The Foreign Service Journal, April 2021

60 APRIL 2021 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL STATE VP VOICE | BY TOM YAZDGERDI AFSA NEWS Contact: | (202) 647-8160 Are Linked Assignments Worth It Anymore? As many of you know, linking an assignment after service at a Special Incentive Post— Afghanistan, Iraq, Cuba and certain other tough places to live and work—has been a long-standing incentive to bidders. But as the years have gone by and the number of SIP positions has decreased, is the linked assignments process still needed as an incentive? More to the point, is it a fair process? In the most recent depart- ment survey on SIP incen- tives (May 2018), a majority of respondents felt linked assignments provided incen- tive to fill SIP posts and were good for the Foreign Service. But less than half believed the process was fair. That said, linked assign- ments took a distant third place (equal to “needs of the Service”) when those surveyed were asked their primary reason for bid- ding on an SIP post. Career development and financial incentives were first and second, respectively. Concerns from Mem- bers. Recently we have heard from a number of our members that the process appears to be broken, and few are happy with it. Indeed, one member who was unsuccessful in getting a link wrote us and said that a link bidder’s success this year was “lottery-like,” and dependent on the order in which bureaus manually sent the handshakes. This member noted that all 75 links were given away in a matter of minutes after they could be issued. Another member, who was ultimately successful in getting a link, expressed misgivings about the pro- cess, saying that a number of his link bids were not seri- ously considered. This member goes on to say that bureaus deny link requests for reasons unre- lated to position require- ments or, if they do provide such reasons, they are not credible. Some posts said they wanted to wait for the normal assignments to see who else might bid or that they wanted to save the jobs for people coming out of hardship locations within that bureau. This member also points out that the SIP link track- ing team is woefully under- staffed, calling into question the department’s commit- ment to honor its incentive for SIP service. Are Links Seen as Entitlements? On the other hand, there is the feeling that some bidders have come to see links as entitlements—that is, if an employee requests a link, that should be enough, and the bureau should have little right to evaluate the employ- ee’s actual qualifications for the position. There is also the con- cern that links distort the bidding process, especially with regard to the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs. According to 2020 statistics, 40 percent of link requests were made to EUR. That reduces possibilities for people who want to serve in EUR but not through a linked assignment—such as those coming from other hardship locations or in tandems. Diversity and Inclusion. Anecdotal evidence sug- gests that linked assign- ments may undermine the department’s attempts to promote diversity in hiring because the majority of those seeking links appear to be white and male. To the extent that such data exists, AFSA has asked the department to provide a breakdown by gender, race and other identifying infor- mation on who has sought linked assignments, and who has been successful in getting them. In any event, the link pro- cess means that some jobs are filled without the ability to consider the full slate of eligible bidders, including those who for a variety of reasons are unable to serve in a SIP location. What Is to Be Done? AFSA has continued to sup- port linked assignments by negotiating with the depart- ment on the number of such assignments each year. The number has steadily fallen in recent years, due particularly to the drawdown in positions in Iraq and Afghanistan. From a high of 220 links in 2009, 150 were available in 2018 and 75 in the most recent bid cycle. But with the problems and challenges identified above—which, to be fair, are also largely associated with the regular assignments process as a whole—should the department continue with this particular incen- tive? Or is there a possibility for reform? AFSA wants to hear what you think about the linked assignments process and other efforts to incentiv- ize service in high hardship locations. Please send your thoughts to member@afsa. org. n Recently we have heard from a number of our members that the process appears to be broken, and few are happy with it.