BY KENNETH KERO-MENTZ
This month’s FSJ is dedicated to our jobs—the good, the bad and the ugly. Here at AFSA, we hear from a lot of members about the bad and the ugly, and we work with a lot of members—and the department—to enhance the good, to make the department more user-friendly, and to help smooth the rough edges of a career in the Foreign Service.
For me personally, it’s been a great job, as I see the real-life improvements we’re able to bring for our members. Even when we come up short, there is something deeply satisfying in knowing that we tried our darndest and fought for what’s right. And if at first we don’t succeed, well…
For example, we worked tirelessly in 2017 to stop the department from changing the criteria for opening one’s window for consideration for promotion to the Senior Foreign Service. This action followed closely on the back of a department initiative to increase the “fair share” bidding requirement to 20 percent.
Here’s the thing though: We knew that these two actions would be impossible to meet, and now we’re hearing from others that our fears were well-founded. The number of posts hitting the 20 percent or higher differential mark is shrinking, and the number of positions at that level—including at priority staffing posts—is shrinking, as well.
Bureaus have quietly informed us that these new rules have made it harder for them to recruit the right candidates for the jobs, in part because everyone is out on a scavenger hunt, trying to check boxes the department has imposed on us. And members report that bidding has become even more chaotic as the “fair share” requirement has become harder to meet.
We believe, as we always have, that the department is going to have to address these matters quickly and re-think both “fair share” and aspects of the Professional Development Plan. We stand ready to help fix the mess.
We work with a lot of members to enhance the good, to make the department more user-friendly, and to help smooth the rough edges of a career in the Foreign Service.
We’ve also been working for more than two years to address concerns raised by members with special needs children. As I’ve written previously, AFSA has sent numerous letters to MED since this matter was brought to our attention by members of the Foreign Service Families Disabilities Alliance, a department-recognized employee organization; sadly, our letters have been mostly ignored or discounted. But we kept pushing. We worked with allies on the Hill to raise questions with the department, and we answered questions when journalists inquired. Most importantly, we kept pressure on the department.
We were pleased to learn in November 2018 that the department had appointed a special needs implementation coordinator to focus high-level attention on this matter. The deputy assistant secretary who’s taken on this additional portfolio piece is moving ahead with the energy and enthusiasm we’ve been seeking, and we have high hopes that our members who have children with special educational needs will soon see some real, common-sense relief.
Finally, since 2016 we’ve been working hard to address the department’s failure to submit names to the White House for Presidential Rank Awards. In November 2018—and for the first time since 2011—the department completed the process for deciding PRAs and those nominated received their awards.
We long hoped the department would do the right thing and find a solution that would enable the Secretary to forward PRA nominations to the president for Fiscal Years 2012 and 2014-2017 (no awards were given in 2013 due to sequestration); but when we were told that past failings would not be corrected, AFSA took action.
In February and March 2018 we filed a cohort grievance (with more than 100 members joining!) and an implementation dispute, both of which were held quietly in abeyance pending the successful conclusion of the 2018 PRAs. The department is now pushing to throw our case out; but we’ll keep fighting it, because we believe that a system of recognizing our best and brightest is critical to the betterment of the U.S. Foreign Service.
Taking care of our Foreign Service—it’s what AFSA is all about. If it weren’t for AFSA pushing tenaciously and diplomatically, we can’t be sure that the PRA process would be up and running again. And would the department finally be taking real concrete steps to fix the SNEA debacle? Would they be listening to complaints about the self-inflicted problems caused by fair share and PDP changes? Maybe, but I doubt it. And that’s why I love this job. Tilting at windmills, and sometimes hitting them just right…