The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2021

52 JULY-AUGUST 2021 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL STATE VP VOICE | BY TOM YAZDGERDI AFSA NEWS Should the Foreign Service Act of 1980 Be Overhauled? Much has been said in recent months by think- tanks and influencers about the need to overhaul the Foreign Service Act of 1980, at a time when so many of us are focused on diversity and inclusion and new ideas on performance evaluation and assignments at State. That landmark piece of legislation laid the founda- tions for the modern Foreign Service. It created the Senior Foreign Service, strength- ened the up-or-out system, added new benefits and allowances such as danger pay, set parameters for grievances, and authorized a single worldwide bargain- ing unit, with AFSA as the exclusive representative. In the four decades since the act was passed, changes in personnel policy at State—from death gratuities and reductions in force to requirements for entry into the SFS—have occurred by amending this act, usu- ally via large appropriation bills such as the National Defense Authorization Act. Is something more than that necessary now? What Do Major Reform Reports Say? Two major reports on State Department reform—from Harvard’s Belfer Center and the Co un- cil on Foreign Relations— argue in favor of amending the act. Specifically, the Belfer Center report would man- date a 10-percent limit on noncareer chief of mission appointments; establish a 15 percent increase in staffing to create a training float, like the military; require that high-level positions, includ- ing the under secretary for political affairs and 75 percent of assistant secre- tary–level positions be filled by career professionals; and create a ROTC-like program for underrepresented col- lege students interested in a career in the Foreign Service, among other initiatives. The CFR report is less specific but argues that it would make sense to codify reforms to make the department less subject to the vagaries of a revisionist administration. AFSA’s Position. AFSA is considering whether it makes sense to call for an overhaul of the Foreign Ser- vice Act. On one hand, the act was passed at a time of relatively greater bipartisan consen- sus in Congress (and in the country, for that matter), especially with regard to the conduct of foreign policy. It was also a time of greater acceptance of the rights of federal labor unions, like AFSA. In the current atmo- sphere of hyperpartisan- ship, even with the current pro-union administration, we might not be able to retain what I would call that high- water mark of accomplish- ment. That includes main- taining our ability to retire at 50 with a full pension after 20 years of service. Both reports cited above note the potential dangers in opening this Pandora’s box, with the Harvard report opposing any new legislation that would not retain “what is right” about the current act. On the other hand, there is much to be said about updating an act that was passed when people still used typewriters. At this sensitive moment in our nation’s history concerning social equity and the Ameri- can workplace—spurred on by the George Floyd murder and the COVID-19 telework revolution—we may not have another such opportunity for largescale change. A new Foreign Service act may be the vehicle for AFSA, working with department colleagues and employee affinity groups, to effect this change. Overarching questions could be more directly addressed, such as: What can be done to improve retention of underrepre- sented and underprivileged FS members? Does the con- ing system still make sense for today’s Foreign Service? Should the employee evalu- ation report be refocused so it’s not just a top-down assessment but includes the input of peers and subor- dinates? Why do many find the assignments process so unfair and opaque? Should the mandatory retirement age be increased to 67, in line with the age at which you receive full Social Secu- rity benefits? State Dept Authoriza- tion Bill. What gives me some hope that the atmo- sphere may be improving for a Foreign Service Act overhaul is the May 18 bipartisan passage in the House of Representatives of the first State Department authorization bill in nearly two decades. The bill contains a num- ber of important provisions. For example, it authorizes a paid student internship program and would reform the assignment restrictions appeals process. It also requires the Secretary of State to submit to Congress a strategy to establish a “training float” to allow for up to 15 percent of depart- ment Foreign and Civil Ser- vice employees to partici- pate in long-term training at any given time. That said, as of this writing, the bill has yet to be passed by the Sen- ate. Through its excellent relations with members and staff in both houses, AFSA can attest that there is bipartisan support to improve funding for the department and tackle other major issues. Please let us know what you think at member@afsa. org. n Contact: | (202) 647-8160