The Foreign Service Journal, November 2022

70 NOVEMBER 2022 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Capitalizing on a Recovering FAS Foreign Service Contact: | (202) 841-7744 FAS VP VOICE | BY LISA AHRAMJIAN AFSA NEWS As talented, experienced Foreign Service trainees (FSTs) continue to board flights for their first assignments as FSOs, one can almost hear the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) breathe a sigh of relief: its attrition crisis has reached a turn- ing point. From the early 1990s to 2016, because of insufficient hiring restricted to internal candidates, the size of our Service plum- meted by more than 25 percent. In response to the problem, with strong AFSA support, FAS began hiring healthy classes of FSOs from all sources in 2013. FAS leadership should be com- mended for this decision, which safeguarded the long-term health of our Foreign Service. Now that we’ve emerged from life support, we must ensure that all FSOs have meaningful assignments, both overseas and in Washington, D.C. Assuming relatively static over- seas positions, continued success in FS growth will lead to increased representation at headquarters. While most agree this is necessary to meet the FAS mis- sion and increase cohesion, it underscores the need for HQ assignments to advance FSOs’ varied skill sets, be career- enhancing, and fulfill meaningful roles for FAS. The table below outlines current versus targeted staffing based on the widely held view that having two-thirds of FSOs overseas and one-third in Washington represents a healthy FAS Foreign Service. Unlike other foreign affairs agency FSOs, we don’t bid on HQ and overseas assignments at the same time. Instead, FSOs not assigned overseas are scheduled to work in Wash- ington without knowing what job they will fill until just weeks before arriving. In recent years, the list of available positions has been quite meager, with very few supervisory offerings. This is disappointing, since holding a supervisory position at HQ is currently an eligibility requirement for promotion into the Senior Foreign Service. It is unreasonable to expect FSOs to be excited about returning to HQ amid these uncertainties. In AFSA’s view, the solution is to have FSO-designated posi- tions across FAS program areas, which we would bid on at the same time as overseas positions. The number of designated positions would be linked to the number of FSOs at each rank, based on a formula negotiated with AFSA. This determination would be part of the upcoming rene- gotiation of the FAS-AFSA collective bargaining agreement, which was last substantively renegotiated in 1995. Such an approach would likely require the empowerment of existing positions and the creation of new ones to tackle emerging challenges. It is also essential that FSOs have mul- tiple options for details outside FAS—including on Capitol Hill and at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, regulatory agencies, and the Codex Alimentarius. In addition, FSOs need long-term training opportunities to develop leadership and other essential skills. These opportu- nities would present a win-win scenario: the agency would be a more effective voice within the U.S. government to serve our stakeholders, and FSOs would be better equipped for future assignments. As FAS works through this growth phase, it is essential that it also manage the high expectations of its promising new FSOs, who primarily seek to serve overseas. Our growth will only be sustainable if we retain them. This requires a focus on morale and retention, including a significant increase in the number of meaningful HQ positions at all levels. In addition, clearly communicating how these FSOs’ careers may differ from those above them—including why serving multiple tours in Washington is both likely and benefi- cial—is critical. Thanks to insightful decisions made a decade ago and a new cadre of talented FSOs, we are well positioned to navigate the growing complexities of agricultural trade. FAS must now build on its success by leading an agencywide cultural shift toward reserving influential seats at the table for experienced FSOs in Washington. n Current Target Number of FAS FSOs 148 180 Number of Overseas Positions* 118 120 Percent (#) of FSOs Overseas 77 (114) 66.7 (120) Percent (#) of FSOs at HQ 23 (34) 33.3 (60) Figures based on FAS reports as well as AFSA analysis and projections. *Includes intentionally vacant positions in Caracas, Moscow, and Rangoon. The successful rebuilding of our service is revealing a new challenge for managing FSOs in Washington: providing opportunities for a D.C.-based officer corps that is projected to almost double in the coming years. Many HQ-based FSOs feel disadvantaged, with less opportunity for promotion and onward assignments. Our small numbers prevented us from occupying many coveted positions in a recent reorganization. In addition, some managers are reluctant to hire FSOs for fear we will quickly return overseas, despite the fact that turnover is an agency- wide norm.