AFSA Newsletter - November 2015

November 2015, Volume 29, Number 4

“Strong Diplomacy” and an Important Role for Retirees

On September 23, AFSA President Ambassador Barbara Stephenson addressed members of the Foreign Affairs Retirees of Northern Virginia at the first monthly luncheon of its 2015-2016 season. Elected on a “Strong Diplomacy” platform, she shared her vision of strengthening diplomacy during her tenure as president and invited retirees to participate in that endeavor by joining AFSA’s Speakers Bureau, to tell America our Foreign Service story.

FARNOVA host David Jones opened by reading an excerpt from Ambassador Stephenson’s first column as AFSA president in the Foreign Service Journal: "Ours is a remarkable story of service, of delivering for our country in the face of unique challenges. I want us to own that story, to take pride and find strength in it, and to share it with the American people. In the coming months, you will hear more from me about an enhanced outreach effort to tell our story and stepped-up efforts to mentor and develop the next generation. These, along with my pledge to take a comprehensive, strategic look at workforce planning, form the core of my vision for my tenure as president."

The goal, she said, should be to provide all members of the Foreign Service with a career path healthy and attractive enough to retain them for the long haul while they develop into seasoned leaders. Restoring the apprenticeship model will be critical for accomplishing this.

According to Stephenson, diplomats should be at the forefront of addressing today’s global challenges. She described a “new threat set” in climate change, new non-regulated domains (oceans, cyber and outer space), and pandemics among others—which are immune to the application of military force. The U.S. still has pre-eminent "soft" power and the Foreign Service can play a convening role to bring together multidisciplinary thought leaders from public, private and civil sectors for crafting fair solutions.

Today’s diplomats must be literate in science and technology and be familiar with leading experts in these fields in order to define agendas focused on the most pressing, promising issues. The world is desperate for leadership to address global challenges and the American Foreign Service is ideally placed to build frameworks for such cooperation.

Stephenson spoke enthusiastically about how retirees can help strengthen the Foreign Service, by joining the Speaker’s Bureau: “We need to tell our Foreign Service story all across the country, so the public understands the importance of our work.” She spoke glowingly of Ambassador Pat Butenis, ad interim AFSA retiree representative, and her passion for involving retirees in outreach.

Telling America the FS story

On Sept. 24, Ambassador (ret.) Pat Butenis launched a discussion of the Speakers Bureau on the online AFSA Community. Frustrated with how little people know about the Foreign Service’s crucial work overseas, she wrote:

“I join our new President, Amb. Barbara Stephenson in a passion to engage the American public on the centrality of the Foreign Service to U.S. foreign relations... I have been exploring how we could expand the AFSA Speakers Bureau to reach more people with our story. I am happy to report that in the last six months almost 180 new members have joined the Speakers Bureau, more than doubling its size. Yet, with over 70% of … members in the… DC area, we especially need speakers to reach audiences ‘beyond the beltway’… a job tailor-made for our retirees, who live all across the country.

In her Sept. 23rd address… Amb. Stephenson encouraged (retirees) to join… with AFSA on the Speakers Bureau. We see Foreign Service retiree groups as the essential ‘force multipliers’ to reach the American public with our Foreign Service story.

I myself within the last two months have offered to speak at two South Jersey high schools, to a retirement community association and am invited to meet with undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania to talk about my career and our work. I will let you know how those events went while I seek out more venues to spread the word about the Foreign Service.

I think the online AFSA Community is a great place for Speaker Bureau members to share experiences and learn from each other, not only with tips on presentations themselves, but also on how to identify and develop opportunities to engage new audiences. If you have already spoken at a community event – tell us. If you are seeking opportunities to do so – tell us. If you have suggestions about speaking venues–tell us.

Update on OPM Data Breach— Notifications Imminent

On Oct. 1, the office of the State Department’s Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy forwarded to AFSA a message from the acting director of the Office of Personnel Management. The message stated that they “began mailing notification letters to the individuals whose personal information was stolen in a malicious cyber intrusion carried out against the Federal Government,” referring to the hacking of security clearance files affecting up to 21.5 million individuals, disclosed by OPM on June 12.

This follows an earlier notification to the 4.2 million federal workers whose personally identifiable information (PII) had been hacked, announced by OPM last June 4. On the same day, U/S Kennedy sent an email to State employees declaring, “data on State Department employees (Civil and Foreign Service, active and retiree and FSN retirees under the old CSR system) was not on the OPM systems involved.”

Few AFSA members are thought to have been affected by the earlier PII hack. But any employee who has had a security clearance done or updated since 2000 (including family members named on a clearance) is likely involved in the larger hack subsequently detected. The notifications will be made under a $133 million contract awarded to ID Experts (dba Identity Theft Guard Solutions). The email made it clear that affected individuals will be notified by OPM, not the contractor, via the U.S. Postal Service, not by email. If you receive an email or a letter from an entity other than OPM, it should be treated as potential fraud. Neither will OPM contact people by phone to confirm personal information.

The services offered will include complimentary identity theft protection and credit monitoring for at least three years to impacted individuals and their dependent minor children, as well as identity theft insurance and identity restoration services. The letter will also explain any other additional services available to victims. OPM will indicate in the letter if the impacted individual is among the about 5.6 million whose fingerprints were also stolen. Given the number of people impacted, it may be November before all victims receive letters. Check the OPM Data Breach section at www.afsa.org/opm-breach for updates.

Rest assured, AFSA is diligent about advocating for solutions that fit the unique challenges FS families face. In partnership with the members of the Federal-Postal Coalition, we monitor and support legislative proposals that address those challenges and seek to address your concerns promptly and effectively.

Latest from OPM: On Oct. 8, we received an official response to AFSA’s letter to then-OPM Director Katherine Archuleta regarding our concerns over the impact of the data breach on our members. The response from Acting Director Beth Cobert asked us to encourage our members to take advantage of the resources available on OPM’s cyber web site at www.opm.gov/cybersecurity. OPM has added AFSA to the national level employee groups to whom it provides regular updates when posting to its website. If you are a victim and, upon notification, experience problems contacting the contractor or have trouble taking advantage of the solutions offered, email us at retiree@afsa.org (put “OPM Data Breach” in subject line). Please also consider sharing comments with the online AFSA Community at www.afsa.org/community.

Tips on TSP and Smarter Planning for Retirement

On Oct. 8, AFSA hosted its 11th Federal Benefits Speakers Series—Planning for Retirement—featuring two financial planners familiar with the Foreign Service: G.B. Bose of Washington Retirement Planning Specialists and Patrick Beagle of WealthCrest Financial Services. Almost 100 attendees filled the room for two 30-minute presentations and hour of Q&A. The program is well worth viewing, for both retirees and for those who won’t retire for years, view at www.afsa.org/video. A few of their prize financial tips follow.

The Thrift Savings Plan (TSP) is an incredible deal for federal workers. It allows great portfolio diversification at super-low management fees, less than 19 cents for $1,000 of assets managed. Every employee should contribute at least 5 percent of their income to TSP to get the full 5 percent government match. Anything less is losing free money. Even better is maximizing TSP contributions at $18,000 per year, with an additional $6,500 catch-up contribution for those over the age of 50. Another great deal became effective in 2010, allowing those with adjusted gross incomes over $100,000 to convert their TSPs (or 401Ks) to tax free Roth IRAs. One has to pay tax when converting, but once in a Roth, it grows tax free; future withdrawals are never taxed. For example, if one converted $100,000 to a Roth and separately paid the $30,000 tax, that $30,000 could be recouped in six years if annual growth averaged 5 percent.

Attendees were reminded that retirement has three major financial risks; longevity, inflation and distributions. If we live to age 65, we have an 80 percent chance of living to at least 85. Healthcare inflation is running at 7-8 percent per year. A “safe” withdrawal rate from TSP or an IRA is generally considered to be 4 percent. Thus, a $300,000 TSP could provide $12,000 in income a year, but only $8,000 after taxes. Social Security is under stress; within 20 years, only two workers will support a retiree versus three workers today. That’s why maximizing one’s TSP is so important. Workers should try to contribute at least 10 percent of their salaries. If you get a tax refund, contribute more next year.

Whether one leaves funds in the TSP or converts to a traditional IRA, at age 70.5, one has to begin taking automatic distributions and pay tax on them. Failure incurs a 50 percent penalty of the IRS-required withdrawal, a good reason to pay tax up front to convert to a Roth, which is not only not taxed but has no mandatory withdrawal requirement. On auto insurance, increase the deductible if needed to get $100,000/person and $300,000/accident liability coverage. To choose a financial planner, know the right questions to ask. Do they work on a set fee or commission? It matters. Watch the video for additional questions you should ask.

2016 Health Premiums Up

OPM has announced health insurance premiums for federal employees and retirees electing Self and Family plans will rise on average 7 percent in 2016. But, those eligible for new Self Plus One Plans will pay an average of 6 percent less in 2016 premiums. OPM estimates 33 percent of active employees and 80 percent of retirees with Self & Family plans will be able to switch to Self Plus One coverage.

Specific 2016 FEHB premium rates will be released soon, prior to the Nov. 9 start of Open Season. You cannot change to Self Plus One directly through your FEHB insurance company. You must instead fill out SF2809, sign it and mail to: Human Resource Service Center, DOS, 1999 Dyess Ave., Charleston SC 29405. Or, email it as a scanned attachment to HRSC@state.gov or fax it to HRSC (843-202-3807) during Open Season (Nov. 9 to Dec. 14).

You can download SF2809 from www.OPM.gov. Or, call HRSC at 1-866-300-7419 to receive a mailed copy. Be sure to get it in by the Dec. 14 deadline. Premiums for the Federal Employee Dental and Vision Insurance Program have yet to be released.

World Premiere Screening of “America’s Diplomats”

AFSA members are invited to a private screening at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov.19 in the Amphitheater of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., Washington DC.

The film, produced by the Foreign Policy Association and to be shown on PBS in 2016, illustrates the historic contributions of American diplomacy to the welfare and security of the U.S. and describes challenges and achievements of contemporary American diplomacy. It includes interviews with Secretary of State John F. Kerry and former Secretary of State James A. Baker, III as well as with Foreign Service Officers. A panel discussion will follow the screening.

RSVP by Nov. 12 to Robert Heath Heath@DiplomacyCenterFoundation.org
Or Call Tel: (202) 408-1007

Open Season is Here

The 2015 Open Season for the Federal Employees Health Benefit Program will run from Nov. 9 through Dec. 14. Once again AFSA is pleased to provide online access to the 2016 Consumers’ Checkbook Guide to Federal Health Plans, a valuable benefit available only to AFSA members!

Starting Nov. 9, this member benefit can be accessed at www.afsa.org/retiree.

Click on the banner on the side of the page and you will be directed to AFSA’s Consumers’ Checkbook page. There is no need to log in, as the link is specific to AFSA for our members.

The link will remain active throughout the duration of Open Season. Enrollees should review both the benefits and premiums for all health plan choices and decide what coverage best fits their health care needs in the coming year.

Retiree Spotlight: Interview with Steven Mann

Steve joined the Foreign Service in 1976 as a consular officer, assigned to the Kingston, Jamaica visa section. From there he was posted to Embassy Moscow, spending a large part of his career in Soviet affairs. He opened the first Foreign Service posts in Kolonia, Ulaanbaatar, and Yerevan, and served as DCM Colombo and COM in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. His department assignments included time as PDAS in the South and Central Asia Bureau and two stints as Eurasian energy envoy. He retired from State in 2009 and joined ExxonMobil's International Government Relations group. He lives in London with his wife, Lucy, a financial crime barrister.

AFSA: You're living in the UK. What led to your decision to retire overseas? What advantages and disadvantages of retiring overseas have you personally experienced?

Steven Mann: In this second career, I cover Eurasia and South Asia for ExxonMobil, and it was their choice to base me in London for better access to our European work teams and to the region. It's a nice fate, and I'm enjoying life in a non-hardship location. The walkability of the city, the great public transit and the cultural opportunities make it a great place to live. I don't know that London competes as a retirement destination, given the punitive real estate prices, although the English countryside has a lot to recommend it. At some point when I finally stop working, I'll go back to the States, but to where exactly is a big question. I'm fascinated by where other FS retirees have settled down, why they chose the destinations they did. As with most things in America, you're overwhelmed by choice. I'd appreciate hearing from any colleagues who settled away from the D.C. area, and how that's going.

AFSA: Did you feel your State career prepared you well for transition? How is the private sector different? Are there any "lessons learned" you would like to share?

Mann: State gave me skills that add value to the private sector, most of all, regional knowledge. The analytical tasks are much the same, and the State skill of teambuilding across cultures is pretty relevant. The resources we have in the private sector are a big change from State, though the greatest difference between the two cultures is time scale. In State, our lives are on a fast clock, from writing the morning press guidance to getting cables out; and even looking at the longer term, an assignment, at best, lasts three or four years. In the energy industry the time scale for investments stretches over decades, and that makes the work more detailed and more deliberative. In July, I sat in on a strategy meeting where the economics of an investment were projected out to 2070. Different worlds in that respect. Lessons learned in the transition? A couple of things: get ready for the retirement process early. I had a last-minute crash course on getting documents together. And if you're moving on to something else, give yourself a couple of months after State to decompress and reorient before starting something new. I took six weeks off between the two jobs, and wish I had taken more time.

AFSA: How do you view your time in State? What are the changes you've seen over the course of your career?

Mann: I'm honored to work for ExxonMobil, but the Foreign Service is still the best career I could hope for. I honestly see the quality of new junior officers as better than my generation. I only hope, going forward, they'll be as well led as our generation was. Our seniors were the Eagleburgers and Pickerings, who understood that the work of diplomacy is driving events on behalf of the national interest, not "giving input." I'm concerned there's less room for that kind of seasoned talent to emerge, given the extent of a spoils system in COM and department slots. There's also an issue of undercutting the culture of the Foreign Service. The American Academy of Diplomacy reported this in "American Diplomacy at Risk" earlier this year. I think I'm not the only retiree who expects the new AFSA team to tackle issues more than ever as we gear up for a new administration. But to end on a positive note, whenever I visit posts or the Department, you see how hard and how smart people work. You still feel that the Foreign Service has a sense of mission and its people are proud of what they do, rightly so. It's great for an alumnus like me to see that hasn't changed.

Support AFSA in the CFC

AFSA has two charities in the Combined Federal Campaign. We ask you to consider supporting one or both of our causes as you make your CFC selections in this year’s campaign. Diplomacy Matters – AFSA, CFC#10646. AFSA’s Fund for American Diplomacy is registered as “Diplomacy Matters-AFSA” in the CFC. The Fund supports public outreach and education about U.S. diplomacy while honoring service and sacrifice in the Foreign Service. It is the vehicle through which we tell the story of the Foreign Service to the American public. Learn more at www.afsa.org/fad. Foreign Service Youth Scholarships – AFSA, CFC#11759. This non-profit is also known as the AFSA Scholarship Fund. We provide academic merit awards, art merit awards and need-based financial aid scholarships to tax-dependent children of Foreign Service employees. Learn more at www.afsa.org/cfc. To make a secure online donation, visit www.afsa.org/donate or https://www.cfcnexus.org/_cfcnca/.

Volunteer to Read for the Blind

The Metropolitan Washington Ear is a radio reading and dial-in newspaper service for the blind and visually impaired. Volunteers are needed to read The Washington Post, USA Today, Time and Washingtonian Magazine, as well as other resources. The Washington Ear studios are located in northern Silver Spring. We invite you to assist in improving the lives of the visually impaired. Please call Volunteer Manager Rene Schecker at (301) 681-6636, or visit the company’s website at www.washear.org.