Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The FSCE Assignment Process

Our assignment process differs from most other Foreign Service officers and specialists because Foreign Service Construction Engineers usually go somewhere to support a new project instead of filling a position that already exists. This means that places that don't currently have projects will have to actually create a position for us to fill and subsequently vacate and eliminate when the project ends. But I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's go back to the beginning...
There's more to the assignment process than this...right?
I received my official assignment notification today for a job in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. In State Department lingo, the assignment notification is called a TMONE (Shorthand for Travel Message One) and pronounced "T-M-1". I don't know why they didn't go all in and use the actual number. There are a total of eight TMs in the official assignment process, but what makes my job so interesting is all the stuff that has to happen prior to getting to this point.

My job exists to execute projects that have been identified as required and funded by Congress. This means that there are ever so many ways that a project could fall off the tracks and never actually be started, much less completed or be something I could be assigned to. Here's the general process just for getting a project to exist, and I'll cover the HR aspects afterwards:
  • Defined Need: First, a need is identified at Post, but is so low on the priority list it doesn't make the cut. It might get grouped together with other needs to justify a stand-alone project, but not always.
  • Compete for Priority: The Post needs that have been identified for funding then have to compete against other Posts at the Department level, Hunger Games style: May the odds be ever in your favor.
  • Compete for Funding: If the State Department determines the need to be valid requirement, it will submit an Embassy Security, Construction, and Maintenance appropriation request to Congress.
  • Receive Funding: Congress will then issue an act to authorize appropriations, such as the Department of State Operations and Embassy Security Authorization Act, Fiscal Year 2014. This effectively funds the project, unless of course it's a project that makes political sense not to fund. This also creates our short list of places that stand a good chance of becoming possible assignments.
  • Award the Contract: Once the project is funded, you still have to award a contract with someone to design and build the project. Prior to award, it's entirely possible that a project does not even make it off the drawing board because something doesn't meet our standards, so we don't build it. There is also the case where we might have an awesome design, but we can't find a contractor to build it because the economics don't work out for them. Depending on whether the project is "Design-Build" or "Design-Bid-Build" will determine when OBO should have someone on the ground. D-B projects usually have more lead time as there is still design to be done, but D-B-B projects are (in theory) fully designed and ready to build.
  • Satisfy Contract Requirements: If a project makes it all the way through to contract award, you still might run into a problem of the contractor not meeting our mandatory contracting requirements. Hopefully this happens before we get sent out, because contract termination means that we have to go back through the contract award process to get someone else and are kind of in limbo if we're already at site.
  • Notice to Proceed: So, assuming that the project has made it through these hurdles, that's when we'll send an FSCE out to manage the project. We usually try to have someone in the field as the contractor is mobilizing, but that doesn't always happen. However, the catch (there's always a catch, isnt there?) is that a whole other process exists to assign someone to that project.

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Here's a simplified (sanitized?) view of the administrative hurdles we have to clear to get an FSCE assigned to manage the project. These hurdles are similar to what other folks in the Foreign Service go through, but there are only 80+ FSCEs in the State Department's Foreign Service population of roughly 13,000. That means we are the 0.6%, which makes us rather rare (but there are also even smaller groups of specialists that are even more rare). But I digress.
  • There's a process for creating a new position at post, usually referred to as NSDD 38.
  • Once the position is created, it's put out on a list in our office for people to bid on. Think of it as a "wish list" for eligible bidders who are usually coming to the end of their current project/assignment. Bidders rank their preferences and provide additional information to our internal assignment committee as to what's important to the bidder. This is different than most other Foreign Service processes because our office basically informs the Career Development Officer (CDO) about the decision, rather than the the CDO panel making the decision. Anyways, for us, our top priority was finding a project/post with a school that had space for our daughter.
  • All bidders are considered for their priorities and the needs of the service by FSCE assignment committee (roughly the top 10 FSCEs in DC). As you can imagine, if we only have 80+ FSCEs total and roughly a third of them are bidding in any given year, someone in the assignment group knows each of the bidders personally. Another factor is that we have a pretty flat organization, where it's not uncommon for a Project Director in the field to report to a Branch Chief in DC for one assignment, then they switch places for the next assignment. So it's good to keep a positive working relationship with everyone.
  • Once the FSCE assignment committee offers up their recommendations to the OBO Director for approval, the next action is for our Bureau's HR to offer what is called "a handshake" to each successful bidder. 
  • Once the handshake has been accepted by the bidder, the bidder is "paneled" by the Department's HR / CDO (as opposed to the subordinate Bureau that offered the handshake).
  • Now, bear in mind that each position has a grade associated with them. There are also additional approval processes required if a junior person would be filling a much more senior position. Not usually a problem, but it can hold things up later. For me, I'm considered entry-level but will be filling a mid-level position, so the position had to be ceded from the mid-level assignment manager to the entry-level one. All Hail Administrivia!
  • Once paneled, the official notifications start rolling out. What, you thought we were done?

State Department Travel Messages
The official assignment process is communicated using a series of Travel Messages (TMONE to TMEIGHT). You can reference 3 FAH-1 H-3760 for more details, but to summarize:
  1. TMONE―ASSIGNMENT NOTIFICATION. This originates in the Department. It says where you're going, when you need to get there, how long the assignment is, what all you need to do.
  2. TMTWO―PROPOSED ITINERARY. This originates at your current post. This is where you say what your plans are to get to post (includes training, breaks in travel, etc). 
  3. TMTHREE―WELCOME TO POST. This originates at your gaining post. It's a welcome letter.
  4. TMFOUR―TRAVEL AUTHORIZATION. This originates in the Department. These are your official travel orders, the only TM that really matters because it authorizes you to incur costs.
  5. TMFIVE―DEPARTURE FROM POST. This originates at your losing post. "Yes, this guy's finally gone."
  6. TMSIX―REQUEST FOR AMENDMENT. This is actually obsolete and no longer used. But renumbering everything would just be unneccessary work.
  7. TMSEVEN―This is is even more obscure and obsolete than the TMSIX. So much so that I can't even find a description of it. How's that for maintaining an arcane system?
  8. TMEIGHT―ARRIVAL AT POST. This originates at your gaining post."Okay everyone, they finally made it."
Like I said earlier, I've got my TMONE now, so the PCS Planning fun can officially begin!

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