Report says aid agency should focus on career development, training

The agency charged with delivering aid to developing countries could keep its workers more satisfied by giving them better career guidance and expanding training opportunities, according to a new research report.

Improving mentoring programs and allowing more training would boost employee morale at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the report concluded. High morale is critical to ensuring the agency continues to attract and retain the workforce necessary to help rebuild developing nations and war-torn countries such as Afghanistan.

"USAID employees, who are loyal, committed and professional, seek greater appreciation of the valuable work they do overseas, often under the most difficult of circumstances," said the report, released last week by the IBM Endowment for the Business of Government.

The group based its March 6 report on comments from academic experts, government officials and private sector representatives at an October forum hosted by the National Policy Association. The report contains 25 recommendations for reforming personnel practices at USAID.

USAID officials are still looking over the report, according to an agency spokesman. John Marshall, assistant administrator in the Bureau for Management at USAID, said he expects "good things to come out of it" once his agency has had a chance to analyze the recommendations. The October forum was "useful and constructive," he added, because other participants in the discussion groups had wrestled with many of the same challenges USAID faces.

As USAID begins to outsource more medium- and short-term projects, it will become increasingly important for the agency to adequately recognize the contributions of Foreign Service nationals-or non-U.S. citizens who are hired by USAID for the Foreign Service-personal services contractors and civil servants, the report said.

The international development agency is not allowing some staff members to reach their potential, the IBM researchers concluded. For instance, because of security regulations or "unwarranted assumptions about their abilities," foreign nationals hired into the Foreign Service "are not asked to do as much as they are able for USAID." Currently, they supervise contractors, but are not allowed to supervise any direct hire U.S. nationals, the report said. Some senior officials at the fall conference suggested giving foreign nationals in the Foreign Service additional supervisory responsibilities.

USAID should also offer these employees "appropriate pay" to show that their work is valued, and should ask the State Department for permission to make exceptions to the common pay scale when they are warranted. In addition, the agency could offer more family-friendly benefits, such as more telecommuting options, the report said.

Even if a tight budget does not allow for higher salaries, USAID could make employees happier by offering better career development and mentoring programs, according to the report.

"Professional development of individual employees is as important to the institution as it is to officers," the report said. "The agency should develop clear performance standards for all phases of an officer's career and provide the training necessary for employees to meet these standards. The best leaders and managers will emerge from an organization that places a premium on training and career development and provides a clear path from entry-level jobs to higher-level positions."

To this end, USAID should give employees field assignments that fit with their career goals and complement their previous experience. When possible, the agency should send workers overseas, reducing the ratio of development to administrative staff. For example, USAID's civil service workers would "benefit greatly from both periodic overseas excursions, where they could gain a fuller appreciation of the agency's work in the field, and a formal mentorship program," the report said.

USAID should build on the training opportunities it offers, the IBM researchers said. Agency heads should ask for more funding for training programs and ensure that all employees have access to programs that will help them develop better management and technical skills. USAID should also consider taking better advantage of training programs available through the State Department and put more effort into developing training courses that can be accessed by workers stationed abroad.

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