Be Awesome

Look, our forefathers died for the "pursuit of happiness," okay? Not for the "sit around and wait of happiness." Now if you want, we can go to the same bar, drink the same beer, talk to the same people every day or you can lick the Liberty Bell. You can grab life by the crack and lick the crap out of it.
--Barney (HIMYM)

Monday, July 25, 2011

An In-Depth Look at the USAID Assignment Process

The USAID Assignment process is a work in progress that is rapidly making adjustments and improvements.  This post will discuss the challenges the USAID process faces and how it is operating today.

Challenges in Assignment Process
1) DLI is a New Hiring Program
USAID has only recently begun to bring in new FSOs in large numbers with the Development Leadership Initiative (DLI) program.  Before that, USAID had various other FSO recruiting initiatives in the past 10 years called the New Entry Professional (NEP) program and the International Development Internship (IDI) program.  But these hiring programs were no where near the scale of the DLI program.  Unlike the State Department, which has regularly brought in new Officers every month for many years to create a very routine system for assignment, the USAID system is working on catching up on the learning curve.  So generally, there are a lot of fine tunings and details that USAID is improving on how they work assignments. 

2) FSOs all have different functions/backstops
There are several different functions (backstops) that FSOs come in as.  In order to prepare FSOs for management roles, they need to spend their initial posting working in their particular technical function.  This requires matching the FSO to a Mission with the most suitable supervisor and capability to take on a first tour Officer.  This is different than where at State, pretty much every location has a demand/need for Consular Officers which all new FSOs must serve.

In some ways, perhaps this problem could be alleviated by combining functions to "cones" like State (ex. combine Contracting, Financial Management, and Executive Officer into one cone), but for other functions this would be very difficult as they are very specialized.  Even Contracting itself takes a great deal of experience and knowledge to become especially proficient to gain mastery of the FAR, have the capability to execute both Contracts and Assistance (grants), and develop the judgement to know which method is most appropriate to create an agreement to either transition the effort to the grantee (sustainability) or craft the right contract to make sure work is done properly.  So combining this to just create more assignment flexibility might not be the best solution as each of these functions are very different in roles/responsibilities.

3) Management Supply in Missions
New Junior Officers need to be supervised and managed by another FSO in their first assignment.   This is rather surprising to have to be an issue but due to irregular hiring in the past, there are insufficient numbers of appropriate supervisors abroad to support the incoming Officers.  So, the Agency is at the point where there is a backlog of Officers to be assigned due to delays in creating positions in the Mission or awaiting for position to become open to then place them.  In the next few years, this problem should no longer exist as the DLIs from the 2008-2010 classes finish their first assignment and move into supervisory roles, but will be a potential hurdle until then.

4) National Security Decision Directive 38 (NSDD-38)
 This is a mandate that gives the Chief of Mission (COM) of the Embassy (aka Ambassador) final say on the size and composition of US government personnel staffing in their particular country.  There are many different types of rational and political reasons for controlling the number of US government personnel in a particular country.  It becomes a challenge for the USAID assignment process since all new assignments must be approved by the COM.  So while USAID may have approval and need for a particular number of FSOs, it could still be denied due to NSDD-38.

How USAID Assignment Used to Work (in prior DLI classes)
The assignment process used to work with all entry officers submitting a preference sheet indicating family considerations, particular skills, and regional interests during the 5 week orientation.  At the end of orientation, there would be a "flag day" ceremony where officers would receive their initial assignment.  This was possible at the time due to a large number of vacant positions available overseas and the above challenges were less of an issue.

How the USAID Assignment Process Works Today
There are three general ways Officers receive their assignments today.  Each function (backstop) has a Backstop Coordinator who manages their particular group of officers in terms of training and assignments.

A) The Backstop Coordinator might receive the preference sheets of their new Officers and then discusses personally with them and works out an appropriate assignment based off of the available openings.

B) The Backstop Coordinator reviews the preference sheets of their new Officers and makes assignments based off of the available openings.

C) The Backstop Coordinator compiles and confirms available positions and then sends out a preference list (bid list) to DLIs to rank order and return.  The Backstop Coordinator then makes assignments off of individual considerations, rankings, and availability.  This is the method currently in place for the Contracting Officer Backstop.

I feel method C is the most fair and transparent of all the methods for assignments and I feel fortunate to have a very capable Backstop Coordinator.  In other backstops, there are stories of individuals politicking and maneuvering to obtain particular assignments and I much more appreciate the open process of the preference list.  While every FSO signs up for World-Wide Availability, it is natural to have a particular preference for various places and method C allows adequate voice in the process while still adhering to the availability agreement.

On Friday, our Coordinator sent out the preference list of postings to rank order and return.  Soon, I hope to know where to look forward to be going.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Advice for Foreign Service Officers

Throughout orientation, lectures, emails, and meetings, I've come across a multitude of advice and words of wisdom for Foreign Service Officers.  Here's a compilation of some of the remarks I particularly like.

Work Related:
  • Be flexible and contribute where you can.  Perform every task professionally and positively.  Always make yourself useful.
  • Be relevant to broader concerns. Contribute to US foreign policy as related to development, work toward the greater good, and contribute to overall objectives.
  • Learn budget, financial management, programming, and executive correspondence.  These are critical skills, the vegetables that will make you strong.
  • Work well in interdisciplinary teams.  Translate skills and expertise to be relevant to others.
  • Gain an expertise in a technical area.  Be an expert and the "go-to" person.  Read.
  • Establish a network of "go-to" people.  (FSNs, other FSOs, Exos, contacts in DC, etc.)

  • Broaden contacts and establish relationships within the embassy, with the host country, and with business leaders and representatives.
  • Exercise intellectual curiosity.  Share the excitement of this field of work.
  • Challenge oneself and take responsibility for difficult tasks.
  • Take charge of your own career and direction.  Only you will look out for your best interests.
  • Seek mentors and mentor others.
  • Don't assume the system works efficiently or should be the way in the previous place you worked.  Understand the culture, build relationships, and improve things.
  • Always be a diplomat, 24/7, in professional and personal affairs.  Understand that responsibility.
  • Don't succumb to inappropriate behavior, even if you see it around you (and not penalized).
  • Don't lose sight of what you joined the Foreign Service to do.
And lastly, the advice that was given the first day we started and has been repeated consistently throughout is to manage your reputation.  It is one of the most valuable assets.  How one is known to operate can be as important as to what one does.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Civil Service (GS) to Foreign Service (FS) to Military Officers (O) Comparison

Inter-agency coordination is very important in foreign affairs.  There are actually around seven different agencies that have foreign operations.  When working with others, especially in the Embassy/Mission, understanding the chain of command will help.  Below is a chart of how the various grade levels approximately compare.

Most junior officers tend to enter the Foreign Service at the FS-06 level, particularly low on the totem pole compared to our counterparts.  However, Foreign Service Officers are administratively promoted each year to FS-04 where they will then enter competitive status among other FSOs for future promotions. 

Civil Service (GS) to Foreign Service (FS) to Military Officers (O)
***UPDATE 9/28/2014: In my experience thus far with the Foreign Service, this comparison chart has pretty much no validity or function in reality.  The Civil/Foreign Service comparison to military counterparts are not used for anything and would be laughable, and/or embarrassing, if used.  And for Civil/Foreign Service comparisons, the most it might be used for are comparisons for salaries in the event of a Civil Service to Foreign service conversion.
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