Creating an MSI award process that is transparent, efficient and true to the intent of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 is a shared goal of AFSA and the State Department.
BY RAEKA SAFAI
Beginning in 2015, the State Department undertook to update and streamline its employee evaluation system. As part of that effort, the department proposed a process for awarding Meritorious Service Increases that was removed from the EER/selection board procedure. In 2017, after weeks of negotiation, the department and AFSA agreed, to establish MSIs in a separate awards program, albeit as a three-year pilot, for 2017 through 2019 MSIs.
The MSI pilot program is completely nomination-based, with awardees identified by two dedicated MSI panels: a generalist panel and a specialist panel. The awards are apportioned in line with the approximate ratio within the department of both generalists and specialists (i.e., 60 percent and 40 percent, respectively). The pilot program also expanded the awardee pool beyond those employees who are eligible for a promotion and, in 2019, introduced the requirement of gender-neutral nominations.
In November 2019, AFSA sought feedback from our members on the program. Here we share some background on the MSI program and its evolution, along with a detailed report on the survey findings on the pilot.
A number of factors led the State Department and AFSA to review the MSI award process. Since the start of the MSI program several decades ago, MSIs had been mainly tied to the promotion process in a manner that operated relatively routinely. Until 2013, an agreed-on proportion (5 to 10 percent) of those who were recommended for promotion but fell short of achieving it automatically received MSIs, and bureaus had an additional relatively small number of awards to distribute on a discretionary basis.
Because of the October 2013 government shutdown, however, the State Department awarded no MSIs at all that year, which prompted AFSA to file an implementation dispute. In 2014 the department resumed the award of MSIs but cut the percentage down to 5 percent of those recommended but unable to achieve promotion and held it there through 2016. AFSA filed implementation disputes for each of those years. AFSA won the 2013 suit, and employees received “back” MSIs, with interest. While AFSA prevailed before the Foreign Service Grievance Board in the 2014 dispute, the Foreign Service Labor Relations Board overturned that decision. The Grievance Board ruled that it was bound by this decision in the 2015 and 2016 consolidated disputes. AFSA appealed that ruling to the FSLRB and is awaiting a decision.
While awarding MSIs automatically out of the promotion process may seem efficient, it has become apparent that assessing an employee to determine their potential to perform at the next highest level is not the same as assessing an employee’s past performance to identify especially meritorious service. Specifically, selection boards use the Decision Criteria for Tenure and Promotions to assess the potential of each employee to perform at the next highest level—i.e., for promotion. At the same time, however, Section 406(b) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 mandates the Secretary to grant, “on the basis of especially meritorious service [italics added], to any member of the Service … an additional salary increase to any higher step in the salary class in which the member is serving”—i.e., the MSI. The criteria for promotion and the criteria for an MSI are distinctly different.
The criteria for promotion and the criteria for an MSI are distinctly different.
There were additional considerations. First, because MSI recipients had to have been recommended for promotion, significant groups of employees were excluded from consideration even if they had displayed meritorious service (e.g., employees not eligible for promotion in that year and smaller cohorts, such as office management specialists, with limited promotion opportunities). Second, combining the MSI awards and promotion bogged down the selection boards, which meant that it took an inordinate amount of time to release promotion results. Third, as a subsidiary of the promotion process, MSI awards did not get the consideration that would ordinarily be required for citations of exceptional and important service.
Unlike the old MSI process, the new program is purely nomination-based. A one-page nomination form can be filled out by anyone and only requires the approval of an official in the nominee’s chain of command. The pool of potential awardees has been expanded by defining eligibility as follows: (1) career members of the FS in grades 1 to 7, (2) generalist career candidates recommended for tenure prior to the MSI nomination deadline, and (3) specialist career candidates who are eligible for competitive promotion.
Nominations are considered and awards granted by special MSI panels that are created in the same way as selection boards, by the Performance Evaluation division of the Bureau of Global Talent Management. The appropriate MSI Panel (i.e., specialist or generalist) reviews the nominations and rank orders those nominees who have met or exceeded the criteria set out in the MSI Procedural Precepts, which establish the scope, organization and responsibility of the panels.
To gauge the response to the pilot program, AFSA Director of Professional Policy Issues Julie Nutter conducted a member survey in November. At the time, we shared basic data on the pilot’s operation. Such data include the fact that during each of the three years, more than 810 nomination slots had been allotted to bureaus. Unfortunately, on average, the total number of nominations received by the bureaus was only 60 percent of the total slots available. In other words, 40 percent of MSI award opportunities were not utilized. Of those nominated, an average of 77 percent received MSI awards.
We are pleased to report that 822 members participated in the AFSA survey, and 418 respondents provided us with additional comments. We thank those who participated; your responses and comments are invaluable as we look to the future of the MSI award process. [See below for a selection of additional comments from survey respondents.]
Approximately 70 percent of participants identified themselves as generalists. A plurality (45 percent) has been in the Foreign Service for more than 15 years; the second-largest category (26 percent) has been in the Foreign Service for 11 to 15 years. Among respondents, 45 percent had received MSIs prior to the 2017 pilot program; just 16 percent had received them under the pilot.
Although 61 percent of the respondents believed they received adequate information and guidance on the pilot program, it is a shared goal of AFSA and the department to increase messaging and guidance on the MSI program going forward.
To better understand how engaged our participants were in the new MSI program, AFSA asked whether respondents had been nominated for an MSI under the pilot: 23 percent said they had, while 77 percent had not. We also asked whether participants had nominated anyone for an MSI under the pilot program: 25 percent had nominated someone, while 75 percent had not.
The survey then asked whether respondents preferred an MSI program that was: (1) nomination-based and open to all; (2) tied to recommendations for promotion; or (3) other. Significantly, more than half of participants (53 percent) chose option 2, MSIs tied to recommendations for promotion. About a third (30 percent) voted for a nomination-based system; and 17 percent chose “other.” Based on the comments we received, the consensus for “other” appeared to be a hybrid system incorporating options 1 and 2.
The survey results and comments also revealed that the majority of those who preferred an MSI system tied to recommendations for promotion (like the old system) found a nomination-based process (like the pilot program) too burdensome. The concern raised most often was that, while anyone can nominate an individual for an MSI, supervisors did not, or were not, taking the time to nominate their employees.
AFSA also received several comments noting that the delay in receiving MSI award results under the new system—as opposed to a Meritorious or Superior Honor Award—made the MSI a “riskier” option.
The shared goal of AFSA and the department is to create an MSI award process that is transparent, efficient and true to the intent of the Foreign Service Act of 1980. In an effort to reach this goal, the parties have agreed to continue the MSI pilot program with gender-neutral nominations for an additional year to allow time to review and improve the award process based on observations and data collected by the department, as well as the survey results and comments received from our members.
We invite any members who wish to share their views and comments with us to do so via email to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “MSI Pilot Program.” Emails sent to this address will go directly to AFSA’s Labor Management office. For additional information on the MSI Pilot Program, please see State VP Tom Yazdgerdi’s column in this month’s AFSA News.
Here is a sampling of the free-form comments on the MSI pilot program from AFSA members who participated in the November 2019 survey.
“The administrative burden on supervisors with EERs, regular post awards, and then MSIs is too much.”
“Nomination-based systems require employees to have supportive managers willing to go above and beyond the EER process—extra work. … Managers and supervisors are often unwilling to do extra paperwork for things such as awards and MSIs.”
“This is better, but it still comes down to initiative on the part of supervisors, which is hit or miss.”
“MSIs suffer a lack of nominations in part because it’s yet another form to fill out and also because they are seen as risky to both nominee and drafter. If MSI is not received, Great Employee may get nothing; missed both the board’s blessing and then too late for the post's award committee process for the work done that year.”
“MSI nominations are difficult because the employee could qualify for different types of awards. The MSI nomination specifically says it cannot be for the same performance that a Meritorious Honor Award or Superior Honor Award was awarded.
“Thus, it is possible that employee would have superior performance and be nominated for an MSI, but not approved for that award and then also not get a MHA or SHA because the performance is substantially in the past or the employee or supervisors have changed posts, or an awards budget has been exhausted due to the MSI processing time.
“MSIs should be harmonized with MHAs and SHAs so that the employees with very high performance do not miss recognition.”
“I believe that the trial system that was used is the most transparent and fair system that State Department has rolled out.”
“I appreciate the attempt to give specialists MSIs because they are overlooked, and the promotion rates are abysmal.”
“I prefer the nomination not to be linked to being recommended for promotion. Having a separate process allows the panel to concentrate on the specific work being nominated. … Promotion is supposed to be based on potential to serve at a higher rank, while the MSI is about work already accomplished. Linking the two can blur that focus.”
“I love the flexibility of the pilot, and I also love the gender-neutral-language feature. I think having the freedom to recognize outstanding work by any colleague at any time is excellent practice. I also think removing gender bias is critical to ensure equal representation in selection from submissions.”
“Gender-blind review is really important. Glad this was piloted in the MSI, but really it needs to happen for EERs too.”
“Generally speaking, I think that the pilot is a wonderful program. I just fear that State lacks an organizational culture where managers seek to understand (and act on) all the avenues available to them to reward their people. MSIs are a nice, creative path to recognize someone, but are underutilized, as evidenced by the statistics that HR shared.”