More Hemingway, Less Kafka, Please

Speaking Out


Last November, the blogger known as “Diplopundit” published a story about the assignment of a well-connected FS-1 as principal officer in a European Bureau post, a Senior Foreign Service position.

Since the candidate was below grade for the position, this was a “stretch assignment,” which requires the division in the Bureau of Human Resources responsible for the career development and assignment of officers who are FS-1 or higher (HR/CDA/SL) to cede the position to the division responsible for mid-level officers (HR/CDA/ML) after canvassing its clients to gauge interest in the position by currently unassigned officers.

That no qualified Senior FSO bid on a position as prominent as this one frankly strains credulity. The episode underscores a serious perception problem when it comes to Foreign Service assignments. For all the State Department’s carefully crafted standard operating procedures, as well as the Foreign Affairs Manual and Foreign Affairs Handbook guidance—to say nothing of the attention paid to precedent and the needs of the Service—when push comes to shove, getting the best jobs depends far more on who you know than what.

Indeed, if you are fortunate enough to breathe the rarefied air in the front office of a highly regarded assistant secretary or another sixth- or seventh-floor denizen, there is almost no position to which you cannot aspire.

FS Assignments 101

I had two stints in the Bureau of Human Resources in recent years: first as a special assistant in HR/CDA (the front office) and then as an assignments officer in HR/CDA/AD (the Assignments Division). I find that most of the frustration leveled at HR over assignments reflects the fact that so few members of the Foreign Service know who in HR is responsible for doing what. So here is a quick guide to the process.

If you’re a mid-level officer, your career development officer (CDO) provides guidance on your career and through the bidding process. Once you’ve secured a handshake on a position, your CDO hands you off to an assignments officer (AO) in HR/CDA/AD. This individual works with your losing and gaining posts and bureaus to resolve any timing issues, arranges any needed training and brings your assignment to panel. Once you are paneled and your Assignment Notification (TM-1) goes out, your assignments technician deals with the logistics: orders, allowances and so on.

The biggest takeaway from my time in HR/CDA (under different Directors General) is this: Despite all the grumbling I routinely hear about unresponsive CDOs and AOs and all the kvetching about the perceived inflexibility of the system and HR’s dogged adherence to regulation—which often makes it seem unreasonable—the vast majority of HR employees at State are hard-working, well-meaning and determined to keep the system transparent, fair and equitable. They work to meet the needs of the Service, and their individual clients, as fully as possible.

Now, you may snicker at my naiveté. But the tenacity with which many CDOs and AOs argue at panel on behalf of their clients and their bureaus was a pleasant revelation to me. These people care about you and the organization, and they are fiercely protective of the integrity of the assignments process.

Explaining the Inexplicable

So when a story emerges about the stretch assignment of a below-grade officer to a coveted position, implying a degree of elasticity at which even Mr. Fantastic would marvel, it disturbs the rank and file in HR.

First of all, it is entirely possible that the officer in question was the best-qualified bidder, his lack of seniority notwithstanding. But even if that was not the case, we should bear in mind that the assignment was probably jammed down the bureau’s throat after someone on the seventh floor spoke to the Director General and said, “Make this happen.”

So the panel either holds its nose and votes to approve the assignment, or it stands on principle and then watches helplessly as the decision is overturned by the DG’s office.

Most of the frustration leveled at HR over assignments reflects the fact that so few members of the Foreign Service know who in HR is responsible for doing what.

HR types often complain that only the bad-news stories ever get publicity, while the solid work HR does on behalf of its clients day in and day out garners scant attention. Aware that that is largely true, the current DG has rightly focused on strategic communication, informing the Foreign Service about the work HR does, what it is accomplishing and how it is addressing current staffing challenges. I think that is commendable.

The problem, though, is this: In any endeavor, no matter how much you have accomplished, no matter how much good you have done, it only takes one mistake, one indiscretion, one bad call to destroy it. Politicians know better than anyone how fragile image and perception are. All the fantastic legislation you passed, all the assistance you secured for veterans and senior citizens, all the victories to establish equality for minorities—all of it goes out the window if you are caught cheating on your wife.

So how do ridiculous stretch assignments happen, then? Why do positions mysteriously vanish off one bid list only to reappear days later on the list of a future cycle—or on the now list? Why are inquiries on jobs that are ostensibly open in FS Bid dismissed or unanswered? Why was some employee allowed to extend for a fourth year in a non-differential post when no one else was permitted to do the same? And how on earth did that officer get a language waiver, when the FS is filled with officers who speak that language?

These anomalies are more likely to happen when HR is run by senior officers insufficiently committed to overseeing a system that is fair, just and above reproach. The fact is that far too often, those in the most important positions, the gatekeepers, aren’t serving out of any great love of personnel management work. Some are serving a domestic tour while awaiting a plum overseas deputy chief of mission or principal officer gig. Others find themselves serving domestically for personal reasons, and believe HR provides a convenient landing spot.

Restoring Faith in the System

Fortunately, there are those who enjoy the work and are committed to it. But for some, the bureaucratically dense nature of the work, sometimes coupled with a deep frustration over not being able to make everything happen that everyone wants—due to pesky devotion to precedent, past practice and established procedures by subordinates who can’t seem to see the “big picture”—makes dealing with Foreign Service assignments and HR policy maddening.

A few can’t be bothered to develop even a modicum of mastery over it. Draft a recommendation denying an absurd request from a regional bureau asking for a stretch assignment to a negotiated tour of duty, and you may not just be overruled. You might be asked to draft a revised memo recommending approval, because senior management needs a fig leaf to justify giving a department principal what he or she wants.

Ironically, HR has always done a terrible job of attracting bidders to its own ranks. HR should make a concerted effort to explain just how useful a tour in the bureau can be to rising FSOs. It should explain how working in HR makes one a stronger and more well-rounded officer and leader.

In fact, no officer should be able to serve as a deputy chief of mission or principal officer without having served in HR, if you ask me. That might also help obviate the problem of unrealistic expectations among senior officers about staffing options that are permissible under the relevant regulations.

HR must do a far better job of recruiting senior leaders uncompromising in their commitment to an FS assignments system that sets an example for the rest of the Service in terms of integrity and transparency, that meets the needs of the Service, and that upholds core values even when it is uncomfortable or may disappoint someone further up the food chain.

When assignments officers do their job right, operating a process that is transparent and equitable, and meets the challenges of an increasingly complicated world by placing the right officers in the right positions, telling the story of the great work HR does will become much easier—and more convincing.

Matthew Keene joined the Foreign Service in 1999 as a consular-coned officer, and is currently in Arabic-language training in preparation for a tour as deputy political counselor in Baghdad. His previous overseas assignments include Sofia, Dubai, Jerusalem and, most recently, Cairo, where he was deputy consul general. He has also worked in the Office of Career Development and Assignments in the Bureau of Human Resources as a special assistant and an assignments officer, and as deputy director of the Office of Maghreb Affairs in the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.