By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 24, 2006
The State Department plans to implement sweeping changes in the way foreign service officers bid for new assignments in an effort to more quickly fill vacancies in Iraq and the growing number of dangerous hardship posts in the Middle East.
The new rules were outlined in a cable sent last week by Foreign Service Director General George M. Staples to department personnel that cited "increasing international turmoil." They are intended to shake up the State Department culture so that overseas service becomes more frequent and more focused on global hot spots.
The changes come as the number of overseas positions that prohibit accompanying children -- and sometimes spouses -- has increased from 200 in 2001 to more than 800 today. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who ordered the new approach, has already begun shifting personnel from Europe to the Middle East and Asia.
More than 200 foreign service officers are required each year in Iraq, and already 1,000 of the roughly 11,000 foreign service officers have voluntarily served there. The number of foreign service officers needed in Iraq will grow as Rice pushes forward with a plan to establish provincial reconstruction teams across the country.
Under the plan, which will take effect almost immediately, hardship posts will be filled before bidding can begin on more attractive assignments. Private side deals that lock up plum assignments will be discouraged, and the practice of allowing junior officers to take more senior slots that have gone unfilled will be minimized.
The State Department hopes that by eliminating handshake deals for posts in safer, more attractive cities, it can direct its top talent to places where their missions are more central to U.S. policy.
Moreover, employees headed for hardship posts will no longer be able to meet the requirement by bidding for the most attractive cities in the hardship category, such as Cape Town, Bangkok or Istanbul. The State Department also wants to reduce the number of consecutive years a foreign service officer serves in the United States, from six years to five.
It is "important that we emphasize the 'foreign' part of Foreign Service, and that means getting more of our employees overseas, where our highest-priority vacancies are located," wrote Staples, who oversees human resources at the department. "While domestic service will remain an essential part of career development, most foreign service personnel should expect to spend the bulk of their careers abroad."
State Department officials denied that the changes are required because they are having trouble filling slots in Iraq, noting that 97 percent of the "unaccompanied" posts are currently filled. Earlier this year, the State Department boosted the pay allowances for both hardship and danger in Iraq and Afghanistan to the highest levels ever, effectively resulting in a 70 percent bonus above base salary.
One senior State Department official acknowledged that Rice and her top aides have discussed the possibility of "directed assignments" if needs are not met. Hardship posts have become "harder to fill," and "there is a real resolve to that we do whatever is needed to fill these positions," the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the topic.
The changes have stirred concern among foreign service officers. Some suggested that the pressure of Iraq -- where diplomats work under extremely difficult conditions -- is resulting in an imbalance of priorities, minimizing the value of diplomatic efforts in other parts of the world in the eyes of Rice and her top aides. Others are concerned that previous work in places such as Bosnia earlier in their careers seems to be worth little now.
Many foreign service officers tackle difficult assignments when they begin at the State Department but prefer to work in Washington later in their careers, especially if they have older children or need to care for elderly parents.
Staples was on vacation and not available for comment this week. The State Department made available two officials to discuss Staples's cable on the condition that their names not be used.
One of the officials said that "these are major changes we have implemented" that will result in important changes in the foreign service culture. "When we sign up, we have to declare we are worldwide available."
The American Foreign Service Association, which represents foreign service officers, issued its own cable to employees, saying it would reluctantly accept a number of the proposals but raised questions about some details.
"There is a lot of support for the secretary's desire to align her resources with her priorities," J. Anthony Holmes, AFSA's president, said in an interview. But he said AFSA wants to minimize unintended consequences from a new policy that could penalize people who have already devoted long service to the United States under difficult conditions.