Do YOU have what it takes?

Short Foreign Service exam via the Christian Science Monitor. The actual test has more questions and a couple other sections, but this is a good place to start.

For the record, I missed 7 but argue that the second question was poorly worded. I missed two others by not trusting my gut and another was just a straight up bonehead answer. But yeah, I missed 7. You?

House proposes cutting diplomatic pay

Federal employees living in DC are awarded a 24% “locality pay” increase to offset the costs of living there. This is a pretty significant chunk of change that foreign service officers give up when the serve overseas. Even with the hardship bonuses associated with living in the developing world, diplomats overseas were still making less than their colleagues working in D.C., a huge disincentive for overseas work. The Obama administration implemented a plan to rectify this by way of “Overseas Comparability Pay”. In 2010, an 8% adjustment was introduced, followed by another 8% in 2011, with a third and final 8% set to be introduced in 2012, bring the total of the OCP to 24%, the same as it is when posted in D.C. This is not a salary increase or a pay raise, as the base salaries are not affected (in fact are currently frozen, just as everyone else’s). It offsets the pay cut that diplomats take when they move overseas.

Thomas Reed of New York introduced a bill that passed the House that will cut OCP and as a result, cut diplomatic salaries. This is portrayed as eliminating pay raises for the foreign service. If it passes the Senate, all Foreign Service officers will see an immediate 16% cut to their salaries, unless they get posted to DC where they will still receive the 24% locality pay increase. If this goes through, diplomats working in Libya, for example, are going to be making less than they would if they’d gotten posted in D.C.

This legislation is proposed to save $140,000,000.00 this year and $427,000,000.00 through 2013.

The cancellation of OCP was also proposed by the President’s debt reduction committee, so it isn’t as if this is some Republican agenda being unsheathed here. The Foreign Service is still highly competitive and the OCP increases aren’t seen to be necessary in order to help with recruitment. The problem is that OCP isn’t designed to help with recruitment, its designed to eliminate incentives to work in DC as much as possible. OCP and locality pay factor into pensions as well whereas hardship pay doesn’t, further exacerbating this incentive to serve stateside as much as possible.

I’m not bothered by the elimination of the OCP as much as I am by the rationale of it. Reed has characterized this as if State Department employees are getting raises while the rest of the country is getting pay cuts. All federal employees wages are frozen, include the Foreign Service. Foreign Service officers work either in DC or overseas, but if they work in DC they get a 24% locality pay “bonus”, just like every single other federal employee in DC. The Overseas Compatibility Pay scheme makes sense to me in that it equalizes the income of Foreign Service officers and removes incentives/disincentives regarding posting in this regard. Pretty reasonable to me.

If this was a straight up salary increase, I’d have no problems with its elimination. Foreign Service officers are unique in that they work both overseas and in DC at various points in the careers. OCP isn’t a pay raise for them but this legislation is a pay cut. Not sure it’s the best way to deal with the budget issues, especially considering the value the US diplomatic corp provides. As the changes in Africa, Europe, and Asia that we’ve seen over the last few weeks and months continue to reverberate, any reduction in our diplomatic capacity is a bad thing.

What to blog?

I mentioned to my dad that right now feels kind of like I’d imagine it would be like to be sitting in the space shuttle on the launch platform. There isn’t a whole lot to do other than wait, knowing that there’s a lot going on in the background and that pretty soon things are going to change in a dramatic and life-altering way. I’ve toyed with blogging about the FS ever since I started and based on my experience with blogging in the past, I put it off until I had something to write about a bit more reliably. Now that I’m in, I thought it prudent to establish a clearinghouse for friends and family to follow along on our adventure.

But now that this blog has been discovered (I was actually intentionally not publicizing its existence but somehow someone else from my class found it and now I’m on her blogroll), I’m feeling that I ought to do more than just post some general background stuff. But I’m not really interested in sharing the details of the minutiae of the process, both on personal and professional grounds. I will say that I’ve got most of my initial paperwork done and will be submitting it on Monday. I’ve never had to deal with insurance and savings accounts before (in typical Japanese fashion, my wife runs our home finances here), so I’m feeling kind of late to the party in learning about that.

If you found this blog as part of your own personal search into the Foreign Service and are considering going for it yourself, if you haven’t joined the Yahoo discussion groups about the FSOT or FSOA, you really ought to. Once you make it past the FSOA there is also an A-100 group for dealing with the post-FSOA stuff but you can’t join that until you pass the FSOA. And once you get called off the register, each class gets a google group of classmates run by a group who are just finishing their A-100s who serve as mentors. The amount of supports in these electronic lists is simply phenomenal.

I’m very fortunate that the timing of my invitation worked out the way it did. I finished teaching the first week of February and have had a lot of unscheduled time since then. There’ve been a few meetings and more than a few social obligations from friends, students, and colleagues who want to say goodbye, but its been pretty relaxing and I’ve have plenty of time to pack up my office at school. Thanks to a couple of students who did a huge amount of work with me last week, my office is 95% finished. I’ll have movers in next Wednesday to cart away 25 boxes of books and supplies.

Beyond that my main priority is contemplating what to pack into my UAB. I don’t really have all that many clothes and probably can put most of them in my luggage. I’ve got shelves and shelves of unread books that I know I won’t really have time to read in DC yet I can’t find the wherewithal to prune it down to a reasonable number. I know I’ll have some time to fill since I’m living alone but I also know that a fair amount of that time will get filled by the friends I’ll make and exploring the city I’ll be in. I’ll probably take my camera equipment, my XBox, and too many books and end up using none of it. I’m still waiting to hear from a travel tech but do have my itinerary set up and talks with the home movers have begun.

Beyond that, I’m taking advantage of the time to go to tennis class as often as possible, help keep the house chores in shape, and spend as much quality time with my daughter as I can.

How I found the Foreign Service

Following 9/11, I made a concerted effort to learn as much as I could about those events, an effort that led me to oppose the Iraq War in 2003 not on pacifist grounds but based on my perception that the administration’s position was simply wrong. I carry pretty firm convictions and am known to express my opinion rather vehemently, but this isn’t because I’m close minded as much as its that I prefer gladiatorial competition determine which beliefs I lean towards. I’m open-minded and always willing to admit when I’m wrong, so I was hoping that my take on the war was due to some personal failure to properly investigate everything. Alas, I was vindicated.

As the implications of the war deteriorated during the first 3 or 4 years following the fall of Saddam Hussein, I began to feel the urge to do more than simply teach about 9/11, as fulfilling as that was. But I felt excluded from the national debate that was going on in the United States (or even was absent in some ways) and just needed to contribute in some way. I looked into the Human Terrain System program that placed social scientists in military units to serve as cultural translators of sorts, a position that I think would have suited me well but would have taken me away from my family for 9-12 months at a go. With a baby daughter, I wasn’t keen on being gone for that long (and it turns out that there’ve been some problems with HTS).

While I was looking into HTS, I discovered the Foreign Service. It was well suited to my interests and qualifications and my wife agreed that it would be something she’d be willing to go along with it if I could get in. The only problem was getting in. Thankfully I had a great and reliable teaching job that I was happy to stay for as long as it took to get into the Foreign Service.

I filled out my first application in 2007, back when the PNQ were still part of the application. I started the application right before the deadline and decided to wait until the next round in order to put more effort into the PNQ. Life being what it is, this delay lasted almost a year and by the time I resubmitted, the PNQ were no longer part of the application process. I submitted my application right at the deadline and was eligible for the spring test but there were no available seats in Japan, so I didn’t sit for the FSOT until Fall 2009.

I passed the FSOT and went to the FSOA in March 2010. My security investigation began in May and I was on the register in August. I initially started to slip down the register and was resigned to either learning a CNL or improving my OA score. I retook the FSOT in the fall of 2010 while starting my study of Korean. After the initial slide, however, I began to creep up the register.

At the end of December I was #38, but since the lowest invite from the previous class was #35 and that class was 1/3 Political candidates, combined with the reduced A-100 sizes as a result of the budgetary failings of the US Congress, I wasn’t expecting an invitation any time soon. I was quite surprised to find an invitation on Dec 28, and after a few days of family consultation, I accepted it and joined the #160th A-100 class. The timing was perfect, falling right at the end of the Japanese academic year and avoiding any hassles associated with bailing out in the middle of a term. It really felt as if my Forrest Gump fairy tale was still running strong.

White Waters and Black?

I don’t remember exactly when my dad first started talking about Gordon MacCreagh’s White Waters & Black, but his enthusiasm and the details he recounted always stuck with me and I made it a point to get a copy as soon as I could. It took until 1997 to finally read it and I’ve read it regularly since then. It’s one of the most amazing, amusing, and enjoyable books ever written and its a shame that it isn’t more well known.

It recounts an adventure in the truest sense of the word, as MacCreagh signs on as a guide of sorts for a troupe of “Eminent scholars”, academics with no experience and very few social skills who intend to spend 2 years exploring the Amazon’s uncharted territories in 1923, collecting biological specimens and exploring unknown lands. The book takes it name from the two legs of the trip, the first east over the Andes to the Amazon (the white water) and the second back to the west via the Rio Negro (the black). In and of itself that expedition alone has the makings of a classic, but what really distinguishes White Waters and Black is MacCreagh’s delightful perspective on how to deal with the challenges of the personalities and the expedition. It’s this perspective that is most inspiring to me as I embark on this new chapter of my life in the American diplomatic corps.

MacCreagh is funny, flexible, and apparently unflappable, whether dealing with assembling a huge mule train, befriending violent and xenophobic tribes, or accommodating a huge parasitic insect that sets up camp in a hole burrowed behind his knee, all the while juggling the egos and incompetence of the Eminent Scientists (an M.D., Botanist, Entymologist, Ichthyologist, and Statistician compose the bulk of the explorers. The Scribe didn’t make it out of the first camp.). The trials and tribulations endured astounded me yet throughout the debacles and setbacks, MacCreagh finds a way to make lemonade. He’s surrounded by a team of incompetent idiots wholly unsuited for the expedition but it never gets him down. He thrives in spite of everything; indeed he doesn’t even seem to blink at what most anyone would call a setback. He just rolls with it.

Part of the appeal of the foreign service is the challenges that it will pose. The job itself requires one to adapt and problem solve as does life itself. We’ll have to do without when posted overseas, making do instead of lamenting what’s missing. But we should have no problems if I can make half of it what MacCreagh did 90 years ago in the Amazon jungle. I can only hope to make him proud.