AFSA Shouts “Fire!” and a @StateDept Spox on Background Asks, “Fire, What Fire?”

Posted: 2:58 pm PT
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The piece below, in case you have not read it yet, is an advance copy of AFSA President Barbara Stephenson’s opinion essay on the depletion of the Foreign Service career ranks. Not NYT or the Washington Post but for a December 2017 column in the Foreign Service Journal, the group’s trade publication with a reported circulation of 17,500 and approximately 35,000 readers (this column was also circulated via an email marketing service). We’ve been watching the departures from the State Department since January, and this is the first time we’re seeing these numbers. And frankly, the first time we’re hearing the alarm from the “voice of the Foreign Service.” We have some thoughts below after the piece.

 

Time to Ask Why
December 2017 Foreign Service Journal
President’s Views

By AFSA President Ambassador Barbara Stephenson

I begin with a reminder that we, the members of the career Foreign Service, have an obligation as stewards of our institution to be effective advocates for why diplomacy matters. That requires some skill in explaining how diplomacy works.

While raising awareness of and appreciation for the Foreign Service is a longstanding goal, one AFSA has pursued with renewed vigor and impact over the past couple years, the need to make the case for the Foreign Service with fellow Americans and our elected representatives has taken on a new urgency. The cover of the Time magazine that arrived as I was writing this column jarred me with its graphic of wrecking balls and warning of “dismantling government as we know it.”

While I do my best, as principal advocate for our institution and as a seasoned American diplomat, to model responsible, civil discourse, there is simply no denying the warning signs that point to mounting threats to our institution—and to the global leadership that depends on us.

There is no denying that our leadership ranks are being depleted at a dizzying speed, due in part to the decision to slash promotion numbers by more than half. The Foreign Service officer corps at State has lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors since January. Ranks of Career Ministers, our three-star equivalents, are down from 33 to 19. The ranks of our two-star Minister Counselors have fallen from 431 right after Labor Day to 369 today—and are still falling. 

These numbers are hard to square with the stated agenda of making State and the Foreign Service stronger. Were the U.S. military to face such a decapitation of its leadership ranks, I would expect a public outcry. Like the military, the Foreign Service recruits officers at entry level and grows them into seasoned leaders over decades. The talent being shown the door now is not only our top talent, but also talent that cannot be replicated overnight. The rapid loss of so many senior officers has a serious, immediate, and tangible effect on the capacity of the United States to shape world events.

Meanwhile, the self-imposed hiring freeze is taking its toll at the entry level. Intake into the Foreign Service at State will drop from 366 in 2016 to around 100 new entry-level officers joining A100 in 2018 (including 60 Pickering and Rangel Fellows).

Not surprisingly, given the blocked entry path, interest in joining the Foreign Service is plummeting. I wrote with pride in my March 2016 column that “more than 17,000 people applied to take the Foreign Service Officer Test last year,” citing interest in joining the Foreign Service as a key indicator of the health of the institution. What does it tell us, then, that we are on track to have fewer than half as many people take the Foreign Service Officer Test this year?

As the shape and extent of the staffing cuts to the Foreign Service at State become clearer, I believe we must shine a light on these disturbing trends and ask “why?” and “to what end?”   

Congress rejected drastic cuts to State and USAID funding. The Senate labeled the proposed cuts a “doctrine of retreat” and directed that appropriated funds “shall support” staffing State at not less than Sept. 30, 2016, levels, and further directed that “The Secretary of State shall continue A-100 entry-level classes for FSOs in a manner similar to prior years.”

Given this clear congressional intent, we have to ask: Why such a focus on slashing staffing at State? Why such a focus on decapitating leadership? How do these actions serve the stated agenda of making the State Department stronger?

Remember, nine in ten Americans favor a strong global leadership role for our great country, and we know from personal experience that such leadership is unthinkable without a strong professional Foreign Service deployed around the world protecting and defending America’s people, interests and values.  Where then, does the impetus come from to weaken the American Foreign Service?  Where is the mandate to pull the Foreign Service team from the field and forfeit the game to our adversaries?

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AFSA says that the Foreign Service officer corps “has lost 60 percent of its Career Ambassadors since January.” We winced when we saw that one. Not all career diplomats attain this rank; in fact, only a handful of individuals are nominated by the President to become Career Ambassadors but this is the very top rank of the Foreign Service, equivalent to a four-star general. Imagine if the Pentagon lost 60 percent of its 0-10 but way, way worse because the Foreign Service is a much smaller service, and the loss of one or two officials have significant impact to the leadership ranks.

When we saw the AFSA message Tuesday night, we noticed that social media started latching on to the 60 percent loss.  AFSA could have used actual numbers as it did with the break down of the second and third top ranks in the FS, but for its own reason, it used the percentage instead of actual numbers for the career ambassadors. So that caused a mild feeding frenzy that’s not helpful because when folks realize that 60 percent is really 3 out of 5 career ambassadors, they won’t be happy.

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Snapshot: @StateDept’s Civil Service and Foreign Service Retirements, January-October 2017

Posted: 1:33 am ET
Updated: 11:01 am PT
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The following are clips with the names of Civil Service and Foreign Service employees who retired from the State Department from January to October this year. The names were published in the monthly trade magazine of the State Department. It looks like there are three non-career appointees included in the lists below. Political ambassadors conclude their appointments at the end of their tours, they do not “retire” from the Foreign Service as they are not career members. (Correction: We understand that if, at the time of conclusion of the non-career appointment, the person has sufficient federal government service (in various capacities during an entire career) and is otherwise eligible for federal retirement benefits, then the person can, in fact, “retire.” We do not know if they get Foreign Service retirement). We’ve asked if these names come from the Bureau of Human Resources but we have not received a response as of this writing. An unofficial source told us that these names come from HR but that there is typically a lag of a couple of months from actual retirement to publication of the name in State Magazine.

The *June and *July/August lists are particularly problematic due to some duplication of names on both lists but we’re posting these here for a snapshot of the departures. This does not include non-retirement separations. Based on these imperfect lists, the total retirements for the first 10 months of 2017 are at least a couple hundred employees each for the Civil Service and the Foreign Service. And we still have a couple months to go.

However, since the federal government manages its records by fiscal year, DGHR should already have the retirements and non-retirement separation data for FY2017 that ended on September 30, 2017. The State Department has always been proud of its low attrition rate, if our HR friends want to tout the FY2017 attrition data, let us know.

January 2017 – CS-24; FS-14

February 2017: CS-10; FS-45

March 2017: CS-47; FS-25

April 2017: CS-43; FS-25

May 2017: CS-16; FS-4

*June 2017: CS-54; FS-56


*July/August 2017: CS-41; FS-57
September 2017: CS-17; FS-34

October 2017: CS-11; FS-22


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@StateDept/USAID Staffing Cut and Attrition: A Look at Real Numbers and Projected Attrition

Posted: 3:32 am ET
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In late April, Bloomberg reported that Secretary Tillerson is seeking a 9% cut in State Department staffing with majority of the job cuts, about 1,700, through attrition, while the remaining 600 will be done via buyouts.

9% Staffing Cut: A Look at the Numbers

The following is the best numbers we could come up with for the State Department and for USAID. The State Department data is from its HR Fact Sheet as of March 31, 2017, while the USAID data is from the Semi-Annual USAID Worldwide Staffing Report from September 30, 2016.

The 3% personnel cut mentioned in some media reports is if the staffing cut is applied to the entire State Department workforce  (2300/75,555).  If we include USAID’s workforce in this calculation, the staffing cut would be 2.7% (2300/84,048). More than half of the total combined workforce, some 55,148 employees are Foreign Service Nationals, also known as Locally Employed Staff (LES) in over 275 posts around the world. One notable thing about FSNs is their compensation. Almost all of them are paid under local compensation plans. Unless the State Department is slashing FSN positions in high-income economies where local compensations are as high as in the U.S., the savings realized from eliminated local positions would barely register.  The reported staff reduction does not specify if FSNs will be affected.  However, if there are post closures in the next 2-3 years, the likelihood for a reduction-in-force for local employees would inevitably follow. So far, we have not heard of post closures, but we suspect that with the kind of cuts projected in FY2018 funding, and potentially in the fiscal years after that — it will only be a matter of time before this dog bites.

The 9% personnel cut reported by some media outlets is if the staffing cut is applied to the State Department’s U.S. direct-hire employees to include Foreign Service and Civil Service employees only (2300/25,007). If we include USAID’s direct-hire workforce in this calculation, the staffing cut would be 7.9%.

1,700 Through Attrition: A look at the Numbers

The Bloomberg report also says that the personnel cuts which includes 1,700 through attrition may be phased in over two years. We don’t have the attrition projection for USAID but there is one for the Foreign Service which projects the total Foreign Service attrition at 2,450 for the next five years.  The average annual attrition for Foreign Service Officers is 261 and 230 for FS Specialists from FY2016-2020 or 490 per year.

Note that the highest projected attrition for FSOs is in the Political and Economic career tracks. Among FSSs, the highest projected attrition occurs in the security officer, office management, and information management skills group.

So, if the State Department is phasing in this personnel cuts of 1,700 through attrition over two years, the projected attrition for FSOs/FSSs for the next two years is only 980.  That means they have to find the rest of their attrition number of 720 from a combination of State Department Civil Service (and USAID/FS-CS, if USAID is part of the calculation), and Foreign Service Nationals (locally hired employees).  They also have to find 600 who are willing to take a buyout to get to 2,700.

If you know anything more about where this is going, get in touch!

 

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Career Ambassador Kristie Kenney Bids Farewell After 37 Years of Public Service

Posted: 3:19 am ET
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Ambassador Kristie Kenney announced her final day as a U.S. diplomat on April 28 via Twitter.  Ambassador Kenney is a career member of the Senior Foreign Service. She was appointed as the 32nd Counselor of the Department of State in 2016 and she served in that role until she stepped down in February 2017.  She served as President George W. Bush’s Ambassador to Ecuador and the Philippines, and President Obama’s Ambassador to Thailand. She was the first female ambassador to both Thailand and the Philippines.  Her Washington, D.C assignments include service as the Executive Secretary of the Department of State, Director of the State Department Operations Center, and as a member of the National Security Council staff under President Clinton. She also served in Argentina, Switzerland and Jamaica.  She is a recipient of the Secretary of State’s Distinguished Service Award and holds the nation’s highest diplomatic rank of Career Ambassador in the United States Foreign Service (she joined in 1980). She served as the Department of State Transition Coordinator for the 2016-17 Transition.

Looking through social media, it is notable to see that members of the foreign publics have expressed appreciation for the work of a U.S. public servant, while some members of the American public seem to have gone out of their ways to be unpleasant strangers to public servants who faithfully served this country.

We’ve covered Ambassador Kenney in this blog for quite a bit. A trip down memory lane to bid farewell.

 

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Snapshot: Historical and Projected Foreign Service Attrition

Posted: 3:39 am  ET
Updated: Feb 14, 2:18 pm PT: Notification reportedly went out o/a 9 pm on Feb 13 that the FSO/FSS March classes are on.
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According to the State Department, Foreign Service (FS) and Civil Service (CS) attrition is categorized as either non-retirements or retirements and as voluntary or involuntary.  Nearly all retirements in the CS are voluntary; however, in the FS, retirements may be either voluntary or involuntary.  Between FY 2016 and FY 2020, the Department projects that close to 5,400 career CS and FS employees will leave the Department due to various types of attrition.

Via state.gov:

Involuntary retirements include those due to reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65, which cannot be waived unless an employee is serving in a Presidential appointment, and those who trigger the “up-or-out” rules in the FS personnel system (e.g., restrictions in the number of years FS employees can remain in one class or below the Senior Foreign Service threshold).

Voluntary non-retirements include resignations, transfers, and deaths.

Involuntary non-retirements consist of terminations, as well as “selection out” of tenured employees and non-tenured decisions for entry level FS employees.

Overall attrition in the FS increased from 485 in FY 2014 to 539 in FY 2015. Most FS attrition is due to retirements. In FY2015, over two thirds of all separations in the FS were retirements. For the FY 2016 to FY 2020 period, the attrition mix is expected to be 81 percent retirements and 19 percent non-retirements.

FS Generalist Attrition in FY2014 is 242; in FY2015 the humber is 279. The number of retirements increased from 169 in FY 2014 to 186 in FY 2015 and the number of non-retirements increased from 73 in FY 2014 to 93 in FY 2015. FS Generalist attrition rates increased only slightly from 3.3 percent in FY 2014 to 3.8 percent in FY 2015. Most of the non-retirements were at the entry-level.

FS Specialist Attrition in FY2014 is 243;  and in FY 2015 the number is 260. The number of retirements decreased from 179 in FY 2014 to 178 in FY 2015 and the number of non- retirements grew from 64 in FY 2014 to 82 in FY 2015. FS Specialist attrition rates increased slightly from 4.7 percent in FY 2014 to 4.8 percent in FY 2015. (Counts exclude conversions within the FS and into the CS. Rates include conversions.)

attrition

|>> Attrition in the FS workforce is projected to average 491 employees per year between FY 2016 and FY 2020, nearly nine percent lower than last year’s projected average annual attrition of 541. This projection represents a two percent decrease per year when compared to the annual average attrition of 500 for the past five years.

|>>As detailed in Tables 11 and 12, the projected average annual attrition over the next five years for FS Generalists is expected to essentially mirror the average annual attrition of the previous five years, 261 vs. 257, and the average for the FS Specialist workforce is expected to decrease by five percent, 230 vs. 243.

|>>The two largest FS Specialist groups – Security Officers and Office Management Specialists – account for over 40 percent of the average annual Specialist attrition. As the attrition trends change, attrition projections will be revised next year to further reflect the changes in separations.

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U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy Powell to Retire in May After 37 Years in the FS

— Domani Spero
The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi announced today the retirement of Ambassador Nancy Powell after 37 years in the Foreign Service:

Ambassador Nancy J. Powell Photo via US Embassy India/FB

Ambassador Nancy J. Powell
Photo via US Embassy India/FB

U.S. Ambassador to India Nancy J. Powell announced in a U.S. Mission Town Hall meeting March 31 that she has submitted her resignation to President Obama and, as planned for some time, will retire to her home in Delaware before the end of May.  She is ending a thirty-seven year career that has included postings as U.S. Ambassador to Uganda, Ghana, Pakistan, Nepal and India as well as service in Canada, Togo, Bangladesh, and Washington, where she was most recently Director General of the Foreign Service.  Ambassador Powell expressed her appreciation for the professionalism and dedication of the U.S. Mission to India team who have worked to expand the parameters of the U.S.-India bilateral relationship.  She also thanked those throughout India who have extended traditional warm Indian hospitality to her and who have supported stronger bilateral ties.

 

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