The Foreign Service Journal, October 2021

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | OCTOBER 2021 69 Empowering USAID USAID VP VOICE | BY JASON SINGER AFSA NEWS Contact: | (202) 712-5267 There’s no way around it. As of this writing, we’re more than seven months into the new term, and I’m very con- cerned by the lack of action, much less articulation, of how this administration will strengthen USAID. Administrators and admin- istrations enter with a list of “critical initiatives” and “presi- dential priorities” that seldom involve internal reforms or bolstering human resources management. So I was elated that one of President Joe Biden’s stated priorities is, in fact, to “pro- tect, empower, and rebuild the career federal workforce.” But as of this writing, I have not seen, much less heard, agency leadership commit to material action to this end. In my March column, I praised President Biden’s Jan. 22 executive order on protect- ing the federal workforce and the related Office of Person- nel Management guidance on implementation. TheWhite House also issued a Feb. 4 presidential action memoran- dum on Revitalizing America’s Foreign Policy and National Security Workforce, Institu- tions, and Partnerships. The president’s FY 2022 Congressional Budget Jus- tification for OPM calls for agencies and unions to sit down together and reset labor relations. Although these areWhite House and presidential commitments, I have yet to read of career USAID FSOs nominated to senior Washing- ton positions—but who knows USAID’s challenges best and brings field expertise? I haven’t met any career FSOs elevated to front office senior advisory or deputy chief of staff roles to inform our front office on the FS field perspec- tive and operational context. AFSA hasn’t been invited to discuss any long-overdue strategic workforce plan to build USAID back better. Nor has leadership openly committed to tackling the well-known, long-standing HR challenges that leave our career FSOs overstretched, under-resourced and, in Washington, underrepre- sented—most of the USAID workforce in the United States is noncareer. Would we recommend this model to any partner? Is this what the administration wants in its lead development agency? In a national security institution? So, what might be done? Here are just three quick but high-profile steps agency leadership could take now to demonstrate alignment with the president’s policies, even as longer-term plans are developed: First , the Administrator should host a town hall and issue agency communica- tions that: articulate her vision for USAID; actively embrace the president’s policy guidance on empow- ering career employees; and set out a framework, metrics, timeline and budget to rebuild USAID’s career cadre while reducing USAID’s dependence on noncareer mechanisms. This framework should be developed in conjunction with AFSA and the American Federation of Government Employees, and fully social- ized with Congress. Second , the administration should name—or nominate, as needed—current and retired USAID career FSOs for senior USAID positions, including the chief human capital officer. My State Department colleagues have seen career FSOs named to several assistant secretary positions, the Director General of the Foreign Service (who con- currently serves as State’s director of human resources) and the under secretary for management, among others. Retired State career FSOs have been named to other under secretary positions. Why is this important? Pre- sumably because of respect for the tradecraft, experience and professionalism these public servants bring to man- aging a foreign affairs agency. Yet as of this writing, USAID has zero career FSOs named to any Senate-confirmed position. Third , there needs to be a sea change in AFSA- agency engagement, what OPM refers to as a “reset.” The agency, unlike State, approaches AFSA as an adversary. Instead, AFSA should be welcomed as a partner in addressing agency challenges, and a helpful interlocutor in representing employee perspectives, con- cerns and ideas. Member matters should be taken seriously, and engagement, respect and trust should character- ize the AFSA-management relationship. We may not always agree, but the agency should respond to AFSA expeditiously, transparently and in the spirit put forth by President Biden. Ignoring or dismissing AFSA and member concerns should be a thing of the past—but it will take active USAID leadership to set an example of accountability. I hope that by the time this is published, I will be proven wrong, and we will be well on our way to a USAID renais- sance. Yet we know that in the realm of development, the rhetoric-to-reality (RtoR™) ratio is high, even when inten- tions are good. “Best practices” in text- books are often not good practices in the field. And the overused mantra, that “our employees are our most important resource,” does not translate into higher morale and employee engagement. In the case of the presi- dent’s repeated pledge to reinvigorate and rebuild the career federal workforce, I hope that his USAID leaders hear his message loud and clear—and act. n