Fifth Tour Bidding: The Early Assignments Cycle

As I mentioned in my previous post previewing bidding strategies for my upcoming fifth tour, the regular bid season won’t officially get underway until early autumn. But there are some aspects of bidding that start sooner – besides anxiety, networking, and planning – that I didn’t mention. Two of those aspects make up what we call the “early assignments cycle.”

I’m referring to Special Incentive Post (SIP) bidding and Long-Term Training and Detail (LTTD) bidding. The SIP and LTTD bid cycles are abbreviated, occurring before the regular bid cycle so the Department can quickly lock in handshakes for jobs at its highest-priority or most difficult-to-staff posts, as well as external detail and academic positions, respectively, a few months before regular bidding begins. If you receive an SIP or LTTD assignment, your bidding is done and you can watch everyone else sweat it out!

I don’t have a lot of experience with either SIPs or LTTDs. I tried to bid SIP posts from Australia during third tour bidding in 2018, but as an untenured second tour officer bidding mid-level for the first time, the experience was so unsuccessful and short-lived I don’t think I even mentioned it on the blog. And last time I bid in 2021 I didn’t really understand what LTTDs were; most of them were offered above my rank at that time. Finding out about how LTTDs work now has been a little like discovering a hidden level of a video game I thought I’d already scoped out and understood.

This time around I plan to throw my hat in the ring for both SIP and LTTD jobs. This isn’t because I don’t want any jobs in the regular bid cycle – much to the contrary, I have my eye seriously on at least a dozen of the projected vacancies! I just want to try something new and see what happens. I’ve learned a long time ago in the Foreign Service not to self-adjudicate out of opportunities. Maybe SIP or LTTD will work out and maybe they won’t, but in the meantime, here are some of my unofficial, bidder perspectives on the process. A note that none of the information in this post is intended to constitute instructions or policy.

Photo credit: U.S. Embassy Chile

Special Incentive Posts (SIPs)

The Department has a handful of embassies and consulates called “Special Incentive Posts” for the unusual level of difficulty posed by serving there. The assignments are compensated with additional hardship pay at a rate usually exceeding one-third of an officer’s annual salary, above and beyond cost-of-living allowance (COLA), Service Need Differential (SND), and other non-salary benefits officers may already receive.

I won’t list all the SIP posts, because it is a dynamic list, but you could probably figure it out from open-source information such as the Department’s alphabetized list of post hardship differentials. In the past, SIPs were called Priority Staffing Posts (PSPs) and have included places like Baghdad, Islamabad, Kabul, Khartoum, and Sanaa. I sometimes still hear officers who have been around a while refer to them as PSPs, but the term SIP is correct and now much more common in Department parlance.

Approximately 20 years ago, the need for service at these posts was reportedly so high there was an expectation officers would “put their hands up” for such assignments at least once in their career – whether they wanted to or not. As an extra incentive, linked assignments were available; if an officer accepted a handshake on a PSP, they would near-simultaneously receive an offer for a much lower hardship, highly-desirable onward assignment, often in Europe.

The practice of linked assignments from SIPs stopped early on in my time in the Department for various reasons, but sometimes bidders going to or coming from Historically Difficult to Staff (HDS) posts (which can also be SIP but aren’t necessarily) are still eligible for early onward handshakes. I don’t know a lot about this but it does seem to function differently than linked assignments, perhaps on a case-by-case basis.

Over time, competition for SIP posts has also risen. It is no longer a matter of coaxing officers to go, but whether or not one will even have a chance to go, and in some cases like my own, whether one will be medically cleared to go.

Despite the hardships, there are good reasons to try and get an SIP assignment. Service at an SIP post is widely considered beneficial to one’s career in terms of promotion potential and professional credibility; only the most capable and experienced officers are generally selected for such positions. This is something to be proud of. Because some SIP posts aren’t more than one officer deep in every section, there are a lot of opportunities to demonstrate leadership by stepping into roles outside your standard portfolio. Your post may receive a lot of important visitors, such as high-level Department or White House principals, and give you a chance to flex your logistical muscles.

Also, in order for generalists to someday be considered for the Senior Foreign Service (SFS), known as “opening your window,” there are requirements about the number of times you must serve at posts with a certain level of hardship, including after you are tenured. An SIP assignment can more than check these boxes. It can be a great way, too, to save up a significant amount of money in a short period of time. For example, I have known many officers who scrimped on their R&Rs and pocketed most of their SIP salary, a year or two later putting a down payment on a house in the DC area (where down payments often trend well into the six-figure range).

But SIP positions are compensated more highly for good reason: the danger, stress, and difficulty levels can be high. Tours usually last only one year but can include three R&Rs; my two-year non-SIP assignment in Uzbekistan, by contrast, included two R&Rs.

A lot of sacrifice is required. Officers often are expected to work nights and weekends. Many times they cannot bring their spouses, children, or pets, and apply for Separate Maintenance Allowance (SMA) to defray the costs of running two households. Your family may be safe-havened and living on the other side of the world from you, including a spouse who doesn’t work or couldn’t find an assignment at post; working is often a prerequisite for even a spouse to join an officer at an SIP. Family members over 18 may be able to visit you at post, but there are rules about length and frequency of visits.

The medical clearance threshold is usually higher given conditions in an SIP country. Typically, you are not authorized to (and would not want to) ship your entire household to post; unlike at non-SIP posts, you may be living in smaller, more sparse, or even shared accommodations with long delays in getting your effects. The pouch and diplomatic post office might be slower than you expect when it comes to receiving mail. There is a higher likelihood of post evacuation should the security situation deteriorate, as the world recently saw in Sudan. Serving at an SIP, you may well be living and serving in a situation where your freedom of movement is severely restricted, your personal freedoms more curtailed than you’re used to, your ability to date or make local friends more challenging, and your access to goods and medical care very limited.

And because you’re likely to be living on a compound at an SIP post, the Department tries to do a lot to foster morale and safety by providing a variety of accessible conveniences, from gyms and pools to social clubs and restaurants right where you live and work. Life at SIPs is designed to make an officer’s service smoother, in situations where you may have a very difficult security situation, limited or no access to commercial flights, and no authority to go anywhere alone or without a security detail.

Photo credit: Gallup News

Long-Term Training and Details (LTTDs)

Training and details are considered professional development opportunities for officers to gain a broader perspective on their work within the Department by serving outside the Department for a tour.

The first category, trainings, are managed by the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) and are offered to both mid-level and senior level bidders. Training offerings are slightly different depending on seniority, but generally include long-term academic assignments or fellowships at universities (including the opportunity to earn advanced degrees at no cost to the employee) and war colleges.

The second category, details, is managed by the Professional Development Unit (PDU), an office inside the Department’s HR division called Global Talent Management. Details at both the mid-level and senior level are short-term jobs at other government agencies and non-governmental organizations usually lasting for one year, with the possibility to extend for a second year in some circumstances.

A few examples would be earning a master’s degree, working for Peace Corps or the Red Cross, being seconded to the White House, advising the Department of Homeland Security on immigration policy, or focusing on trade and economic issues at various consultancies. I even saw a degree program at my alma mater, San Diego State University, which surprised me. There are many dozens of LTTD opportunities each bid cycle, and clearly, some of these details are located outside the Washington, DC area! While there seem to be a lot of LTTDs, there are likely many more mid-level and senior officers who would like to snag one than actual external assignments to go around.

The eligibility requirements and application processes are specific to each job. The candidate criteria can be highly detailed, but generally, to be eligible for LTTD bidding, you must be a tenured 03 officer or higher, hold a security clearance, and not exceed the eight-year limit to continuous domestic service. If you’re bidding on a training assignment, there may be limits based on how much training you’ve had in a preceding period. There is also an important Civil Service component of these positions that I won’t get into; I’ll stick to the Foreign Service bidding component.

As I mentioned, I confess LTTDs weren’t something I paid much attention to until recently because they seemed like something people did when they had some cool interagency connection I didn’t totally understand. Additionally, the times I looked at LTTD jobs during third and fourth tour bidding (after I’d made it up to mid-level bidding from entry-level directed bidding) there was nothing much available at my level, which until last year was still a tenured 04.

However, the benefits of serving an LTTD assignment isn’t something I needed to be sold on. The cross-pollination these jobs offer is in the Department’s long-term interest, particularly because it allows officers to step outside their agency and pick up skills they could bring back to enhance the Department’s work without having to actually quit their job or shift into leave without pay status. Although the Department offers these positions in its own interest, it’s also – selfishly – a fascinating way for an officer to mix up our careers or spend time in an arena or even a geographic region of the United States we may not have much experience in.

I thought being paid to learn tradecraft or a foreign language at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington was awesome – this is like paid skills-building on steroids! It could also be like “leaving” the Department for a year or two in order to come back with a new perspective… that will also benefit you professionally in the long-term in your next career or even during retirement.

Like every domestic assignment, you’re still on your own for housing though, and LTTD assignments don’t necessarily allow the same telework flexibilities or Remote Work Agreements as other Department jobs.

Photo credit: Everything Overseas guides

So, where do I sign up?

Both SIP and LTTD positions are typically highly-bid.

SIP bidding will follow a tight timeline with a short bidding window. The bid season is slated to begin in late May with only around six weeks expected before the start of handshakes in early July.

The LTTD bid cycle will run this year for approximately four weeks between May and June; handshakes will begin in late July and continue through August as the selection panels – including educational, interagency, and non-governmental partners – complete their work. If you bid on more than training or detail, you may be asked by FSI or the PDU respectively to rank-order them, and it’s important to note it’s the partner organizations – and not the Department – who will make LTTD assignment selections. And from what I’ve heard, curtailing them is very difficult and requires approval from a high level in the Department, I suppose because of the poor external optics and limited availability of the jobs.

I suppose if you really wanted a particular LTTD assignment, it would be hard for SIP handshakes to come a month sooner and not be able to bide your time for that long hoping the LTTD assignment of your dream comes true. But we should all be so lucky to have multiple job offers!

As far as the mechanics of bidding, I will be immersed soon enough. It is important to gather your references early and have them fill out the requisite online forms. (These can be repurposed for the regular bid cycle if an officer does not receive an SIP assignment or decides to skip LTTD and SIP and go after a handshake in the rest of the world.) It’s OK at this point – and even recommended – to be reaching out to incumbents and lobbying for what interests you. However, this is mostly for non-consular jobs.

For consular officers, the SIP bid process appears otherwise the same as the regular cycle, in terms of non-consultative consular positions (lower than section chief) being decided by the Bureau of Consular Affairs in Washington, vs. the other cones requiring a more complex lobbying process involving post, bureau, and desk.

I am awaiting the Department’s official guidance on the SIP bidding rules and incentives, and hope to see it before the SIP bid season officially starts later this month. In the meantime, I am checking out what jobs I might like to bid on and am finding that, unlike last time five years ago, I now know a surprising amount of officers currently serving SIP I can talk to. The LTTD instructions came out a few weeks ago.

And as far as I can tell, neither SIP or LTTD are “bidding light,” or a way to skip over the hard work of bidding, but just an accelerated, compacted way to reach a different, yet desirable outcome. And if you don’t, hey, there’s still regular bidding in September!

Time will tell.

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Sarah W Gaer

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