Monday, April 8, 2013

Anatomy of a Foreign Service Move: Introduction and Post Assignment

With all my Facebook posts and in-person comments about the packout we underwent recently, I’ve received several questions about what exactly a packout is and how it works. Back when we announced that we would be moving to Kosovo, I received several questions about when and how we are assigned to a specific post. At various points along our journey, I have received other questions about other parts of what boils down to the perpetual moving process in which we Foreign Service families live—we almost always are preparing to move, in the process of moving, or adjusting to a move. So I’ve decided to write down at least some of the answers in one place, so that our family and friends (and any other interested parties) can get an idea of what this whole process entails. This series of posts (five in all) is my attempt to create that “one place,” a resource that non-Foreign Service folks and potential or new Foreign Service folks can use to understand what their loved ones are experiencing or to understand what they will experience as part of their Foreign Service careers.

Different departments (i.e., Department of Defense civilians and military personnel as opposed to Department of State Foreign Service Officers and USAID personnel) handle each phase of work-related moves differently, and even different agencies within the same department may have some differences in how they go about things. What I’m going to talk about is what has been our experience, with Jeff’s role as a Foreign Service Specialist. If you’re part of a Foreign Service family, our experiences may be different from yours—but I trust that you’ll recognize the broad similarities even if a few specifics vary.

The Beginning: Bid Lists, Bids, and Assignments

Sometime early in each calendar year, the State Department publishes an internal document known as the bid list. This document lists all the vacancies (positions and their locations) that are coming open in the next rotation cycle (all the position changes for one year are assigned at the same time, so each year is one cycle). Each employee is expected to review the list and start the process of acquiring a “next post.” In our family, Jeff reviews the list and narrows it down based on position requirements—he eliminates any posts with positions that are above or below his pay grade, positions that he finds professionally boring or unsuitable, and positions that wouldn’t be a decent move for his career. He also eliminates posts to which he is not allowed to take family members for security reasons (unaccompanied posts, such as Iraq or Afghanistan, or posts where spouses are allowed but children aren’t—like Kosovo, until recently) and most likely also eliminates posts to which he would not be willing to take Alexa and me for security, health, or other reasons. He ends up with a list of (usually) 10 to 15 cities, all of which would be manageable posts for him, and he brings that list home to share with me.

Usually I read over the list and ask Jeff if he has any early favorites. After whatever discussion follows, my first stop is the computer. I get basic information about all of the cities, often beginning with Jeff’s early favorites or cities that pique my interest. I always look for information about climate, security, crime, money and exchange rate, attitudes of the local population toward Americans, and pet importation (if we can’t take the cats, we strike it off the list immediately). When we’re preparing to leave Kosovo, I’ll also have to start looking at education information: what schools are available for expat children, how good they are, and whether homeschooling is a reasonable option in that country. I also look for blogs written by expats who live there, though I’ve had little luck with any of my three such searches to date—I never seem to find the blogs until I get there and meet the expats who write them. Basically, I start trying to get information about each country on the list with the goal of forming a general impression as to whether or not I’d like to live there.

Jeff and I discuss some more, pray, and come up with our top five choices, in order. Then Jeff takes our list in to work and starts the submission and negotiation process. It’s a weird mix of bureaucratic procedure and interpersonal negotiation, and I’m happy that he deals with it and I don’t have to understand all the particulars—diplomacy and negotiation are not my strong points.

And I wait.

Weeks or months later, people start receiving official offers. At some point, Jeff calls me from work and tells me where we’re going. It’s almost always one of our top five, though not always … ok, never so far … our number one choice. Once it turned out to be a position that not only wasn’t in our top five, but wasn’t even on the bid list—a position had come open at the last minute, they recruited Jeff for it, he was excited about it, and my response mirrored his: “If that had been on the bid list, it would have been my number one choice!” And so we were assigned to Egypt for our first post.

The Waiting: Are We Really Going?

Once we know where we’re going, we return to waiting. There are several months between the time we’re notified of our new assignment and the time when things really start happening. In the meantime, we live our lives and enjoy wherever we are at the time. We also spread the word as to our new assignment, giving people plenty of time to ask us all the questions to which we do not yet know the answers, and allowing friends and family time to decide if they’re going to come visit us and start saving the required funds if they are.

I embark on a quest for information during this time. I usually order a travel guide and read through it in these months of waiting, and I periodically search for blogs written by or about expats in the new post city. I scour every source I can find for any information that will give me an idea of what to expect. My search is almost always fruitless. Only once have I found the information that I sought: when we were waiting for our move to Cairo, a friend introduced me to a wonderful book called Cairo: The Practical Guide, which provided a plethora of information for expats moving to and living in Cairo. Unfortunately, I was not able to find such a resource for Phnom Penh or Prishtina … if any expats have lived in these cities for many years and have the skills, inclination, and time to write such a guide, let me be the first to encourage you to write it!

Toward the end of this time, I start thinking about the practicalities of the move itself: what will go with us? What will go into storage? What should simply go away? These thoughts awaken my obsessive need to plan and organize, organize and plan … and transitions us into the next phase of our moving cycle.

Anatomy of a Foreign Service Move, Part:
1: Introduction and Post Assignment

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