By Nicola A. P. Cullen

The purpose of the Overseas Development Program (ODP) is to create a cadre of mid-level Civil Service (CS) employees with first-hand experience and knowledge of the Department of State’s overseas operations. This program was designed for high-achieving CS employees who demonstrate leadership potential within the Department as they advance in their careers. Through this program, CS employees have the opportunity to be assigned overseas with their families for a two- or three-year tour and then utilize their newly gained experience and knowledge in their previous position or a domestic follow-on assignment. The program is managed by the Professional Development Unit (PDU) in the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Office of Career Development and Assignments (GTM/CDA).

ODP is not a new program but was recently enhanced and relaunched. The program was first introduced in 2012 but was on hiatus due to the hiring freeze in 2017. PDU used that time to reimagine and reinvent the program to better support the professional development of CS employees while also meeting the staffing needs of the Department. After significant collaboration within GTM, the revamped ODP was launched in December 2020.

Unlike the previous iteration in which opportunities were determined by the availability of unencumbered Foreign Service (FS) positions, under the new program, bureaus created positions specifically with professional development in mind. These assignments focus on a defined portfolio in an area of new or growing policy focus or management initiative. Additional criteria for the positions include a focus on FS-02/03-equivalent (FS payscale) positions that incorporate a strong developmental element, such as gaining supervisory experience or learning to craft policy positions. The positions could be any skill code or position but could not simply be an unfilled FS position. Most importantly, the positions have to allow the ODP participant to engage actively in foreign policy formulation and/or post operations in keeping with the overarching goal of providing an immersive professional development opportunity.

“The exciting thing about ODP positions is that they are created specifically for the program,” said CDA Director Jonathan Mennuti. “Each position focuses on an area of new or growing policy focus and allows the ODP participant to engage actively in really meaty roles. ODP represents an opportunity for posts to benefit from extra help in advancing their work by utilizing the expertise that a Civil Service employee brings.”

The Professional Development Unit hosted a webinar on the Overseas Development Program for supervisors of Civil Services employees who are interested in applying to participate, Feb. 2. From left: Michelle Garren hosted the event, Deputy Assistant Secretary Philippe Lussier provided opening remarks, and Nicola Cullen, Melanie Monreal-Starling, and Jennifer Nashashibi presented the program. Screenshot courtesy of the Professional Development Unit

In all, bureaus proposed 26 program positions that span various professional fields, job series, and locations, including opportunities in Germany, Armenia, Indonesia, Belize, Guatemala, The Philippines, and Moldova, to name a few. The positions’ duties range from reporting on civil society responses in contested territories to developing economic initiatives to stem environmental crimes, advising on human resource issues, and leading rightsizing initiatives and strategies to improve diplomatic housing.

“When I think about this program and all of the Civil Service and even Foreign Service developmental programs [that the Department has], I think this is the premier program—certainly for Civil Service—in terms of development,” said GTM Deputy Assistant Secretary Philippe Lussier. “To be overseas, to live and work in the overseas environment and understand how bilateral or multilateral—but mostly bilateral relationships—work, to understand the importance of how each section works and reaches back to D.C., how [FSOs] interact with the foreign national staff, and with the foreign affairs community in a host country is the best kind of experiential learning and the best kind of training.”

The ODP selection panel, comprising both CS and FS employees from GTM and the Department’s bureaus, reviewed the 93 PDU applications received this cycle and selected the finalists. Those selected were asked to rank-order their position preferences and provide an explanation for their priority choices. After receiving their choices, the selection panel reviewed both participants’ rankings and position descriptions to match participants with appropriate positions. There are eight ODP finalists in 2021, and PDU estimates that the first ODP participant could leave for post as early as September 2021. 

Given the overwhelmingly positive response to the new and improved ODP from the bureaus and applicants, PDU is confident that this annual program will help the Department retain talented employees and positively contribute to developing a more agile workforce.

Nicola A. P. Cullen is a career development and assignments officer in the Bureau of Global Talent Management’s Office of Career Development and Assignment Professional Development Unit.

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