The Foreign Service Journal, April 2022

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | APRIL 2022 55 USAID VP VOICE | BY JASON SINGER AFSA NEWS Contact: | (202) 712-5267 FSO Scarcity: Stretching the Limits It’s no secret by now that USAID has long been short of career employees, both Foreign Service and Gen- eral Schedule. This helps explain why USAID has 1,100 personal services contrac- tors (PSCs), 400 non-career Foreign Service Limited appointees and hundreds of institutional support con- tractors (ISCs), quite apart from thousands of invaluable Foreign Service National colleagues. That is why AFSA very much welcomed the Administrator’s Nov. 4, 2021, speech acknowledging the shortage and resulting unsustainable workarounds. Administrator Power said: “Over several years, USAID’s workforce has been sorely depleted, and our current numbers of Civil Service and Foreign Service staff are well short of our needs, even as global conflicts are lasting longer, development needs are accelerating, and the number of complex emergen- cies we deal with each year has ballooned in the past 20 years from 16 to 44. “As a result, USAID has created unsustainable workarounds to fill staffing shortfalls—some 90 per- cent of our positions in our Global Health, Humanitar- ian Assistance, and Conflict Prevention and Stabilization bureaus are on short-term contracts. To this end, we will seek to increase our career workforce over the next four years.” Here I want to focus on one consequence of chronic FSO scarcity, namely, repeated service in stretch positions, and how it can adversely affect both indi- vidual FSOs and the agency. The Foreign Service is a rank-in-person system, and as such, FS employee ranks do not necessarily equate to the rank of the positions on which FSOs may bid, nor to which they are assigned. For example, a relatively new FSO who entered at a rank of FS-4 may bid on higher-ranked positions (e.g., FS-3 or FS-2), which, if graded properly, carry commensurate higher-level roles. To be clear: The pay is no higher, and USAID has emphasized repeatedly that serving in a stretch position is not a consideration for promotion. But FSOs are nothing if not flexible, and these stretch positions can bring rewarding challenges, as well as potential perks such as better housing. FSOs often make aspirational bids, hop- ing to get to a dream post via a stretch assignment, or a post that offers better employment opportunities for eligible family members (EFMs) or a suitable school for children. There is certainly an ele- ment of personal choice in bidding and assignments, and not all FSOs serve in repeated stretch tours. At the same time, many FSOs excel in their stretch tours, ably advancing the agency’s mis- sion and their professional development. Yet USAID’s shortage of career officers, lack of stra- tegic workforce planning and consequential complex bid- ding requirements mean that too many FSOs serve tour after tour in positions beyond their personal ranks—and this has a number of negative consequences. First, stretch assignments can lead to stress. Already passionate about USAID’s mission, FSOs serving in repeated stretch positions often push themselves, and can be pushed by the bureau- cracy, into overwork and exhaustion. The pandemic has exacerbated this situ- ation. Officers and families suffer. FSOs in stretch assign- ments can also become resentful toward the agency and colleagues. It is only natural that after repeated service in a stretch position with no extra pay or competi- tiveness for promotion, one may feel taken advantage of or see colleagues as having an easier time of things. This is especially true when there is no agency strategic workforce plan to address the situation. Resent- ment is not healthy for indi- viduals or for agency morale. In some cases, resentment and related tensions can even undercut operations. Though missions often compete for FSOs to fill stretch positions, there is no robust, standardized approach to evaluating the candidates’ preparedness or assisting them to take on such responsibility. Some missions and leadership excel at mentoring FSOs and providing them with needed support. But there are unfortunate circumstances in which an FSO risks being unjustly labeled a failure, jeopardizing mission morale. Agency colleagues are aware of this challenge and are examining the scope and impact of stretch assign- ments. This is a welcome step, as is the agency’s effort to increase FSO career hiring over the next several years. Both actions should help alleviate at least some of the tensions of being over- stretched. n FSOs serving in repeated stretch positions often push themselves, and can be pushed by the bureaucracy, into overwork and exhaustion.