The Foreign Service Journal, January-February 2020
THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2020 59 USAID VP VOICE | BY JASON SINGER AFSA NEWS Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org | (202) 712-5267 Get Ready … Get Set … Hire! (But Please Focus on the “Get Ready” Part) USAID is hiring Foreign Service officers. Nope, that’s not a typo: the agency is really hiring Foreign Service officers. A small but mighty class of 22 came on board this past September, and there are plans (and con- gressional pressure) to hire another 150 officers, plus or minus, through 2020. As of last March, USAID had about 1,700 FSOs on board. The 2020 Foreign Operations Bill calls for 1,850 permanent FSOs. Hiring 150 new FSOs through 2020 is big! I’m quite concerned, however, that the agency isn’t ready to recruit, train, orient and manage this flow of new career FSOs, particularly as energy continues to focus on Transformation. The hiring freeze in 2017 and early 2018 did not help the agency as a whole, and it certainly did not help the USAID Foreign Service. We have long been below our target numbers, particularly as our role (and budget) has grown in the post-9/11 world. (Frankly, even 1,850 is a low number when you think about all we do.) As a result of consistently being understaffed, USAID FSOs are often denied pro- fessional growth opportuni- ties such as short- and long- term training and details to external private organiza- tions and other agencies. In addition, far too many staff members at missions are serving in acting capacities in positions far above their pay grades for extended periods. Stress is rising, and that can affect our work and impact. This new hiring initiative is long past due—but it will be some time before new staff are on board and ready to assume duty. Career FSOs know that great officers aren’t born, they develop over time. In the meantime, the agency should do all that’s possible to put in place the operational and support systems required for such a large hiring push—includ- ing the workforce plan- ning analysis necessary to determine which backstops to hire (and let’s not all just automatically say “contract- ing officers!”—though, of course, we need COs). All USAID FSOs have their own stories of the chal- lenges they faced in joining the agency—misplaced forms, hurry-up-and-wait messages on a start date, security/medical clearance processes, low-ball salary offers (“We all take a salary cut!” is a common refrain), creditable time not being credited, professional peers entering at a higher (or lower) level with no rationale, recruitment incentives paid (or not paid) to one class (or person) and, well, add your own story here! Many of these common stories are linked to the hardworking but chronically under-resourced Office of Human Capital and Talent Management. Many more tales of woe are caused by the lack of systems and standard operating procedures—wheels are re- created, broken, re-created, lost, re-created, contracted and re-created. Staff are too often (and even once is too often) told, “If you don’t like it, then leave. There are plenty of others waiting to enter the agency.”What other words could more quickly demor- alize new entrants? I can’t think of any. (Many of us more seasoned USAID FSOs are pretty much inured to such words—but that doesn’t make hearing them any better.) What’s to be done? Well, a lot. AFSA would like to see USAID establish, staff, sustain and institutionalize an FSO recruitment, reten- tion and retirement unit that doesn’t disappear when the International Development Intern, New Entry Profes- sional, Development Leader- ship Initiative and Career Candidate Corps programs end. This unit would not be bureaucratically cannibal- ized for other duties if hiring slows—it would be present throughout an FSO’s career. I’m no HR expert, but I would envision a core staff of career USAID employees with the knowledge, depth and authority to facilitate FSO recruitment, on-board- ing, training, professional career development and retirement. We all know that as FSOs, we are on duty 24/7 when in the field. But really, we—and our fami- lies—are living the FSO life all the time. It is not just a career—it is a life choice of challenging and rewarding public service, and we are privileged to live out our commitment to both the United States and to improv- ing the world. We are willing to make the sacrifices that come with this choice. USAID should be ready to support us. n I would envision a core staff of career USAID employees with the knowledge, depth and authority to facilitate FSO recruitment, on-boarding, training, professional career development and retirement.