The Foreign Service Journal, April 2021

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | APRIL 2021 61 Schedule F(SL)—Noncareer Hiring Takes a Toll I have written here before about USAID’s overuse of noncareer mechanisms, including Foreign Service Limited appointments. I’m writing again—not because I don’t value the work of dedicated profes- sionals in FSL positions, but because the FSLmechanism has (d)evolved to a point where its overuse under- mines agency operations, obfuscates use of tax dollars, lowers morale and short- changes employees. The FSLmechanism shares characteristics with the previous administration’s Schedule F proposal. It is past time to address these. There was considerable controversy around Execu- tive Order 13957, issued by President Donald Trump last October. I haven’t encoun- tered anyone who supported the proposal as written. It envisioned converting thousands of career Civil Ser- vice positions to the Schedule F category, thereby removing competition requirements, stripping protections and rendering jobholders more beholden to political agendas than to the rule of law. President Joe Biden quashed Schedule F soon after taking office, but the whole affair highlighted the value and necessity of a competitive, merit-based, nonpartisan career bureau- cracy, particularly a Foreign Service, which, as Congress specifies in the Foreign Ser- vice Act of 1980, “is essential in the national interest.” The FSLmechanism flies in the face of this. Over time, career FSO numbers have declined as FSLs have risen. In Fiscal Year 2016, FSLs made up 12 percent of the combined total of career FS and FSL employees. In FY 2020, this had risen to more than 17 percent. So nearly one in six people appointed at USAID under the Foreign Service Act are serving in a “limited” noncareer capacity. USAID policy on FSL appointments is relatively clear if not always followed. “Foreign Service Limited (FSL) Appointments are noncareer appointments appropriate for overseas and Washington-based positions that require skills that are unique and/or are required to address an urgent, unfore- seen, time-bound need for development expertise,” states chapter 414 of USAID’s Automated Directive System. FSL hiring may have been appropriate at the begin- ning of the Afghanistan and Iraq crises, particularly because USAID was then (and remains) short of career FSOs. But later, USAID started appointing FSLs to noncombat areas and, increasingly, to Washington. Next, USAID requested and received congressional approval to use “program funds” to hire FSLs instead of being limited to the relatively scarce “operating expense” (OE) funds used to hire career Foreign and Civil Service employees. This unlocked resources, and the slippery slope of what was considered a unique skill or an unforeseen circumstance became slicker. Positions such as country desk officer and environ- ment officer were declared temporary, and the need for them unforeseen(!?). Even “time-bound” became a fluid concept, as the agency granted four-year extensions to five-year appointments. Nine years may be time- bound, but that’s a long time! Issues involving account- ability, transparency and “evidence-based (HR) policymaking” need to be sorted out, perhaps by the Government Accountability Office. I have concerns that the FSLmechanismmay skirt the merit-based, competitive requirement in the Foreign Service Act; I haven’t seen an FSL job advertised on, but I have seen institutional contractors become FSL appointees. There are also concerns about whether the For- eign Service Act is being respected, and whether the agency may be undermining its own institutional strength by choosing noncareer staff. The agency needs to rebuild the career Foreign Service and wean itself off its dependency on “limited” arrangements. There are opportunity costs to the career Foreign Service in terms of positions, training and career growth prospects that increase with continued fragmentation of USAID’s workforce. Last but by no means least are the human implica- tions of noncareer hiring. FSL colleagues do not enjoy the benefits or security that come with career positions, even though many are doing similar work. They can be terminated for an array of reasons, such as “when the need no longer exists for the employee’s service” or “for such other cause as will promote the efficiency of the service.” This places FSLs in a pre- carious position akin to those envisioned under Schedule F—not a best practice, par- ticularly for a development agency. I can’t see USAID proposing such an arrange- ment as part of any project! The solution is to strengthen USAID’s career cadre—Foreign Service and Civil Service. It is decades past time for agency and con- gressional leaders to develop a new budget approach based on need. A stronger, better resourced and larger career Foreign Service, reinforced by a similarly reinvigorated career Civil Service, should be a primary goal for the new administration. If accomplished, the legacy would get an “A”—not an “F”—fromme. n USAID VP VOICE | BY JASON SINGER AFSA NEWS Contact: | (202) 712-5267