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MARCH 2015



Previous columns have

discussed the rise of the Dip-

lomatic Readiness Initiative

and Diplomacy 3.0 generation

and their “Pig in the Python”

impact on promotions: i.e.,

more time at grade, slowing

promotion rates and more

limited upward mobility. This

month, I suggest procedural

and substantive reforms to

address supply and demand

in the crowded labor market.

The 2015 summer assign-

ments cycle is one of the

tightest ever as the first

cohort of DRI officers is now

being promoted to FS-1, and

the Diplomacy 3.0 cohorts are

at the cusp of FS-2 eligibil-

ity. AFSA’s concerns were

acknowledged by pre-season

department forecasts predict-

ing position deficits in several

skill codes, particularly at

the FS-2 and FS-3 levels. In

December 2014, the depart-

ment acknowledged the

tight labor market (14 STATE 146948), noting that bidders

should explore out-of-cone

assignments and domestic Y


In order to make last year’s

bidding market work, the

department had to reclassify

dozens of positions from FS-4

to FS-3 and transfer their

ownership from entry-level

to mid-level. At this time it is

unclear howmany positions

will need to be reclassified or

injected into the system to

meet the Director General’s

promise of “No Bidder Left

Behind.”The market is only

going to get tighter, though,

The Foreign Service Labor Market

and the department needs

to begin considering how to

use the position drawdown

in Iraq and Afghanistan to fill

frozen positions and create

new detail assignments and

training opportunities.

The challenge of manag-

ing this closed-market labor

system is that the bidders

are free agents, regional and

functional bureaus control the

jobs, and the market’s regula-

tor—Human Resources—has

few intervention tools on

hand. Individual bidders and

Human Resources end up

bearing the costs of the mar-

ket’s inefficiencies.



In the past,

Congress has criticized the

department’s management of

employees’ language abilities,

paying particular attention to

the percentage of language-

designated positions encum-

bered by qualified language

speakers (see GAO Report

#09-955 at

09-955).While part of the

challenge resides in the lack of

a properly sized training float,

another explanation can be

found in the selection process

for language-designated posi-


The current system results

in sub-optimal matching of

employees and positions,

because those selecting

individuals for positions, i.e.,

regional bureaus, are not

forced to consider the real

costs of employee language

training (travel and transpor-

tation, per diem, tuition, FSI

overhead allocation) borne

by central Human Resources.

Requiring bureaus to account

for and, ultimately, bear the

costs of the decisions would

result in a more efficient use

of existing employee skills,

save real money, unlock addi-

tional employee productivity

and make the assignments

process more transparent.

Employees would still have

opportunities to acquire new

languages, but bureaus would

have to prioritize where and

how to spend their language

dollars. Bureaus could no lon-

ger afford to be cost-agnostic

as in the current system. Such

a reformwould ensure that

the Service is making maxi-

mum use of existing employee

language skills and limited

training dollars.

An Economist’s Take:


State Department is not the

only organization confronted

by matching problems. New

York City public schools face

similar challenges when they

match students and enroll-

ment spaces. Policymakers

in NewYork eventually turned

to economists specializing in

game theory and matching

for solutions.

The NewYork


explained the use of

game theory in the public

school matching process in an

article on Dec. 5



The department’s assign-

ments system is also ripe for

outside analysis and improve-

ment. For the past several

years an economist fromThe

GeorgeWashington University

has been looking at applica-

tions of game and matching

theories to the entry-level

assignments process. Such

research has already identi-

fied process and technological

solutions that will save the

employee and the depart-

ment time (read money)

and result in better matches

for the department and the


Last year’s AFSA survey

confirmed that assignment

system reformwas member-

ship’s highest career and

professional development

priority. AFSA has accordingly

proposed that the depart-

ment take a serious look at

the assignments process to

see how the system can be

made more efficient, trans-

parent and user-friendly.

Such a review would entail

additional resources—people

and money—to consider key

workforce development issues

that have been the subject of

several Office of the Inspec-

tor General and Government

Accounting Office reports.

The current open assign-

ment process was established

40 years ago in response

to a directive issued by the

Secretary of State calling for a

more open, centrally directed

assignment process. Today,

the strains of a larger work-

force are showing, and it’s

time to revisit that call—but

this time with technology,

game theory and a couple of

economists on our side.


Next Month: Open-Plan

Offices: Boon or Bane




Views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the AFSA State VP.


| (202) 647-8160 | @matthewasada