9. Assignments and Promotions
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207 9 Assignments and Promotions Three great mysteries of the foreign service are who gets in, who goes where, and who gets ahead. Who gets in and who gets ahead are vital to insiders, but who goes where is the hinge of the system. Whether the service can pass the day-to-day test of performing its mission depends on getting the right people to the right place at the right time. If past recruitment, training, and promotion had been consistently wise, prescient, and fully funded, the service would always have individuals with the right skills, experience, and ambition to fill all its positions. And if recruitment , training, and promotion are wise, prescient, and fully funded today , assignments will be easy to make tomorrow. But wisdom and prescience are not always abundant, and money is scarce, so assignments are and will ever be a struggle. Who Goes Where FSOs and specialists are available for duty anywhere in the world—it is a condition of employment. The people and the positions, however, are not fungible. A consular officer who speaks Turkish may not work out as a security officer in Khartoum. A Russian-speaking political officer in Minsk may not be the right choice to deal with investment disputes in São Paulo or Guangzhou. A married, Arabic-speaking political officer who has served in Iraq may have exactly the skills and personal relationships that are needed there, but for how long should the service require separation from family? And in the course of a life in the service, events occur that may limit availability : a spouse’s illness, a child’s disability, an aging parent’s need for care. Assignments in today’s foreign service are made through a formal process that is largely transparent and a parallel informal process that is largely opaque. In the formal process, the Bureau of Human Resources advertises 208  The Career positions that are coming open on the department’s intranet, and members of the foreign service who are due for new assignments submit requests or bids for the positions in order of preference. Then a panel of officials of the Career Development and Assignments Office of the Bureau of Human Resources (HR/CDA) makes the assignments based on the needs of the service , the views of the bureaus, and the preferences of the employees. Panels meet weekly and dispose of hundreds of cases at each meeting, spending on average less than a minute on any one assignment. Any panel decision may be appealed to the director general. The formal process is strongest where first- and second-tour officers and specialists are concerned. At middle levels and especially at senior levels, an informal process tends to preempt formal decisions. Where entry-level officers and specialists go and what they do on their first and second tours depend heavily on the Bureau of Human Resources acting through career development officers (CDOs). Newcomers to the service get a list of available openings and have a chance to bid on their preferred assignments, but their CDO guides them and urges them to submit bids that are realistic. The CDO aims first to fill service needs, for example, for visa officers, and only then to make use of the talents that the new recruits bring into the service. From the point of view of the employee, the bidding process is one in which the best is the enemy of the good: Preferences will likely be accommodated if they are within the range of expectations that the CDO lays out. Those who buck the CDO’s advice may find themselves headed for assignments they do not want, and with budding corridor reputations they may not want either. CDO influence, however, ebbs quickly. New employees who take a hardship tour on the first or second assignment improve their chances of getting their first choice on the second or third assignment. By the third tour they have probably been awarded tenure and entered the middle ranks. Officers and specialists in the middle grades need to do more work to line up the next assignment. Employees whose tours are coming to an end should not wait for the department to announce vacancies; they should check informally with friends and colleagues to advertise their availability and find out what opportunities are likely to be available. Those who hear of a job that appeals to them should go out and do a little self-promotion. They might introduce themselves by e-mail to the...