American Foreign Service Association Poll Results: An Inside Perspective

Posted by Richard Boucher
January 9, 2008
U.S. Department of State Building

Richard Boucheris the U.S. Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs. Also see comments by State Department SpokesmanSean McCormackand U.S. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere AffairsThomas Shannon.

Reading the Washington Post this morning, we all encountered the results of a poll done by the American Foreign Service Association (results at http://afsa.org/Jan08survey.pdf). It says that our diplomats are dissatisfied, particularly with their pay and assignments process, and don't think that our senior management has done enough to fix these problems.

Looking at this from the inside, many of us might disagree but obviously not everyone does. Surveys like this invite comment from people who are dissatisfied and, of course, they blame long standing problems on current management. When I joined the Foreign Service, 30 years ago, there was a financial benefit to being overseas. About fifteen years ago, the equation shifted. Locality pay and changes in benefits mean that it's now a financial hardship to go abroad, not to mention the isolation, disease and danger of being far from home. Current management, including Secretary Rice herself, have fought hard in the budget process to provide us the people, the program funding and the benefits we need to do our jobs well and take care of our families but the terms of service are still worse for most than when we started. This didn't just happen.

Finally, again from the inside, I'd say that like many organizations we thrive on complaining. Some of my best tours have included sitting around in Africa or Shanghai complaining about low pay compared to bankers and under funded operations. But, in the end, we all know we're doing important work for our country –that comes out in the survey too. Fifty-nine percent said they'd go to Iraq out of a sense of duty and of patriotism. That's been true for my entire career: we go to hard places and do tough jobs because it is meaningful to us personally and to our country. That's why we have such low attrition rates (4%) and an up-or-out promotion system, despite the complaining that's part of our culture.

Comments

Comments

JOE
|
Tennessee, USA
January 9, 2008

Joe in Tennessee writes:

I had the pleasure of talking to a DoS employee back from the Middle East last year for a period of over three weeks in casual conversation.

Though now retired, his remarks were similar to the report, as were a past resigned Agency employee.

1. Too much political oversight. Bureaucratic politics superseding developmental work.

2. Adherence to Political Administrative policy over protocol on many occasions.

3. Lack of actual INSIGHT to problems. No ground zero understanding.

4. Insecurity developed by trickledown.

5. Pay by contractors, as Halliburton, much greater and authority to accomplish work goals better.

I believe the rush of diplomatic reserves needed to fill all the voids created most the problems listed. The DOS as well as other agencies had to expand itself at an almost unprecedented rate to maintain its overall objective world wide.

The time to correct many of the problems is not really feasible under the present conditions. It is in these times when any person who has chosen to SERVE has to put that as their prime concern, knowing the rest will come when time, information, money and peace prevail.

Anyone working for the DOS does so to SERVE first.

Who else shows its concern for democracy on such a grand scale?

Sara
|
Virginia, USA
January 10, 2008

Sara in Virginia writes:

@ Dan in Washington, DC -- Regarding your comment about overseas housing in response to Assistant Secretary Boucher's comment about lack of equity in overseas pay scales (seniors get U.S. pay scale overseas; non-seniors take a 20% pay cut), you should know that many USG overseas get housing AND the U.S. pay scale, including the Senior Foreign Service, all of the intelligence agencies, and the military. In fact of all the federal servants expected to serve a considerable portion of their careers overseas, only the (non-senior) Foreign Service takes the 20% pay cut, but all get housing. In fact, there are people IN the U.S. who get housing (military, every bureaucrat on TDY status). My point is only that you naively point out housing seemingly as a mitigating factor, when in fact it is the cost of anyone (public or private sector) doing business overseas. And our colleagues in Iraq and elsewhere who get a shipping container or equivalent as this "housing" would undoubtedly be surprised to learn that's why they lose 20% off the top of their salary (and remember only non-senior FS suffers this) before they are given the financial benefits of their extreme hardship post.

Dan
|
District Of Columbia, USA
January 10, 2008

Dan in Washington, DC writes:

@ Sara in Virginia -- Calling me or my views naive isn't correct or helpful. As I stated in my last post, I fully understand that all FSOs -- both senior FSOs and non-senior FSOs -- (as well as other USG employees serving overseas for that matter) have housing provided to them when serving overseas.

Clearly, having housing provided at no cost is obviously something of a "financial benefit." And "financial benefits" were what I addressed in my posting, as "financial benefits" was the term Assistant Secretary Boucher's used.

Regarding the "lack of equity" issue that you discuss, I also clearly indicated in my earlier message that I recognize this lack of equity, and I stated that the Department and the USG should move ahead to address this lack of equity immediately by providing non-senior FSOs salary adjustments to offset the lose of locality pay issue.

Regarding your statement "In fact of all the federal servants expected to serve a considerable portion of their careers overseas, only the (non-senior) Foreign Service takes the 20% pay cut... "I'm not sure how you determine what "a considerable portion of their careers" is, but I do understand that other USG employees assigned overseas, e.g., some FBI employees, currently also face the loss of locality pay issue when they take jobs overseas. I understand that that these USG employees would like to see this issue addressed too.

dennis
|
South Dakota, USA
January 12, 2008

Dennis in South Dakota writes:

I have taken the FSO test and am anxiously awaiting my test results. I have explained to my family and current girlfriend that if selected, I will volunteer for Iraq, if a need arises. I would assume that most FSO's would also do this because of their sense of duty. I would also hope that no one joined the Foreign Service in order to get rich or to create a comfortable lifestyle for themselves. The riches should come from knowing that you have done what you can to help the United States and improve its standing in the eyes of the rest of the world. Riches also come from visiting places we never thought we could have seen and knowing that we are not only visitors, but play an important role in the development of these countries. Cheers to all you FSO's and hopefully I will be joining your ranks soon.

David
|
United States
January 14, 2008

David in U.S. writes:

Polls and surveys generally expose "surface" issues only. End-of-tour debriefing, if extensive, will disclose more of the fundamental problems. The AFSA poll did disclose that 41 percent of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) would not volunteer for service in Iraq (or might refuse service in Iraq). In my opinion, this attitude is partly derived from the DOS' general failure to provide sufficient safety and survival training to develop the confidence needed to serve in high-risk areas such as Iraq. In nearly five decades of service, in 42 developing nations, I knew a number of FSO's with safety concerns. Many charities, NGOs, & contractors experience similar personnel problems caused by inadequate survival training for volunteers working in high-risk areas. For our charity, NPI, we solved this problem by developing and testing our own survival handbook to help improve volunteer safety. You may see this handbook on NPI's website (www.needfulprovision.org) ---click on the upper, right button. The lesson learned is to undertake effective efforts to identify real problems, and then develop solutions to help resolve the problems. Polls and surveys are simply one starting point in this process.

Kartal
January 14, 2008

Kartal writes:

Thanks..

Sheldon
|
Florida, USA
January 15, 2008

Sheldon in Florida write:

I am an FSO who retired with more than 36 years of service, including eight regular overseas tours, and two lengthy TDYs. With one notable exception, all were hardship posts, for health, isolation or danger, with combinations of those three elements. I remain fiercely proud of our Foreign Service, but I am dismayed that this Administration's ideological disdain for the professional diplomat has led to such a public harangue. I wonder why it was necessary for the Secretary to embarrass the Service in public over the staffing of the Embassy in Baghdad. The matter was resolved very quietly, but she owes the Service a public apology. In addition to this symbolic gesture, there should be a major effort within the Department to open up channels for a thorough discussion of the diplomatic and political options necessary to foster a comprehensive regional settlement to our intervention in Iraq.

tom
January 16, 2008

Tom writes:

I think it is interesting that A/S Boucher glosses past the fact that there is a financial benefit to serving overseas for one segment of the Foreign Service. As other posters have pointed out, while the vast majority of Foreign Service staffers serving abroad are disadvantaged by the present pay disparity between Washington and overseas, this is not the case for our senior members who have enjoyed pay parity with Washington for the past few years. The same seniors who disparage AFSA for voicing the concerns of its members over this issue have not stepped forward to aggressively advocate for a solution to this problem. It’s an embarrassment for the leadership to have taken the pay leveling in stride for their cadre and left the people they lead out in the cold. The seniors could have led by example and refused to take their parity while the troops were left behind. They didn’t though. They should be ashamed. Vice casting aspersions they should be standing shoulder to shoulder with AFSA on this topic and applauding them for speaking out on behalf of their members.

David
January 22, 2008

David writes:

I bet if the attrition rates were higher, the survey would be looked at much harder and taken more seriously by management. The "battle" between AFSA and management did not have to go public but is did so because of management. If you are reading this blog then you owe it to yourself and the department to read AFSA's response. http://www.afsa.org/011508critics.cfm

Why is it that there are people out there that think just serving the government should be enough. If I were serving at a 20% differential post I would still be making .89% less than my counterpart in Washington.

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