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Foreign Service Limited Appointments and USAID Priorities

The topic of Foreign Service

Limited appointments often

evokes strong emotional

responses among career For-

eign Service officers, to the

point that some of our USAID

FSL colleagues sense ani-

mosity directed toward them

because of the mechanism

by which they were hired.

While the American

Foreign Service Asso-

ciation does have concerns

regarding the FSL hiring

mechanism, under no

circumstances should these

concerns be channeled

into ill will toward FSL col-

leagues, many of whom serve

alongside FSOs in some of

the agency’s most challeng-

ing and dangerous environ-


Rather, AFSA’s main

concern has to do with the

following: Despite being the

lead U.S. government agency

working to bolster national

security by ending extreme

global poverty and enabling

resilient, democratic soci-

eties, USAID has for far

too long had to resort to

bureaucratic workarounds to

compensate for staffing and

resource shortages in fulfill-

ing that mission.

A Hiring System Gone Awry

The use of program-

funded FSL appointments to

meet critical staffing needs

has its roots in the creation

of a well-intentioned but

now out-of-control hiring

system. The reduction-in-

force and hiring freezes of

the mid-1990s left USAID

with roughly 950 FSOs

worldwide. The numbers had

so dwindled that when, in

the early 2000s, the urgent

call came for hundreds of

FSOs to staff the new Critical

Priority Country posts of Iraq

and Afghanistan, USAID was

woefully unprepared to meet

the demand.

Consequently, Sections

303 and 309 in the Foreign

Service Act of 1980—which

give the Secretary authority

to make limited appoint-

ments to the Service—were

used as the legal basis for

hiring FSLs using operat-

ing expense (OE) funds,

resources used for U.S. direct


This quick fix soon proved

untenable, as there were

insufficient OE funds to sup-

port it. In a move proving that

necessity is the mother of

invention, USAID sought and

gained authority in the 2004

foreign operations appro-

priations act to use program

funds when hiring FSLs.

Without this added flexibility,

USAID could not have staffed

the CPCs; Afghanistan alone

had more than 300 positions.

USAID had already been

“creatively” using program

funds to hire Personal

Service Contractors to fill

staffing gaps, but PSCs are

contractors rather than

direct-hire, U.S. government

employess. As such, they

are limited in their ability

to supervise and perform

inherently governmental



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


or (202) 712-1631

functions. The FSL hir-

ing mechanism solved the

contractor dilemma, as FSLs

are direct-hire employees

of the U.S. government and

therefore able to supervise

and evaluate FSOs.

However, FSL appoint-

ments are temporary and not

competed. Thus, those occu-

pying them are ineligible for

promotion and conversion to

the Foreign Service (unless

under a Civil Service-to-

Foreign Service conversion),

do not participate in the

major bidding cycles, can-

not be part of an evaluation

appraisal committee and, in

some cases, occupy coveted

NSDD-38 slots overseas.

A Source of Burnout and


Over time, the dynam-

ics caused by USAID’s FSL

system have exposed the

agency to prolonged stress

that is leading to burnout and

distrust among its own staff.

This “temporary” pro-

gram-funded hiring has

allowed USAID to continue

to “get by.” In 2009, USAID

was given the authority to

extend FSL appointments up

to four years beyond their

initial five-year terms. If this

continues, USAID will not be

able to meet the challenges

of an increasingly complex

global environment. The real

issue, of understaffing due to

insufficient funds, must be


To understand the

extent to which the use of

FSL authority has strayed,

consider the FSL employ-

ment statistics provided by

USAID’s Office of Human

Capital and Talent Manage-

ment (see chart).

As of March 2014, USAID

FSO and FSL positions

totaled 2,083, with FSL posi-

tions accounting for nearly 16

percent of them. Of the 333

FSL positions, 213 or roughly

64 percent were based in

Washington, D.C. Only 86

FSL positions, or about 26

percent, were at CPC posts.

A year later, as of June

2015, FSL positions had held

steady at about 16 percent

of the total combined FSO

and FSL slots. Of interest,

however, was the fact that

of the 329 FSL positions,

Washington slots grew to

221, or 67 percent. FSL

appointments at CPC posts

decreased from 86 to 65, or

approximately 20 percent.

In addition, program-funded

USAID has for far too long had to resort to

bureaucratic workarounds to compensate

for staffing and resource shortages.