The Foreign Service Journal, December 2019

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | DECEMBER 2019 67 USAID VP VOICE | BY JASON SINGER AFSA NEWS Contact: | (202) 712-5267 Never Let a Transformation Go to Waste AFSA USAID hosted an FSO stakeholder open house on Oct. 10. Thanks to those who attended and those who dialed in. For those who didn’t make it (yes you!), please try to come next time, and please share ideas and concerns at any time. The open house was well attended, and we had a great discussion on important issues. Topics included the promotion system, com- munications, engagement, transformation, the lack of resources for the Office of Human Capital and Tal- ent Management to sup- port staff, the assignments process and the incredible— and sometimes tragically comical—challenges FSOs face returning to Washington (more on this in another col- umn). I intend to hold such open houses quarterly. Because we are in the thick of the Transformation process, I want to highlight some ASFA concerns. And I’d like to ask you to take an active role in asking ques- tions and, in the spirit of the agency’s “Leadership Phi- losophy,” fostering a culture of accountability. I want to make clear that AFSA does not oppose Trans- formation writ large. Caterpil- lars transform into beautiful butterflies—but Dr. Jekyll transformed into Mr. Hyde. The agency, of course, has a management right to organize itself. Yet I think we can all agree that shouldn’t be the only reason to make change, and it certainly is not an argu- ment for sustainable buy-in; “Because we’re your parents!” never seems to resonate with our kids for long. So what are some of our concerns? Workforce planning. You hopefully saw my November column on the agency’s lack of workforce planning; that concern still stands. Creat- ing new structures, staffing patterns and positions must be based on evidence, data and long-term workforce planning. AFSA will continue to highlight this concern because it is integral to a strong, sustainable institu- tion and to Transformation. Staff welfare. For those of you in the field, I realize there’s a risk of losing you with all this pretty Washing- ton-centric Transformation talk. After all, missions aren’t being reorg’ed (though some bureaus are adjusting their non-career field staff pres- ence—hopefully to include more FSOs). I believe one of the big- gest missed opportunities in Transformation is the failure to openly address the find- ings of the 2015 Greenleaf report, “Stress and Resilience Issues Affecting USAID Per- sonnel in High Operational Stress Environments” ( greenleaf-usaid). The report opens with an unambiguous statement: “The USAID workforce is cur- rently exposed to severe and unsustainable levels of stress that (a) are adversely impact- ing the health of the work- force, (b) very likely are reduc- ing the mission effectiveness of the Agency, and (c) require a coordinated, holistic institu- tional response.” This is exactly the type of situation that Transformation should address. This report is not just about those in Criti- cal Priority Countries. FSOs will not be surprised by this finding: “Given the consis- tency of response across Missions and DC, as well as across management levels and employment categories, it is concluded that USAID’s stress levels are indicative of systemic, agency-wide chal- lenges that require a coher- ent, systemic, agency-wide response.” So far, Transfor- mation is not responding. Bridging bureaucratic cultures. As FSOs, we know and learn a lot about working in different cultures. It can be exhilarating, fun, challenging and, at times, frustrating. Within the agency, differ- ent bureaus and offices have different cultures, as is sometimes the case for different categories of staff hired under the hodgepodge of mechanisms. Unfortunately, there are some persistent, perni- cious bureaucratic culture clashes—these aren’t secret; they’ve been long-standing; and the agency should use Transformation as an oppor- tunity to both create staffing structures that can help to resolve these clashes and to transparently and openly address them. There may not be imme- diate resolutions, but the agency should put in place a plan as part of Transforma- tion to acknowledge and address this. Strengthening USAID as an institution. Transforma- tion is happening bureau- by-bureau, not at an agency- level. Now some might say, “All politics is local” (or, at USAID, “All development is local”). And, of course, local buy-in is important. But USAID is a U.S. government institution and still the world’s premier development agency. Despite the creation of a very small “reorganization management unit” team to implement it, Transformation appears by-and-large to be happening bureau-by-bureau absent a corporate-level sys- tem for monitoring, account- ability or integration. My concern is that the whole will add up to less than the sum of the parts; it’s not too late to undertake a whole- of-Transformation review. There is always more to discuss, but I will end here by again asking you to raise issues, ask questions and hold yourselves and leaders accountable. We want the agency to improve. We want to strengthen USAID and amplify its impact. We have a great opportunity—let’s not waste it. n