USAID’s Job Cancellations Raise Questions About Its Staffing Future and Operations

Posted: 2:58 am ET

 

In early November, we blogged about USAID’s cancellation of all pre-employment offers for all USAID Foreign Service officer positions (see USAID Marks 56th Birthday With Job Cancellations For 97 “Valued Applicants”).

That cancellation email was sent on Tuesday, October 24, to all candidates that had received pre-employment offers.  We understand that FSO positions are advertised by technical “backstops.” This process is lengthy (1-2 years from application to start date) and expensive for the agency. So USAID has now revoked the pre-employment offers for all FSO candidates of multiple backstops.

Why is this expensive?  For those in the pre-employment stage, USAID had already paid for their recruitment, interviews, medical clearances, and security clearances. USAID pre-employment offers are conditional on medical and security clearances. In the past, candidates that complete both clearances join the next incoming C3 class, USAID’s equivalent to the State Department’s A-100 class for officers. We understand that the last C3 class was prior to the new Administration assuming office in January 2017.

So here are a few questions we received in this blog:

  • Is this part of the redesign strategy to merge State and USAID?
  • Given the lengthy and expensive application process, is USAID not planning to hire ANY new FSOs for another year, or two, or more?
  • This USAID decision seem to go against the spirit of the Senate’s September 7 proposed Foreign Operations Appropriations (PDF). Is this raising alarm bells for those interested in maintaining the staffing and operations of USAID?

Perhaps not alarm bells at the moment, but it has attracted congressional interests.  On November 9, the Senate Foreign Relations Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-MD) sent this letter to USAID Administrator Mark Green requesting that he “immediately reverse this misguided decision”, and provide responses to several questions by Thursday, November 22. The letter notes:

Nearly ten years ago Congress challenged USAID to boost the capacity and expertise of its Foreign Service by authorizing the Development Leadership Initiative (DLI) from 2008 –2012. By authorizing the DLI, Congress made clear that having a capable and strong Foreign Service at USAID is essential for a successful foreign policy and national security approach. USAID’s decision to turn away seasoned development experts from the Foreign Service severely undermines U.S. foreign policy and national security goals. It is my understanding that USAlD’s internal guidance on the hiring freeze exempted any position “necessary to meet national security (including foreign relations) responsibilities.” It is difficult to believe that many of these Foreign Service positions do not meet the exemption threshold.

Senator Cardin also wanted the following questions answered:

  • Why is a hiring freeze still in place. and when does USAID expect to lift it?
  • Has USAID qualified any of these positions as national security related, and if so, why did USAID not grant exemptions to the freeze for these positions?
  • How many positions within USAID are exclusively for Foreign Service candidates? How many Foreign Service applicants has USAID accepted in 2017?
  • What does USAID mean that the positions were “cancelled”?
  • Do applicants for these USAID Foreign Service positions have the option to accept a non-Foreign Service post until the hiring freeze is lifted, and will it count towards any Foreign Service requirement or credit they may be pursuing as part of their Foreign Service career?
  • How many exemptions to the hiring freeze has the Agency made to date, both for Foreign Service and non-Foreign Service posts within the Agency?
  • How many open Foreign Service Limited positions are considered exempt from the hiring freeze. and can some ofthose positions be filled by some of the Foreign Service applicants who received the November 1, 2017 notice?
  • Will applicants who received the November 1. 2017 notice be permitted to apply for future foreign service assignments without restarting, from the beginning, the lengthy foreign service application process?
  • How many positions were ultimately created by the Development Leadership Initiative, and how many of those were subsequently “cancelled”?
Previously, on November 1, Ranking Member Nita Lowey of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs asked USAID Administrator Mark Green during a Subcommittee hearing to explain the job cancellationc.  It does not sound from Mr. Green’s response as if he understood the question or aware that jobs for candidates with pre-employment offers had been cancelled. “We’ve not eliminated positions, we’re still on a hiring freeze,” he said, but the federal hiring freeze has long been lifted; the one remaining is Tillerson’s hiring freeze. USAID is a separate agency, or maybe in practice, despite the absence of a “merge”, it’s not separate from State anymore. Administrator Green also said, “We’ve asked for an exception for this class and it was denied”, a response that appears to conflate the job cancellations in late October with an early 2017 USAID request to start a new class.
Click on image below to link to the video of the hearing starting at 1:24:10
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Burn Bag: Getting Swamped By Contractors, Not Yippee Ki Yay!

 

We are getting swamped by contractors. Hiring freeze only means no more direct hires but since the jobs need to get done, we have more and more ‘mercenaries’ among us. As a taxpayer, I do not like to see people paid 20-40% more for the same jobs, swarming and over-numbering employees. For example at FSI, it now could be a 50-50 balance between Civil Service-Foreign Service on one side and contractors on the other. 

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USAID Marks 56th Birthday With Job Cancellations For 97 “Valued Applicants”

Posted: 12:24 am ET
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A report from devex in late October says that 97 foreign service applicants who were already in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s pre-employment process received emails informing them that the positions they applied for no longer exist.

This is the latest round of cancellation emails that have been sent to USAID job applicants as a hiring freeze continues at the agency, the official said.

“Thank you for your interest in a position with US Agency for International Development (USAID). We appreciate the time and effort you committed to pursuing a career with USAID throughout the Agency’s multi‐step application process,” read the email, which Devex obtained.

“After careful deliberation, the Human Capital and Talent Management (HCTM) has determined that given the current staffing needs of the Agency the position you have applied for has been cancelled.”

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Tillerson’s Hiring/Lateral Transfer Freeze: What Priorities Shape Staffing Freeze Exceptions?

Posted: 1:40 am ET
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So Secretary Tillerson has apparently lifted the hiring freeze for WAEs to work the FOIA shop (FS retirees from any agency and CS retirees from DOS are eligible), but Diplomatic Security could not get one position established for its Mobile Security Deployments Office because there is still a freeze on hiring and lateral transfers for the rest of the Foggy Bottom universe?

Diplomatic Security’s Office of Mobile Security Deployments (MSD) is the agency’s emergency security support, crisis response, and special mission component. MSD was originally established in 1985 under the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s (DS) Directorate for Training to provide training and security support to overseas posts. As a result of the 9/11 attacks, the Department in 2002 expanded MSD’s mission to include:

  • Security Support Teams, which deploy to embassies or consulates during periods of immediate threat of terrorist or criminal activity, crisis, natural disaster, or other unusual event.
  • Tactical Support Teams, which provide protection for the Secretary of State and other high-risk VIPs, both domestically and as required when the Secretary is traveling abroad.
  • Integrated Mobile Training Teams, which provide specialized security training at overseas posts for U.S. Government employees and to foreign partners.

According to State/OIG, MSD is authorized 104 Foreign Service, 24 Civil Service, and 26 contractor positions. At the time of the inspection, 25 percent of the Foreign Service positions were unfilled.

DS leadership acknowledged that MSD is critical to the security and safety of the Secretary and the Department’s embassies and consulates. Nonetheless, the office faced, on average, a 13.7 percent shortfall in staffing in the three years prior to 2017. This staffing shortfall resulted in 14 agent positions, or two and a half teams, being unstaffed. The staffing shortfall increased in 2017 to 38 percent; a shortfall of 38 agent positions or staffing for six and a half teams. In addition to reducing the number of teams it deployed, the staffing shortfall also required MSD to prioritize Security Support Team and Tactical Support Team missions over Integrated Mobile Training Team missions. As a result, MSD frequently had to reschedule training missions to address more urgent priorities.

In FY 2016, MSD teams deployed 70 times, often on short notice for periods up to 2 months or more, to locales where U.S. embassies and consulates faced serious security threats. Additionally, from July 2014 through April 2017, MSD dedicated 6 of its 10 teams to continuous missions in South Sudan and Somalia, leaving only 4 teams to address other crises or provide needed training. In December 2016, when every available team was deployed on priority missions, MSD trained senior agents, not normally deployed, to create an additional team in case another crisis arose. DS senior leadership acknowledged the need for additional MSD agents but also recognized DS’ bureau-wide shortage of agents. […] MSD met the standards in 1 FAM 262.5-3(1), which require the office to provide Security Support Teams for emergency support to overseas posts during periods of high threats, crises, or natural disasters. The office also met Department standards in 12 FAH-1 H-024.1-2b, which state that Security Support Teams should provide time-sensitive protective security for ambassadors, post personnel, or facility protection, to generally counter a direct or imminent threat of attack. MSD deployed 25 Security Support Teams in FY 2015, 18 in FY 2016, and 10 through the first 7 months of FY 2017. Among the missions conducted from September 2016 through April 2017, MSD provided protective support during the ordered departure of Embassy Kinshasa personnel due to political protests. During the same period, MSD also provided a protective detail for the Ambassador and a tactical operations center at Embassy Juba in the face of civil unrest. Other Security Support Team missions included support to U.S. embassies in the Gambia, Mauritania, the Republic of the Congo, and Somalia. While at a post, Security Support Teams also provided training to regional security officers, Marine Security Guards, the local guard force and American family members in an effort to strengthen their capability to meet future crises.

The State/OIG report notes that MSD did not have anyone permanently assigned to provide high-level oversight for its administrative operations and procedures per GAO suggestion. So last year, MSD apparently established a temporary position for an employee to exercise high-level, unified oversight of the MSD administrative functions.

OIG found that the two DS Special Agents, each of whom held the position for only a few months, were instrumental in implementing significant improvements in MSD personal property internal controls, including the examples described above. These Special Agents also prepared, drafted or updated 50 standard operating procedures on all areas of MSD operations. Based on these accomplishments, OIG concluded that there is a compelling justification to establish a permanent position to maintain the improvements and to provide long-term stability in the direct oversight of contracts, budget, and property management. Without permanent senior oversight, the office risks reverting to its former practices, including an inability to effectively manage SPE.

SPE stands for Sensitive Protective Equipment which refers to equipment, such as weapons and optical equipment like night-vision goggles, issued to agents in support of their law enforcement, security, and protective missions. State/OIG recommended that the Bureau of Diplomatic Security “should make the Office of Mobile Security Deployments’ temporary administrative chief a permanent position.”

Management Response: In its October 13, 2017, response, the Bureau of Diplomatic Security concurred with the recommendation. The bureau noted that it had updated the internal organizational structure of the office to depict the new position. The bureau further stated that once the Department’s restrictions on hiring and lateral transfers are lifted, it would attempt to establish the position in the General Schedule to ensure permanence and continuity.

Read the full report here.

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Tillerson Delivers to @StateDept’s Africa Bureau Its “Most Significant Management Challenge”

Posted: 12:25 am ET
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All Foreign Service posts in Africa receive post hardship differential, that is, an allowance meant to provide “additional compensation of up to 35 percent over basic compensation for the majority of employees officially stationed or detailed to a mission with extraordinarily difficult living conditions, excessive physical hardship, or notably unhealthful conditions.” More than half of all AF posts have been designated “Historically Difficult to Staff” meaning fewer than three at- grade/in-skill-code bids were received in three of the last four summer bidding cycles. Of all AF posts, 47 percent (24 posts) have also been designated ” Service Need Differential” that is, 20 percent hardship differential/standard 2 year tour of duty gets a 15 percent  bump in pay if employees agree to serve a third year.

According to State/OIG, the AF Bureau’s FY2017 staffing includes 1,147 American Direct Hire overseas, 572 local staff, 140 reemployed annuitants (retired Civil Service or Foreign Service employee rehired on an intermittent basis for no more than 1,040 hours during the year), and 14 rover-employees based overseas who go where they are needed. State/OIG also says that the AF bureau relies on 399 eligible family member employees for its overseas staffing. The 399 EFM employees are not specifically excluded from the State/OIG 1,147 count; we calculate that family member employees encumbering direct-hire positions constitute 34 percent, or a third of the bureau’s overseas workforce. If the 399 employes are in addition to the 1,147 count,  the number would be 25 percent, or a quarter of the bureau’s overseas workforce.

To be sure, staffing the AF Bureau’s posts has suffered from longstanding difficulties. Unfortunately for everyone with few exceptions,  the 69th Secretary of State sure made it worse.

On January 23, 2017, President Trump ordered a freeze on the hiring of Federal civilian employees to be applied across the board in the executive branch (see OMB Issues Initial Guidance For Federal Civilian Hiring Freeze (Read Memo); President Trump Freezes Federal Hiring Regardless of Funding Sources (Read Memo).

In April, while the OMB lifted the hiring freeze, the State Department with very few exceptions continued with its self-imposed freeze (see No thaw in sight for @StateDept hiring freeze until reorganization plan is “fully developed”).  On April 12, 2017, the State Department posted a statement indicating that the current hiring freeze guidance remained in effect particularly as it affected the hiring of Foreign Service family members (see Are #EFM positions literally about to become…extinct under #Tillerson’s watch?).

During the first week of August, amidst cascading bad press of his stewardship of the State Department, Secretary Tillerson quietly “approved an exemption to the hiring freeze that will allow the Department to fill a number of priority EFM positions that are currently vacant. This exemption gives posts authority to fill critical vacancies supporting security, safety and health responsibilities.”

The hiring freeze snared folks who transferred between January and July (FLO April data says 743 jobs were pending due to security clearance or hiring freeze). Deputy Secretary Sullivan told members of the press on August 8 that “almost 800 EFMs [that] have been approved since this – the hiring freeze was imposed.” So, that’s like everyone who’s been waiting since January. And we were all so happy to see folks granted the exemptions that we forgot to ask who’s the “bright” bulb who started this mess. And if these EFM jobs were finally filled in August (a month before the end of the fiscal year), these employees could not all show up to work the following week, given all the paperwork needed and security investigations required.

Freezing EFM jobs never made sense. We’re still floored that it lasted that long and no one told S “But that’s nuts!” Despite Mr. Tillerson slip of the tongue (“we’re styling as the redesign of the State Department”), we can’t imagine the “redesign” resulting in zero jobs for diplomatic spouses overseas, not only because EFM jobs  makes sense and help post morale, but also because it is the cheaper option.  Unless, of course, 1) the “employee-led” redesign teams are proposing that embassies hire third country nationals for mailroom, escort, fingerprinting, and all support services for post overseas, too (yes, we heard North Korean labor imports are way cheaper). Or 2) this is part of the strategery to reduce the FS workforce without going through a reduction-in-force, while maintaining a goal of a 3 for 1 in attrition.

In any case, as we’ve pointed out in May, when the EFMs leave posts during the transfer season, their positions would not have been filled (with very few exceptions) due to the hiring freeze; and they could not be hired at their next posts because of the same hiring freeze. And that’s exactly what happened. In the oral history of the State Department, this will be remembered as that time when the Secretary of State created/produced/delivered one bureau its “most significant management challenge.” We don’t think this is limited to just the AF Bureau but it’s the only one reported on by State/OIG at this time.

Via State/OIG (PDF):

Four previous OIG reports over the past 20 years have highlighted challenges in staffing AF’s overseas posts. OIG found that these challenges persist, despite reforms to Foreign Service bidding and career development processes intended to promote service in hardship posts and bolster bureau efforts to improve recruitment. Hardships at AF’s overseas posts include ethnic violence, deteriorating local infrastructure, evacuations, health risks, high crime, limited recreation opportunities, physical isolation, political instability, pollution, poor medical facilities, severe climates, and substandard schools. All 51 AF posts receive post hardship differential, 27 posts were included in the Historically Difficult to Staff program, and 24 were Service Need Differential posts.

AF’s difficulties in filling its overseas positions were profound. For the 2017 summer bidding season, AF attracted, at most, only one Foreign Service bidder on 37 percent of its positions, leaving 143 of 385 total positions potentially unfilled. The bureau used a broad range of alternative and sometimes costly personnel mechanisms to fill vacancies and short-term gaps. It relied on 399 eligible family member employees, a roster of 140 reemployed annuitants, 14 rovers based overseas, and approximately 50 senior locally employed staff members to fill staffing gaps and support essential services. AF also filled about 25 percent of its 2017 positions with entry-level employees. AF overseas management officers who responded to an OIG survey cited concerns about eligible family member employment as their most significant management challenge. Because of the Department-wide hiring freeze, these positions could not be filled as they became vacant. These vacancies are of concern because, as explained by the Government Accountability Office in 2009, staffing and experience gaps place at risk diplomatic readiness, particularly for high-threat environments such as those in which AF operates.

For readers who are not familiar with the Foreign Service and spouse employment — say you and your spouse arrived at a 2-year assignment at a post in Africa in late October 2016. You found an embassy job in December 2016 but was not officially hired prior to January 22, 2017, so you would have been included in the hiring freeze. When the EFM exemptions were granted on August 4, you would have already waited some eight months to start on that embassy job. Wait, but you needed a security clearance or an interim security clearance which could also take a few weeks to 90 days (or longer). By the time you officially start work, you have some 12-14 months to do the job (maybe less). And then you move on to your next  post and do this process all over again. Now, imagine doing this every 2-3 years, that’s the arc of the working life of a diplomatic spouse.