The Foreign Service Journal, July-August 2022

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | JULY-AUGUST 2022 65 AFSA NEWS USAID VP VOICE | BY JASON SINGER AFSA NEWS Contact: | (202) 712-5267 Rebuilding for the Long Term I frequently cite President Joe Biden’s simple yet clear policy declaration: “It is the policy of the United States to protect, empower, and rebuild the career Federal workforce.” And I was encouraged to see the FY22 budget omnibus approve a significant increase in USAID operating expense (OE) resources, the funds used to support career U.S. direct hires, including Foreign Service officers. This OE increase is a signif- icant accomplishment, critical to ending what Administrator Samantha Power referred to in her November 2021 vision speech as the “unsustainable workarounds” of short-term hiring. But it is just the first step in fulfilling the president’s “rebuild” pledge, with further actions needed on the “pro- tect” and “empower” aspects. Let’s take a look at the status of these actions within USAID. Rebuilding. I have repeat- edly sung the praises of USAID colleagues for their continued recruitment, hir- ing and onboarding of FSOs throughout the pandemic (no easy task even pre-COVID!). Thanks to them, we have seen an incredible cadre of new Foreign Service officers join the agency, and this FY22 OE boost will help not just to meet attrition but to exceed the congressionally directed floor of 1,850 career FSOs. Testimony and discussions all suggest that the numbers will continue to grow. But as we expand, we must rebuild the FS as an institu- tion at USAID—as Congress affirms in the Foreign Service Act: “…a professional foreign service that will serve the foreign affairs interests of the United States in an integrated fashion and that can pro- vide a resource of qualified personnel for the President, the Secretary of State, and the agencies concerned with foreign affairs.” And, critically, we must rebuild the FS as a service “operated on the basis of merit principles.” So even as we continue to recruit on a competitive basis, we must also improve the agency’s capacity to onboard, men- tor, fund, train, deploy and support our newest FSOs, and take seriously the Foreign Service Act’s declaration that “a career foreign service, char- acterized by excellence and professionalism, is essential in the national interest.” The February 2021 “National Security Memoran- dum on Revitalizing America’s Foreign Policy and National SecurityWorkforce, Institu- tions, and Partnerships” directs executive agencies to “develop proposals to more effectively retain, develop, promote, and support national security employees, such as through expanded external and interagency rotational opportunities, review of time‑in-class requirements and criteria for key assign- ments, provision of affordable child and family care, and support for those serving overseas and their families, including those with LGBTQI+ members and with special needs.” I’m hopeful agency leader- ship will take this directive to heart, including efforts to reinstate emergency backup childcare, a program sus- pended at USAID in 2019 but continued at other agencies. Empowering. Turning to empowerment, I am less san- guine. In the field, there has been a steady erosion of mis- sion authorities, somewhat aligned with an increase in well-intentioned but copious Washington-driven initiatives, policies, reporting needs and guidance. In one way, this is a positive recognition of USAID’s critical role, and certainly some of the initiatives are fantastic. But without the commensurate increase in resources or flex- ibilities to adapt to the field context, it certainly feels like a diminishment of authorities. InWashington, the field voice of the career Foreign Service is increasingly drowned out by politically appointed senior advisers, and whereas the FS deputy assistant administrator (DAA) was once designated the “senior DAA” as a matter of practice, that is no longer the case. Even as the OE boost will increase the numbers of career FS and GS employees, the agency also received from Congress program budget increases and a go-ahead for additional noncareer hiring, raising questions around agency-level strategic work- force planning goals.What is needed is a comprehensive, rigorous and public USAID workforce plan focused on the president’s commitments. Protecting. Finally, the president’s executive order and related guidance revoke the previous administration’s policies designed to weaken the independence and secu- rity of a nonpartisan career Civil Service—FS and GS alike. In fact, the Biden-Harris administration goes far beyond this step, directing executive branch agencies to negotiate with unions over the numbers, types and grades of employees or positions assigned to any organizational subdivision, work project or tour of duty, and the technol- ogy, methods and means of performing work—areas that used to be at management’s discretion. This is a significant protec- tion for employees, but only if the agency follows the presi- dent’s guidance. Securing OE budget resources for increased career FS (and GS) hiring is a tremendous first step toward rebuilding USAID’s Foreign Service. This must be braced by building out the staff, sys- tems and support to institu- tionalize a larger FS. At the same time, USAID must urgently implement the Biden-Harris administration’s directive to empower and protect career public servants, securing a stronger USAID to continue its mission from the American people. n