1. Introduction: On June 7, AFSA submitted the fourth package in our series of proposals to reform the Foreign Service personnel system. This package focuses on the Open Assignment for State Department Foreign Service employees. AFSA developed these proposals in a deliberate, inclusive process during which we solicited the input of employees worldwide. As a result of this consultation, AFSA significantly revised 3 of our 8 original draft proposals, added a new proposal, and dropped one the original draft proposals. Below is AFSA’s letter to Director General Ruth A. Davis transmitting our proposals. Additional background on the issues addressed by these proposals was provided in AFSA’s May 20 member update message (transmitted as State 096541 and via the AFSANet e-mail service). End of Introduction.
2. Text of June 7, 2002 letter:
Dear Ambassador Davis:
I am pleased to forward for your consideration AFSA’s fourth package of proposals to reform the Foreign Service personnel system. These eight proposals focus on the assignments system. We submit them for incorporation in the 2003 Cycle Open Assignments instruction package that is currently being negotiated between AFSA and your staff.
The AFSA Governing Board developed these eight proposals with the assistance of nearly 200 employees worldwide who provided detailed suggestions in response to our May 20 request for input.
AFSA looks forward to continuing to work with you on a joint reform program designed to assure that the Foreign Service has the ideal mix of abilities, outlooks, and organization needed for 21st century diplomacy.
John K. Naland
FAIR SHARE ASSIGNMENT REQUIREMENT
PROPOSAL 1: Immediately adopt 2/10 and 4/20 assignment rules that require the assignment to a differential post overseas of any bidder who has not served at least a) two years at a differential post by the 10th anniversary of joining the Foreign Service and b) four years at a differential post by the 20th anniversary of joining the Foreign Service. Bidders who have not met the 2/10 or 4/20 rule will be assigned to a differential post unless a) they secure a waiver from the Director of CDA or b) CDA determines that service need requires their skills to be employed at a non-hardship posting.
The existing “6/8 Committee” in CDA (which reviews requests for exceptions to rules limiting continuous domestic service) will review requests for waivers to the 2/10 and 4/20 rules. The committee may recommend waivers under the same circumstances that they currently do (e.g., medical, family-related compassionate). Waivers will be valid only for one assignment and, thus, must be sought anew each time a bidder subject to the 2/10 or 4/20 rule seeks to avoid assignment to a hardship post. Any bidder subject to the 2/10 or 4/20 rule who has already been granted one “service need” waiver (i.e., not on medical or compassionate grounds) will only be granted further such waivers in exceptional circumstances.
Employees who have been in the Foreign Service for between 10 and 20 years when this rule is implemented would count all previous periods of hardship service towards fulfilling the 2/10 rule. Employees who have been in for over 20 years when this rule is implemented would count all previous periods of hardship service towards fulfilling the 4/20 rule.
To accommodate variations in tour length due to summer training, home leave, and other routine factors, 2 years will be defined as being at least 22 months and 4 years will be defined as being at least 44 months. Time spent in hard language training will not be counted towards the calculation period (e.g., an employee given two years of hard language training will be subject to 2/12 and 4/22 rules). For employees who have served at a danger pay post or who had a hardship tour shortened by ordered departure, the standards would be 12 months of hardship service by year 10 and 36 months by year 20.
JUSTIFICATION: The AFSA Governing Board and the vast majority of employees who provided input strongly believe that Foreign Service employees should serve their fair share of hardship assignments. We further believe that existing fair share bidding rules have not proven effective in accomplishing that goal. After studying a variety of proposed mechanisms, we settled on the one described above. It would institute a fair share service requirement that we believe would be much more effective than the current rules without being so draconian as to force fair share candidates into immediate hardship service regardless of their current career development or family needs.
IMPROVING CONDITIONS AT HARDSHIP POSTS
PROPOSAL 2: The Under Secretary of State for Management will convene a working group to examine ways to make service at hardship posts less of a hardship. The Bureau of Administration would chair the group, with participation by the Bureau of Human Resources, the Office of Medical Services, and AFSA.
JUSTIFICATION: There is a reason why some employees are not anxious to serve at differential posts — service there imposes real hardships on employees and family members. While there is little that the State Department can do to ameliorate hardships stemming from the physical or political environment of the host country, there are things that could be done at many posts to make daily life less of a hardship. For example, opening basic medical units at the 38 hardship posts that do not have them would likely increase the number of employees willing and able to serve at those posts. Implementing a “State Post Office” service at non-APO posts would make them less isolated. Other staffing assists could come from things such as enhanced family member employment opportunities in the mission, improved family member educational opportunities at post, providing high-speed Internet access to employees and family members, and creating mini-physical fitness centers when they are not available in the host country. The time is ripe for a working group to review all of these issues and identify ones that can be implemented during the next year or so.
TRANSPARENCY IN ASSIGNMENTS
PROPOSAL 3: Those officials who are responsible for determining which bidder the post and/or bureau will support for a position may not make commitments to support a given bidder until one week after the bidding deadline established in the annual Open Assignments message. Managers could still compile and reveal “short lists” before the bidding deadline (even a short list with just one name on it), but it would not constitute an actual or implied commitment. Any official who did make a commitment to a bidder before the bidding deadline would be subject to a letter of reprimand from HR.
PROPOSAL 4: Each assignment action will include a certification by a representative of the receiving bureau that all bidders for that position were given full consideration under merit principles before the final selection was made.
JUSTIFICATION: According to the State Department’s March 2002 Employee Satisfaction and Commitment Survey, some 68.8 percent of employees believe that the assignments system “is less than open because some jobs are already spoken for before they are advertised” and 50.1 percent believe that the assignments system “favors employees who are already working for the bureau of their choice.” AFSA believes that both of these statements are true and that this situation is detrimental both to employees and to the public interest. We believe that the two mechanisms proposed above would improve the situation.
ASSIGNING TOP TALENT
PROPOSAL 5: Consider as core bids assignable during the beginning of the regular season up to three bids on one-grade stretch assignments by employees who, while in their current grade, have been recommended for promotion by a Selection Board but not granted a promotion because there were not enough promotion opportunities to accommodate all who were recommended.
JUSTIFICATION: Over the past few years, AFSA has agreed during Open Assignments negotiations to several expansions of the stretch assignment rules. Currently, rules allow several categories of employees to be assigned to stretch assignments at the start of the assignment system (instead of having to run the risk of waiting five months until the “stretch season”): bidders who are recent MSI recipients, bidders on 15% and above differential posts, and bidders on most-difficult-to-staff posts.
AFSA has given additional thought to allowing more employees to seek one-grade stretch assignments during the regular assignment season. We first considered expanding that rule to employees who had been in grade for three years, but we concluded that would be rewarding seniority not necessarily talent. The proposal described above, however, would target talent: those employees who have been recommended but not reached for promotion. We believe that this change would advance the “War for Talent” goal of recognizing high performers with greater responsibility earlier in their careers.
REFORMING RULES ON EXTENSIONS
PROPOSAL 6: Extension requests will go directly to CDA. An assignment panel will then consider the extension request at which point the regional or functional bureau representative on the panel will be able to argue for or against the extension. While that opinion will be given great weight, it will not necessarily carry the day. The justification for any extension denial will be documented for the record.
JUSTIFICATION: Currently, employees who wish to apply to extend in their current assignment are required to first secure their post/bureau approval. If that approval is not given, a CDA assignment panel cannot even consider the employee’s request. This is unfair to the employee who may, for example, have strong career development or personal/family justifications for seeking the extension — justifications that an assignment panel might find compelling enough to act on even if the bureau representative on that panel voted against it.
PROPOSAL 7: Incumbents are prohibited from bidding on their own jobs. CDA may grant exceptions in exceptional circumstances. This rule will not apply to hard language designated positions (where incumbents often arrive just before or even after their position is advertised on an out-year vacancy cable).
JUSTIFICATION: The current policy of allowing incumbents to bid on their own jobs is vastly unfair to other bidders. In these cases, the incumbents fail to request an extension before the job was opened to other bidders. Instead, they wait to renew their claim on the position until the bidding deadline (typically, five months after the extension deadline). By that time, dozens of other bidders may have expended considerable effort learning about the post/job and networking to land it. Once the incumbent belatedly bids to stay in the job, the post/bureau will rarely tell them that they are not welcome to remain.
PROPOSAL 8: Move the deadline for requesting extensions from mid-May to June 15.
JUSTIFICATION: The reason why some incumbents resort to bidding on their own jobs is that they are not ready to make up their minds by the traditional mid-May deadline for extension requests. However, given the increasing automation of the assignment process, AFSA sees no reason why a “just-in-time” extension deadline could not be adopted giving incumbents until mid-June to apply. That would allow sufficient time to adjust the initial set of Open Assignments vacancy cables (typically sent in late July) to reflect the extension.