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.