- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The head of the U.S. Foreign Service has assured its members that the organization’s new assignment system, designed to make serving in hardship posts more difficult to avoid, will be applied fairly across the board and will not favor diplomats with good connections to the State Department’s top leadership.

In an interview with The Washington Times, which first reported the change last week, George M. Staples, the service’s director-general, said it was high time discipline was enforced in the diplomatic corps in order to end the practice of scrambling to fill positions in dangerous places at the last minute.

“What organization in the world would not fill its highest-priority and most difficult posts first? These are times we haven’t faced in the Foreign Service in a long time. There must be equity and fairness in the way we assign people and employ our personnel around the world,” Mr. Staples said.

His remarks came in response to concerns of U.S. diplomats — expressed in messages to the Times and to their union, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) — that those who have managed to avoid service in hardship posts will continue to do so because of whom they know.

“More than a few remain skeptical that the changes will affect those who have traditionally been the old system’s biggest beneficiaries,” AFSA said in a memorandum to its members. It cited what is known as “needs of the service” exceptions that spare certain diplomats from serving in perilous places in favor of important positions elsewhere.

Several Foreign Service officers pointed out that their colleagues who work as staff aides to the secretary of state and other senior officials have for years been rewarded with cozy onward assignments in developed countries.

“Everyone knows that being a staffer in Washington pays off — not only with a nice job afterwards, but when it comes to promotion as well,” one officer said.

Mr. Staples said he could not deny the secretary — Condoleezza Rice or anybody else — the right to send people wherever she deems appropriate or necessary, but he added that he would speak up in case of unfairness.

“If I saw something that wasn’t right, I have no problem bringing it up with the secretary,” he said. “We have a very good relationship, and if something is not right, it’s my responsibility to let her know.”

A Foreign Service officer for 25 years, Mr. Staples has had his share of hardship assignments, including Zimbabwe and El Salvador. He is a former ambassador to Rwanda, Cameroon and Equatorial Guinea.

As part of her concept of “transformational diplomacy,” Miss Rice has urged State Department personnel to serve in Iraq, Afghanistan and other undesirable posts. Diplomats often are barred from bringing spouses or children with them to embassies and consulates in countries such as Sudan, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Liberia.

Every year, the department is faced with the challenge to fill those posts at the end of its “bidding cycle,” with most diplomats looking for a new job already assigned to one of their top choices.

That has led to officers working in positions well above their grade, as well as to using civil service members in Washington who do not always have all the necessary qualifications to work overseas.

Still, Mr. Staples said, “I want to correct the misimpression that we are just sending out bodies to fill slots. It’s not a numbers game.” About 98 percent of all positions at unaccompanied and restricted posts are currently filled, he said, thanks to the hard work of the human resources bureau.

To avoid the scramble each year, now those posts will be filled before the much-coveted capitals of Europe.

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.

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