What is a commission?
Wikipedia has a pretty good answer for this stating that it is a document used to appoint individuals to a position or for providing rank and status to military officers. It then goes on to say that the process is required also for a wide range of civilian officials such as Supreme court judges, heads of departments, and members of the Foreign Service.
The documents are generally issued and signed in the name of the President or delegated official and include the seal of the United States or by the particular department issuing the appointment.
So for the FS, a commission certificate is a document and it is signed by the President.
Commissioning of Foreign Service Officers is authorized under the Foreign Service Act of 1980, as amended, and defined as a legal recognition granted by the President, with the advice and consent of the U.S. Senate, to Foreign Service Officers. Each member commissioned receives an appointment commission certificate signed by the President. Whereas tenure is an internal Agency administrative process, commissioning is both an internal and an external process requiring extensive clearances, Presidential nomination, Senate confirmation, and Presidential attestation.
What are the requirements?
The USAID Agency policy of "ADS 435 Commissions, Titles and Rank" provides the following two requirements for USAID Foreign Service Officers to be eligible for commissioning. The officer 1) must be tenured and 2) must be at the class of FP-03 or above.
While I'm not so sure about why the requirement for being FP-03 or above, the other requirement to be tenured before beginning the long commission process (almost a year for myself) makes sense for the Agency to ensure the individual is at least tenured which indicates they have the demonstrated potential for a full career with the Agency.
What does the commission do?
- Diplomatic titles
- When assigned abroad, the State Department has the Foreign Affairs Handbook policy (3 FAH-1 H-2430) which discusses the usage of diplomatic titles and what may or may not be used depending on if the individual is commissioned or not. For example, a title of a "Second Secretary" is considered a diplomatic title in which the individual must be commissioned.
- Technically, the commissioning enables FSOs to take on these diplomatic titles while assigned overseas and assume associated roles reserved for commissioned officers.
- Do these titles make a difference at the end of the day? Not really so much. As to whether you are commissioned or not, or considered diplomatic or administrative/technical staff, you will still be performing the particular functions of your position for the post and that's mostly it. There are some very specific instances in terms of some privileges in a particular country granted to one type, but not the other, but it is all mostly the same.
- Per ADS 472 "Premium Compensation", commissioned officers are no longer eligible for overtime compensation. May not make a big difference as the culture or provision of overtime generally comes down to Mission policy, culture, or supervisor expectations which tend to trend more to managing working hours to make sure everything is accomplished versus counting hours and seeking overtime.
- There are some specific cases, like being posted to Afghanistan, where commissioned officers are currently provided a 20% incentive differential to base salary which is unavailable to non-commissioned officers. Non-commissioned though instead have the ability to request and receive overtime compensation. But doing the math, I mostly calculate it as a near wash in terms of which would compensate higher, and this is an incentive that could go away at any time.
When commissioned, I've heard some say it provides special reappointment rights into the Foreign Service if you leave (not retirement). Per policy however, only being tenured affords this possibility, being commissioned is not required. This is discussed in ADS 414 "Foreign Service Appointments".
Unless my career takes me to the potential of entering the Senior Foreign Service (which provides another commission certificate), I anticipate being in the rat race of promotion up to the FS-01 for years to come. I look forward to the new adventures, experiences, and challenges along the way.