By Naomi Walcott
Domestic Employees Teleworking Overseas (DETOs) are direct-hire Civil and Foreign Service employees teleworking for domestic offices while accompanying a spouse overseas on a U.S. government assignment. For the Department of State, DETOs can help expand the pool of bidders available to domestic offices while supporting the career development and retention of Foreign and Civil Service employees. DETO opportunities prevent employees from having to resort to family separation or leave without pay (LWOP) and instead support inclusion of dual-career families serving the U.S. government. Helping the Department fully utilize employee talent, DETOs are a boon for the Department and employees alike. Currently, the Department has approximately 200 Civil Service and Foreign Service employees serving as DETOs or in the approval pipeline—a significant increase from only one year ago—and many others serve in the interagency.
Foreign Service Officer (FSO) Kathryn Fitrell is a DETO pioneer who has served in four DETO positions throughout her career, including her current assignment in the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy. In 2011, Fitrell was on LWOP while accompanying her tandem spouse at a post where she was unable to work. Looking for ways to reenter the workforce, she secured her first DETO in the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) Office of Public and Congressional Affairs, thanks to an “awesome [career development officer], creative manager, and a welcoming bureau.” Fitrell notes that one of the most rewarding aspects of DETO work is being able to support her home office and colleagues by maximizing the time difference of her location abroad. For example, while serving as a DETO in CA’s Office of Children’s Issues, Fitrell communicated in real-time with consular officers at the West African posts in her portfolio. While serving in a press job, being eight hours ahead of Washington allowed her to produce a media summary in advance of Washington’s opening of business—a duty that had previously required a colleague to be in the office very early. Drafting speeches and strategy papers benefited from focused time as a DETO in a different time zone uninterrupted by the rhythm of Washington meetings. Recently, Fitrell took half a day to travel to a country in her region to present at a one-day conference. The Department was represented, and a Washington colleague didn’t have to make the long, transatlantic trip.
“It’s just good business—and better value to the U.S. taxpayer—for the Department to maximize its talent pool with work arrangements such as DETOs,” said Fitrell.
Civil Service Supervisor Tim Hayes has fully embraced the value of DETOs, having supervised five of them since 2017 in his former role as deputy division chief for the Office of eDiplomacy Knowledge Leadership Division in the Bureau of Information Resource Management (IRM). Hayes had recognized that one of his team’s duties managing collaborative platforms such as Diplopedia could easily be done asynchronously.
“From that first day, it was pretty obvious that…we could easily have someone working for us somewhere else around the world,” said Hayes. DETOs “expanded our global reach,” allowing his team to provide customer service to colleagues around the world outside of Washington business hours.
DETOs also provided an “in the field” perspective of life living and working overseas, which proved valuable given eDiplomacy’s focus on the end user. Further, offering DETO-eligible positions allowed Hayes to attract talent that may not have normally considered working in IRM, bringing diverse experiences and perspectives to the office.
“Having a DETO can be very effective, very rewarding, and can bring a high quality, very experienced person to your office whom otherwise you wouldn’t be able to have working for you,” said Hayes.
DETOs bring myriad benefits to the Department, including filling staffing gaps and vacancies for offices that might otherwise remain understaffed. The DETO program also supports inclusion by ensuring that highly trained Civil Service and Foreign Service talent is not lost to LWOP or resignation. FSOs Elliot and Emily Fertik are combining DETOs and embassy assignments in Kenya. First, Emily served as information officer at the embassy while Elliot served as a DETO in CA, where the time difference supported a 24-hour per day need in the bureau. When Elliot assumed his current role as deputy consul general, both he and Emily overlapped in embassy assignments. Now, while Elliot completes his assignment, Emily serves in a DETO as a senior advisor in the Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, where the time difference helps her provide support to posts globally during their business hours.
Embassy Nairobi Chargé d’affaires Eric Kneedler, a former DETO, is a strong supporter of DETOs as a benefit for the Department and for employees.
“Welcoming tandems through DETOs to Embassy Nairobi has expanded the pool of candidates available to us and the depth of expertise among our community,” said Kneedler.
Thanks to a recent Bureau of Global Talent Management (GTM) policy change, DETOs can now leverage their experience in supervisory positions. Civil Servant Breton Boudreaux is breaking new ground as one of the first DETO supervisors, serving as deputy director in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs’ Office of International Engagement while physically located in Tijuana. She notes that among other benefits, the DETO program provides Civil Service employees valuable overseas experience that broadens and enriches their perspective.
In addition to expanding DETO eligibility to supervisors, the Department continues to make strides to support DETO employment, including taking steps to make the program more accessible to the spouses of Department of Defense military and civilian personnel. Nevertheless, challenges remain. The explosion in the number of DETOs reveals the need for GTM to continue making improvements to the approval process and the need for adequate resources to support a growing program. Despite GTM’s active support of the DETO program, some employees note the DETO approval process remains slow and that some offices remain hesitant to employ DETOs. Further, due to their domestic assignment, despite being located overseas DETOs do not receive home leave, nor do they receive danger pay, hardship pay, or cost of living allowances in their own right. Civil Service employees take a significant pay cut—averaging 32% of their salaries—when serving as DETOs since they lose their Washington locality pay and do not receive overseas comparability pay as Foreign Service DETOs do. Many of these benefits issues are not a matter of Department policy, but rather are controlled by statute, and GTM is advocating for legislative changes that would increase DETO compensation parity.
The COVID-19 pandemic reshaped telework policy at the Department, and new technologies enabled by IRM facilitate telework from anywhere in the world. Many managers and employees who had never considered telework in the past have become telework advocates based on their experience during the pandemic. GTM encourages supervisors and employees alike to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to learn more about the DETO program, and to view DETOs as an opportunity to build and retain a talented and supported team. Now that the Department has proven how effective employees can be while teleworking full-time, all offices should consider tapping into the rich pool of talent offered by DETOs.
Naomi Walcott is a Foreign Service officer who supervised a DETO in the Bureau of Consular Affairs from 2016-2018 and served as a DETO in the Bureau of Information Resource Management from 2019-2022.