- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 7, 2006

The State Department has begun the first major overhaul of its assignment system in decades, making it more difficult for U.S. diplomats to avoid serving in Iraq, Afghanistan and other dangerous posts that the Bush administration views as crucial in the war on terrorism.

Senior department officials said that no jobs will be available for bidding by Foreign Service officers until all open positions in the critical posts have been filled. They also said that they would resort to “directed assignments” if the new scheme fails to achieve the desired results.

“We are going to start filling the toughest posts first,” one senior official said. “We are still doing this on a voluntary basis, but, obviously, if we ever have to go to directed assignments, we will, because the bottom line is, you have to get your best, most talented people in the hardest and most important positions.”

Another official said that the best way for Foreign Service officers to ensure they have another job when their current assignment ends will be to opt for Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan and other hardship posts in the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

Those who prefer to be posted in less dangerous places in Asia and Latin America or the much sought-after European countries will have to wait for assignments longer and may not know where they would go until weeks before reporting at their new post.

Each year in late August, the State Department publishes an internal list of all positions in Washington and overseas that will become available the following summer. Officers bid for the jobs they are interested in, and most of them receive a new assignment by the end of the year.

The director-general of the Foreign Service, George M. Staples, said in a memorandum to employees last month that a new phase will be added to the previous bidding process.

All bid lists will still be due at the same time in late October, but only bids for the most critical posts, where officers are not allowed to be accompanied by their families, will be considered during the initial new phase, which will last until Nov. 22.

Positions at posts with a “hardship differential” of 15 percent or more will be filled by Jan. 18, and with 10 percent or more by March 20. Only then will non-hardship assignments be made, Mr. Staples said. The differential refers to increases in pay and other benefits to reflect risk.

The Aug. 16 memo came 12 days after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report critical of the State Department’s staffing practices.

“We found that State’s assignment system did not effectively meet the staffing needs of hardship posts, and that State had difficulty filling positions there, particularly at the mid-levels,” the authors of the document said in a letter to Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who requested the GAO report.

Mr. Lugar “feels the State Department still is not adequately staffed for stabilization and reconstruction efforts,” said his spokesman, Andy Fisher.

“He has encouraged the administration to implement a section” of the Stabilization and Reconstruction bill that he co-sponsored with Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat and the committee’s ranking member, which “would develop a 250-person active duty corps,” Mr. Fisher said.

The State Department has had a hard time filling positions in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though it has offered various incentives for serving there, such as higher pay and benefits packages, better chances for promotion and guaranteeing officers one of their top five choices of an onward assignment.

Although most of those who volunteer for risky posts do so to serve their country, some of the officers are too junior for the positions they occupy, and others volunteer more for the benefits than the service, officials say. In addition, many sent to hardship posts arrive with minimum language, cultural and security training, which limits their effectiveness in the field.

During her last two visits to Baghdad in April, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was said to be disappointed by the quality of some of the officers at the embassy there.

Reaction to the new assignment system in the Foreign Service has been mixed. While officers understand the need to staff priority posts, “there is also widespread concern that long-standing assignment rules and practices are being hastily jettisoned,” said the American Foreign Service Association, the diplomats’ union.

“Many still perceive that the new system devalues their past and sometimes extended service in hardship posts,” the association said. “Members feel as if the excellent work performed by the Foreign Service in many important but less difficult posts is no longer valued or rewarded.”

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