The Foreign Service Journal, September 2022

The True Cost of FAS’ Administrative Burden 58 SEPTEMBER 2022 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Contact: | (202) 841-7744 FAS VP VOICE | BY LISA AHRAMJIAN AFSA NEWS In AFSA’s recent morale and retention survey, one respondent noted: “If we (the Foreign Agricultural Service) are a Foreign Service agency, we need to act like one.” This sentiment was echoed in other responses, in particular in an oft-cited concern that time spent on administrative tasks is a major distraction from ser- vicing our stakeholders and devoting full attention to our mission. In 2021 the U.S. agri- cultural industry posted its highest annual export levels ever recorded, totaling $177 billion. These industry successes are achieved in partnership with FAS FSOs, who play critical roles in facilitating trade. We persuade host gov- ernments to grant market access for U.S. commodities and to legalize the cultivation and importation of geneti- cally engineered products. We provide critical market intelligence on agricultural production, supply and distri- bution in overseas markets. The importance of this has been emphasized as Rus- sia’s war of choice in Ukraine exacerbates food security concerns in many countries. In addition, we develop creative marketing initia- tives to introduce foreign consumers to U.S. food and beverages, from partner- ships with MasterChef to campaigns that demonstrate the sustainability of U.S. production practices. And in less developed markets, we run economic development programming, from providing food assistance in schools to increasing the competitive- ness of local commodities (e.g., cacao). As anyone whose work has touched agricultural trade will tell you, agricul- ture is highly technical and politically sensitive: The agriculture chapter is often one of the last to be closed in trade negotiations, and market access requests can take decades of persistent strategic prodding. Success in these areas is challenging and requires the development of effec- tive relationships with local partners. And this can only truly happen in person, which is why we are overseas. As we continue to face the impacts of war, climate change and other crises affecting global food security, this work is increasingly critical. Ultimately, we need more FSOs and overseas positions; but first we need to relieve the administrative burden from our 146 FSOs so they can fully focus on the core FAS mission. While FSOs in other agencies spend some time on administrative tasks, FAS began to shift away from using international coopera- tive administrative support services (ICASS) many years ago, arguing that doing so would cost the agency less. Concurrently, headquar- ters continued to push new administrative requirements on overseas offices. FAS management did not appear to consider the high price of having FSOs overseas or that administrative work could be done more cost-effectively by others. The cost of a mid-level Foreign Service officer serv- ing overseas—once salary and benefits are incorpo- rated—can be $150 per hour. In return, our work on the FAS mission and on behalf of U.S. farmers and ranchers adds exceptional value to the U.S. economy: agricultural exports support more than 1.3 million U.S. jobs on the farm and in related indus- tries, such as food process- ing and transportation. However, this hourly rate is high for managing simple administrative tasks, such as the multistep approval process to purchase office supplies on an FAS-issued credit card or to manage the office vehicle. If buying a $10 stapler takes 30 minutes of an FSO’s time based on the series of required approvals in various systems, it now costs $85. And that is 30 minutes they are not working on a market access request for the U.S. pork industry, which could generate $20 million in U.S. exports annu- ally. Such activities could be more cost-effectively accom- plished through ICASS. While this system also factors in the costs—salary and benefits—of the individuals providing the service, local staff support, economies of scale and related expertise substantially reduce costs. Other aspects of the administrative burden, such as supporting permanent changes of station, multistep training requests, and cum- bersome budget manage- ment could also be relieved by our colleagues in FAS Washington at a much lower cost to U.S. taxpayers. FSOs remain highly com- mitted to the FAS mission and are therefore working evenings and weekends (without additional compen- sation) to keep up with these requirements while also meeting our stakeholders’ expectations. But FAS’ his- tory of pushing administra- tive tasks to FSOs is one of the key issues chipping away at our morale and retention. As Benjamin Franklin admonished: “Remember that time is money.” By shift- ing administrative tasks over to those who can accomplish them more cost-effectively, fromWashington or by shared admin programs such as ICASS, we allow our small cohort of FSOs to be even mightier as we work to link U.S. agriculture to the world. n