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"Empowering USAID's Foreign Service" -- Message from AFSA Representative, Jason Singer
September 15, 2021
1:36 pm
Tish Butler
Forum Posts: 102
Member Since:
April 22, 2016
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Empowering USAID’s Foreign Service

Colleagues – I was reelected in July as USAID’s AFSA Vice President. I plan on having an “Open House” soon (stay tuned for details), but the Agency’s recent “Administrator’s Message for Labor Day” prompted me to reach out now and share my perspective on the state of the Foreign Service at the Agency and a few of AFSA’s goals for this Administration. Please feel free to share this message with others, and I would very much welcome your own thoughts and feedback. All colleagues regardless of mechanism are valued and respected, but President Biden has called for a revitalization of the career cohort – not just in words, but also in deeds. And it is time for USAID leadership to act.

AFSA is non-partisan, but it is a simple fact that the current administration has expressed strong support for career public servants and unions whereas the previous administration attempted to weaken career civil servant protections and union rights. President Biden’s Executive Order on “Protecting the Federal Workforce” affirms that “It is the policy of the United States to protect, empower, and rebuild the career Federal workforce.” Career Federal workforce. The EO continues, “It is also the policy of the United States to encourage union organizing and collective bargaining,“ and “The Federal Government should serve as a model employer.” Clear, concise and, I believe, sincere. Unfortunately, although the White House itself has declared the policy, Agency leadership has not yet taken positive action or conveyed its intentions to AFSA or the broader Agency.

USAID is a foreign affairs agency, and, as such, its primary “workforce” is the career Foreign Service. Yet over the past several administrations and Administrators, USAID’s career Foreign Service has declined both in numbers and stature. As of May 2021, the number of on-boarded career FSOs stood at 1699 – the same level as in February 2019, and down from 1716 in October 2018. During this time, our mission, work and challenges have only increased. Instead of building the FS cadre, the Agency ramped up use of non-career mechanisms – Foreign Service Limited (FSL), Personal Service Contractors (PSCs), Institutional Service Contractors (ISCs) – many serving in inherently governmental roles, to the point that non-career colleagues now significantly outnumber career colleagues (both FS and GS) in Washington. And the Agency’s recent largest reorganization in 30-plus years, meanwhile, took place devoid of any corporate-level workforce analysis or planning, failing to address head-on the long-standing structural and operational biases against career Foreign Service Officers in the humanitarian and transition areas.

The opportunity seems more than ripe for new Agency leadership to follow White House guidance and start to empower and rebuild USAID’s career personnel. Areas where work is needed include:
FSOs have long been overstretched, underserved, and underrepresented in Washington policy decisions. With a seat at the NSC Principals table, USAID is being called upon to deliver more. Its field-driven perspective, best captured by career FSOs, is invaluable. Yet USAID’s FY 2022 Congressional Budget Justification requests just 30 new FSO positions. My tally of job announcements in Agency Notices from May through August reveals solicitations for 57 FSL positions and over 105 PSCs, of which over 60 are in the field. The number of ISCs is unknown. Why isn’t the Agency more urgently expanding the career Foreign Service in terms of FSO numbers, positions and professional development and promotion opportunities? Why is OTI more than 90% non-career, with FSOs often locked out of field opportunities? Why are so many interagency-related and policy jobs – such as those at the United Nations and Center for Disease Control, and Senior Policy Advisor in CPS – offered to PSCs? These types of positions are inherently governmental.
Ironically, the Agency’s “Senior Labor Advisor” position was recently re-advertised for a non-career Foreign Service Limited appointment. Does the Agency view worker rights as a “temporary” concern? Or should a career public servant lead and build the Agency’s institutional capacity and knowledge in this critical area?
State respects and appreciates the tradecraft, experience, and professionalism that career FSOs bring to managing and leading a foreign affairs agency: FSOs have recently been named to assistant secretary positions, the Director General of the Foreign Service (who also serves as director of human resources) and the Under Secretary for Management, among others. To date, USAID has zero career FSOs named to any Senate-confirmed position and just one AA equivalent. What does this say about USAID leadership’s respect for the career Foreign Service? (Check out AFSA’s tracker here)
USAID has long lacked the ability or will power to effectively manage its employees, prompting one GAO Director to admonish, “…it is essential that USAID develop a strategic approach to its workforce planning so that it can identify and attain the essentials skills it needs to accomplish its goals.” That was in 2003! In 2019, GAO noted that as part of reorganization, “USAID has not yet developed or implemented the data collection and measurement tools that it has identified as necessary to gauge current workforce capabilities, assess staffing needs arising from the proposed reorganization, and identify ways to close gaps arising from changes in workforce requirements.”
There are too many FSOs nearly or already retired who suffer from USAID’s lack of support for the Foreign Service. Career FSOs who served their country for decades in challenging and inhospitable posts go for months with no pension payments. In some cases, Agency health insurance premiums go unpaid. In others, past official time is not recorded. Paperwork is caught in the bureaucracy. Colleagues cannot get timely or accurate answers, grievances sit without response, and there is no ADS chapter on Foreign Service Retirement – though AFSA has asked for its development. Sadly, this situation too often leads to financial hardship, family stress and a poor legacy for USAID.
AFSA should be welcomed as a partner in addressing Agency challenges, and a useful interlocutor in representing employee perspectives, concerns, and ideas. Member matters should be taken seriously, and engagement, respect and trust should characterize the AFSA-management relationship. We may not always agree, but the Agency should respond to AFSA expeditiously, transparently and in the spirit of collaboration. It will take Agency political leadership to change the nature and tone of the relationship.
As we enter our 60th anniversary, I’m reminded of words delivered by then Vice President Biden on the occasion of USAID’s 50th anniversary: “Stop studying, start moving, start rebuilding this great agency. Give it the resources and support it needs to become once again the world’s premier development organization of the 21st century.” FSOs deserve this; they and their families give the Agency their all, quietly making difficult sacrifices around the world to help others. The American public deserves this; there are countless widely known small steps USAID can begin to take to revitalize the Foreign Service and advance the Agency. And USAID’s beneficiaries deserve this; we must rebuild and empower a field-forward career Foreign Service to lead our nation’s humanitarian and development efforts. AFSA has shared with Agency leadership an array of recommendations and actions, both large and small, that would improve Agency morale, effectiveness, and impact.

Executive orders and Agency Notices extoling support for unions and career public servants – including dedicated FSOs and their families – are welcome. But to truly rebuild and empower USAID, and put words into action, Agency leadership must “start moving.”

If you have comments or questions, please reach me at or
Please see my Foreign Service Journal pieces at:

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