The Foreign Service Journal, October 2023

10 OCTOBER 2023 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL LETTERS The DETO Landscape: An Optimistic Caution As Amelia Shaw noted in “Making Overseas Telework Better” (September 2023 FSJ), Executive Order 14100 (“Advancing Economic Security for Military and Veteran Spouses, Military Caregivers, and Survivors”), signed by the president in June, includes a small section on the domestic employee teleworking overseas (DETO) program. Specifically, the executive order directs the Secretaries of State and Defense to enter into a memorandum of understanding to pave the way for more military spouses to secure DETOs. It also provides that executive branch agencies develop common standards for DETOs, improve the DETO application system, and establish timeframes for application processing and approvals. This is just the latest development in the DETO program in recent years. The Foreign Service Families Act of 2021 provided some clarity about who might qualify for a DETO and directed the Secretary of State to strengthen the program for Foreign Service family members. And the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) provided that Civil Service employees who are approved for DETOs retain their locality pay (or at least receive overseas comparability pay, or OCP) while accompanying their FS spouses overseas. These are generally commendable initiatives to improve the program for dual-service families. Gaps remain, however, and Foreign Service families should be mindful that some of the updates may make it more difficult to secure a coveted DETO position. For instance, the NDAA’s pay parity provision makes it that much harder on agencies from a fiscal perspective to support DETOs, especially for jobs that require classified access and where ICASS costs are high. Approving one DETO (even if just to show support for the program) might be a drop in the bucket, but the numbers compound quickly, and proposed budget cuts will only make the issue of financing DETOs even more treacherous. As for the executive order, its DETOrelated provisions are vague and openended about how—or whether—to consider Foreign Service and other nonmilitary spouses in the standards and guidelines to be developed. It does not specify a lead or even a coordinating agency for a major effort that supposedly will span the entire executive branch; it only provides that “common standards for DETO policies” shall be developed. (That responsibility could fall on any of the following: the Office of Personnel Management in light of its responsibility for governmentwide personnel policy; the State Department because of its role in determining and protecting the status of family members overseas under the agreements it negotiates with host countries; or the Defense Department, since the executive order focuses on a matter it ties to military personnel and readiness.) Beyond that, it appears that each agency is to establish its own application system and approval timeframes, taking into account unspecified “factors unique to military families.” It also does not specify criteria for approving a DETO application: Is it implied that DETO approval is becoming an entitlement, rather than an investment in workforce retention? If so, for whom, and under what circumstances? We don’t know, but it is not hard to imagine a scenario in which nominally robust DETO policies end up lacking sufficient funding to carry out, potentially even disincentivizing agencies from hiring military or Foreign Service spouses in the first place. The core problem with this vague directive—which carries the weight and authority of law in the executive branch— is that measuring agency compliance is nearly impossible. But there is also a practical matter that is reasonably concerning to Foreign Service families—namely, that the context of the ordered improvements to the DETO program is an exclusive concern with military families. Certainly, military spouses merit just as much consideration and opportunity to participate in the DETO program as Foreign Service and other nonmilitary spouses, and there are certain factors unique to military families, especially enlisted families, that ought to be accounted for in this next round of DETO policy amendments and improvements. The concern, however, lies in who gets a seat at the table in developing these executive-branch-wide policies, and whether new policies will be adopted with only military families in mind, or will families of nonmilitary public servants be considered and included. Unfortunately, neither the text nor context of the order itself offers any incentive for the inclusion of Foreign Service and other nonmilitary families, and that presents a serious risk that those policies might inadvertently disadvantage them. The State Department and other foreign affairs agencies should pay close attention as this process unfolds, and advocate strongly for consideration and