The Inner Workings of USAID: If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It. But If It Is Broke, Fix It!

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December 18, 2020

Since April, most media reports on activities at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have been negative, and unfortunately, most have been accurate. But most of the bad news stories have focused on a small cohort of political appointees and their shenanigans who were brought into leadership positions after former administrator Mark Green’s departure. The good news for the incoming Biden team is that much like the well-built homes of old, the “bones” of the agency are in excellent shape. (I touched on USAID policy issues in my first transition memo. This memo will address the operational side of the house and issues related to personnel.)

USAID is the largest bilateral donor of foreign and humanitarian assistance in the world. With an annual budget of approximately $20 billion, its mandate is broad, global, and varied. Given the breadth of this mandate, it is all too easy to lose sight of the fact that somehow this Agency also has to run. And people need to run it.

USAID has employees, staff, and implementing partners (non-governmental organizations and contractors) around the world, totaling approximately 11,000 people. Given this, one of the key areas for early focus for the incoming Biden transition team has to be people and the workforce issues.

Personnel amid a Pandemic

Clearly, we are in a very different place than we were even a year ago. Green established a task force in March 2020 to address Covid-19 from two perspectives: first, a focus on the safety, security, and health of the USAID workforce and its partners that are deployed globally and in Washington; and second, a focus on enabling and facilitating the global response to the pandemic. The task force effectively addressed both areas of concern and was able to successfully transition the global pandemic response to the regional and functional bureaus of the Agency. It also transitioned the issues that relate to the workforce—personnel, security, transfers, etc.—into a readiness unit responsible for addressing issues that cross the human capital and talent management, security, and management offices.

Speaking of readiness, there are murmurs that one of the “lessons” learned from Covid-19-related evacuations is that there may be a diminished need for a large, multiagency presence on the ground and that USAID’s overseas footprint is too large. I believe this to be incorrect, and the incoming transition team will need to be prepared to advocate aggressively for USAID’s presence in country as a critical partner. The Agency’s role is operational and often requires direct and constant interaction with governments, UN agencies, and implementing partners. Other government entities may not have the same operational requirements.

There is still work to be done to support the Agency’s workforce, and it will be important for the incoming team to interact directly and immediately with USAID’s excellent team focused on continuity of operations. Now that the Global Authorized Departure policy has ended, USAID is examining returns to overseas posts and transfers back to the United States, as well as voluntary curtailments, on an individual basis. The big takeaway is that USAID’s systems worked through the first phases of Covid-19. USAID had a lot of dedicated people, patient employees, and an excellent resources available to every employee for services and counseling.

A Better Workforce

Another immediate focus area for the Office of Human Capital and Talent Management (HCTM) is the number of different hiring mechanisms used to bring staff into the Agency. The alphabet soup of USDH, FSO, FSN, PSC, ISC, PASA, etc., is mind-boggling. Congress recognized former administrator Green’s push for additional personnel and appropriated funds for USAID to hire additional civil servants and Foreign Service officers (FSOs) with an eye toward employing 1,850 FSOs and 1,600 civil servants.1 Bringing the Agency closer to the appropriate level of staffing through direct hires is the goal, and if the Agency is able to reach its employment benchmarks, Congress might appropriate additional funding for another hiring push.

Hiring remains a work in progress, and it warrants engagement by the new team. Understanding and addressing the Agency’s HR challenges early on will be a valuable way to see both the challenges and opportunities in the hiring process.

As an example, the ossified Foreign Service hiring requirements still maintain, as one of the expectations for qualification to join the USAID Foreign Service, a graduate degree—not in any specific field mind you, just a master’s or above. But except for certain job categories (e.g., attorneys, some global health practitioners) a graduate degree is not an official or even an actual requirement. Nonetheless, this is not communicated well to hiring managers, and so the soft requirement of “at least” a master’s degree remains in place. What is the result of this? The senior ranks of the Foreign Service are among the least diverse in the federal government. By virtue of requiring a graduate degree, USAID’s Foreign Service actively discourages extremely qualified potential FSOs, many of whom have years of practical experience in such fields, like humanitarian response, global health delivery, Peace Corps service, or even the military, that do not require a graduate degree to succeed. By maintaining this “old boys’ club” approach to hiring, only those who can afford both the time and money needed to pursue a master’s delivers a leadership cadre that is anything but diverse. Nor does a master’s indicate any qualification for management or leadership. I am hopeful that the Biden administration will formally drop the hiring “requirement” of a graduate degree for USAID Foreign Service positions. Some positions may require a graduate degree, but those should be the exceptions, not the rule.

Another consideration for hiring could include selective recruitment of mid-career professionals. This is a convenient way to incorporate many staff who currently serve as personal services contractors (PSCs) or institutional services contractors (ISCs), individuals who do all the work of career staff—up to the level requiring a U.S. direct hire due to a position’s “inherently governmental role.” Many PSCs and ISCs have been working at USAID for years; they have security clearances and have received USAID-specific training. But the Agency currently expects that they will convert to entry-level positions if they join the ranks of the Foreign Service. There is no incentive to take a pay cut and a status demotion to become an FSO. The result of these disincentives is that USAID misses a large pool of talent that could join the direct hire workforce. USAID should consider whether the traditional model of joining at an entry level and working one’s way up is well suited to the twenty-first century workforce. Does the current hiring model allow USAID to attract the most effective and diverse talent to address shifting priorities in a fluid global context?

Some additional areas for the incoming team to consider as it relates to hiring, training, and mentoring could include the following: expanding the Payne Fellowship Program—USAID increased the number of incoming fellows from 10 to 15, but it could easily accommodate more; focusing more on the next generation of leaders through training; building on the leadership philosophy rolled out by Green and on the first-ever Deputy Mission Directors Workshop championed by USAID Counselor Chris Milligan; investing more in mentorship efforts, a cost-effective option given the memorandum of understanding I had the privilege of signing with the USAID Alumni Association; better preparing and equipping staff to participate in the interagency and expanding staffing details to the National Security Council (requiring more staff with security clearance); and meaningfully creating FSO career opportunities and positions in the humanitarian assistance and conflict prevention bureaus.

A Respectful Workplace

The importance of diversity and inclusiveness of the overall workforce through all hiring mechanisms needs attention. While at USAID, I chaired, along with Milligan, the Executive Diversity Council. The Council enlisted the support of the Agency’s employee resource groups (ERGs) to draft a new diversity and inclusion (D&I) policy, which had not been updated since 2012. Even the most basic issues of interest to the workforce, like the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage, were not addressed in the extant policy. As of this writing, the more up-to-date policy, which was fully cleared by the Agency’s bureaus, independent offices, and Executive Diversity Council, has inexplicably been sitting since June, awaiting the signature of acting deputy administrator John Barsa. It is important that the incoming Biden team address the very real D&I concerns of the workforce and publish and implement the policy immediately. A public statement reinstating diversity training and continued resourcing of the Office of Civil Rights and Diversity (OCRD) would be important signals. This would go a long way to raise Agency morale, which has been significantly affected since the departure of Administrator Green.

OCRD is the Agency’s outreach office to ERGs as well as to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When I started at USAID in January 2019, OCRD had a backlog of over 100 equal employment opportunity (EEO) and harassment cases, some of which had been languishing for over a year. To address this unacceptable status, I oversaw the scaling up of the size of OCRD in order to be more responsive to EEO cases. We also built out a new reporting structure to make the process of reporting abuse streamlined and responsive to employee needs. Keeping on top of these cases is vital for holding employees accountable for their actions and respecting the rights of all employees, stakeholders, and beneficiaries.

As we saw in the reprehensible actions of a few very bad actors in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Haiti, this accountability is particularly important in the field, where opportunities for exploiting the most vulnerable are ever-present. To combat this, Green established the Action Alliance for the Prevention of Sexual Misconduct (AAPSM), which I chaired. The AAPSM team, made up initially of volunteers across USAID and throughout field missions, engaged actively to change the Agency’s approach to sexual harassment and to sexual exploitation and abuse. The changes were felt throughout USAID, the donor community, and the contractor and non-governmental organization communities, each of which issued their own codes of conduct as a result.

The clear leadership role USAID plays among donors should not be lost on the incoming Biden team. What USAID does matters to the world. And when USAID leads in areas like the prevention of sexual exploitation and abuse of the world’s most vulnerable people, it is noticed. AAPSM and OCRD teams developed and rolled out a training program called RISE (Respectful, Inclusive, and Safe Environment), designed to provide much-needed skills for a diverse workforce and for the USAID stakeholder ecosystem. These trainings are excellent but were regrettably curtailed by the front office based on the executive order prohibiting certain diversity trainings. They should be restarted immediately.

Foreign Service Nationals

Probably the most overlooked and often undervalued, as well as the largest hiring category, is the foreign service national (FSN), the men and women who staff USAID’s missions around the world on a permanent basis. These people are the institutional glue that allows FSOs to transfer in and out of missions without losing the thread of projects, especially given the gaps inherent in the “transfer season.” FSNs were as affected by Covid-19 as the rest of the USAID workforce, and they often kept the lights on while missions were shuttered for nearly a year. Recognizing their efforts needs greater attention.

While there is little USAID can do to change the overall system in which FSNs work, train, get promoted, etc., as this is managed by the Department of State, it is important for the incoming team to know and appreciate the work of FSNs, to call it out for praise, and, significantly, to advocate for the FSN workforce to the State Department, specifically to the director general. Whether there is a need for more training or for the opening of more FSN career slots at high levels within missions, the new team should continue to advocate for our most stalwart and loyal cadre of employees. Remember, when Americans are evacuated from missions because of a security concern, the FSNs remain. They live in the country and are raising their families there. Their efforts should be promoted and rewarded whenever possible. Instead, there have been incidents where, despite showing they could manage much more substantive roles, FSNs have been relegated to their original, “lesser” roles once FSOs return to their posts. A lesson learned from the pandemic is that there are new and more powerful tools in the FSN workforce. Those should be recognized, enhanced, and leveraged.

Leading Effectively

The leadership of HCTM often points out that personnel issues do not reside within HCTM alone, in a vacuum. All personnel issues reside with leadership across the Agency. The incoming team needs to be prepared to listen. While there will surely be complaints about hiring or evaluation seasons or training or clearances, often the source of the problem is not with the personnel system. Often it is with leadership in the bureaus that has not taken appropriate steps to handle personnel issues before they become problems. Likely, with new leadership coming into the Agency, many of these issues can be addressed through managerial training. Having a leadership cadre that understands and focuses on personnel and staffing, across all bureaus, will be an enormous boon to individual bureaus and to the Agency as a whole.

Bonnie Glick is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Project on Prosperity and Development at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. She previously served as deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.


It is important to note that in December 2019, hiring levels were 1,666 FSOs (many retirees during the pandemic) and 1,229 civil servants. HCTM took the approach of “hiring to attrition,” which takes expected retirements into account. As of September 30, 2020, USAID had 1,338 Civil Service employees, with an additional 328 in the hiring pipeline.