FSOs, who have to this point progressed quickly through the ranks, will be able to meet these additional requirements to enter the Senior Foreign Service within the prescribed time frame. Those FSOs unable to meet these new requirements—and, given the scarcity of positions available, that will be many FS-01s—will not be allowed to open their windows unless they can convince HR to grant them a waiver.
With the recent FSIDP decision, the Department is now free to implement this radical change through the Professional Development Program. It is AFSA’s intention to approach discussions with the Department with the goal of minimizing adverse impact of this new policy on our members’ careers to the greatest extent possible. Looking toward the future, we urge all members of the Foreign Service to maintain good records of their bidding efforts, and stay tuned as we work with the Department to ensure that the “waiver” portion of its proposal is developed into a robust, transparent, and well-defined system. In accordance with the Department’s ALDAC, those with policy questions should direct their concerns to firstname.lastname@example.org and feel free to share your concerns with us as well.
Despite our disappointment, we look forward to continuing with our overall collaborative and positive relationship with the Department.