Monday, August 10, 2009

Apples Vs. Elephants: The Bidding Process

This is our fourth overseas assignment; our sixth overall (we did an extremely short stint in NYC and 3 years in DC). So you’d think we’d be pros at bidding. But truthfully, I still don’t get it, not entirely. Does anybody?

Here’s what happens, sort of. A list of all of the worldwide vacancies appears, along with their ranks to show you what level each job is. You can only bid on jobs that are at your rank or stretch one level above your current rank. So you look at the list of jobs for which you qualify. You have to include at least 6 bids on your list, and they can’t all be in the same geographic area. How do you choose which places to bid on? Well, you start with the State Dept Post Reports. These are maybe 50 pages each, with everything you could want to know about a country, from its climate to its system of government to the housing you can expect if assigned there. You read through these, discarding or starring the ones that horrify or fascinate you. Then, if you’re me, you go to, which has a section called “Real Post Reports.” This is because the official reports aren’t always 100% accurate: sometimes they skew information so the post seems better than it is because they need to attract bidders (so if scorpions are a real problem, for example, the report might mention that “scorpion bites occasionally happen in the outskirts of town” rather than saying “Little Johnny got his toe bitten off in his own entry hall when he stuck his foot in his shoe.”). Or, if they don’t want to lose hardship pay, they might make the problem sound worse than it is (“Be prepared to fend off wild scorpions in your house, dishes and bed on a regular basis.”). The real post reports site is written by regular folks who are currently assigned to the country, so they’ll give you a good picture of day-to-day life at post – though since you don’t know the people who are writing, you have to assume that some are sunny personalities and some are whiners – grain of salt, people.

So now you have all the info you’re going to get, unless you know someone who has served there. And it’s time to rank these places for your list, sight unseen.

This is really, really stressful. Because how do you compare, say, a small South American city where crime is rampant but the air is clean, with no direct flights but a great school, to a mid-sized European city where the tourism opportunities are abundant but the winters are dark and the language is unlearnable? How about a country where you have to find your own housing v a place where you need to rely on local medical care? A 12-room school v a place that requires high altitude medication be taken upon arrival? A place where you’re likely to be carjacked vs a place where you could get encephalitis?

See what I mean? It’s apples and elephants, and there’s just no way to compare.

So you look at each report with your list of priorities in mind (in my case: good schools, opportunity to learn a foreign language, easy travel time to States, adequate medical care, ability to save money). And you try to picture yourself there amongst the Incan ruins, or the beggars with leprosy, or the whatever you picture to yourself. And you start putting all of these places in order of kill to go there/like to go there/no way in hell I’d go there.

And then go ahead and turn that list in, in early October. It doesn’t matter anyway, because you won’t get any of the places you’ve been dreaming of. Your goal here is to fight like heck to avoid getting a “no way in hell” place. When we bid last time, Beijing wasn’t even on our initial list. We turned in our list of six, and they came back to us telling us we weren’t qualified for half of them because of one child’s medical clearance, which prevented us from going certain places. So we added more places. Some were assigned to other agents, so we had to add more places to keep the list at 6. Some of these new places we didn’t qualify for, again because of the medical clearance issue. Until one day someone called my husband and said “We really think you’d like Beijing. Why don’t you consider adding it to your list?” So we did, and lo and behold, we got it.

That’s how the bidding process works. Are we all clear on everything now? Oh, and one more caveat: Bart is up for promotion, so the list will change for us if he gets promoted, with several places being knocked off the list. We actually have to prepare two lists in case we suddenly lose eligibility for some of these places. And we also have some bid choices within the U.S. to consider, in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, DC and New York.

So, without further ado, I present to you our list of international places from which to choose. Could you choose and rank six? Could you even find them all on a map?

Addis Ababa (Ethiopia)
Amman (Jordan)
Ankara (Turkey)
Guatemala City
The Hague
La Paz
Managua (Nicaragua)
Manama (Bahrain)
Quito (Ecuador)
Riga (Latvia)
Zagreb (Croatia)

UPDATE: Bart brought the actual list home last night. There are actually even more places on the list than I thought, though these additional posts mostly fall into my don't-want-'em category for various reasons: Gaborone, Frankfurt, Abidjan, Beirut, Dakar, Khartoum, Athens, Berlin, Cairo, Jeddah, Manila, New Dehli, Santo Domingo, San Salvador, Caracas, Kiev, Baku, Abuja, Antananarivo... go get your atlas, I'll wait... Conakry, Ho Chi Minh, Kampala, Kinshasa, Lusaka, Maputo... oh, you get the idea - 'nuff said!


The Johnsons said... [Reply]

Very interesting post about postings! It was fascinating to hear how the process works (and/or doesn't).

In the end do you think Beijing was worth it, even if it wasn't on your initial lists?

Lemur said... [Reply]

I'm about to go to Denmark on my first tour, and everything we've heard is sounding pretty exciting to me and my wife. I've been enjoying your blog since I first started researching the Foreign Service as a career, so I hope you will consider putting Copenhagen on your list. Wherever you end up, keep on writing about it!

Ambrose said... [Reply]

I always say that I wished I lived somewhere that had better coffee. Of course, then that might mean would Ethiopia go higher on my list.
I've never met anyone that did not love living in Prague.

Donna said... [Reply]

@Johnsons - Beijing has definitely been worth it on many levels. I am going to miss it - just not everything about it. I know you can relate.
@Lemur - congrats on Denmark. It sounds like a cool place, and I have a feeling it'll end up on our final list. What's not to like? GREAT first assignment.

Donna said... [Reply]

@Ambrose - I loved Prague when we visited. It has always been #1 on my list of dream posts. But I can't get my hopes up too much...

Linsey said... [Reply]

We're in Caracas right now and having that on your list of places you're not considering is probably for the best (not safe, food shortages, expropriations left and right, etc.). We did a tour in Lima, and it was terrific and in lots of way we didn't expect -- morale there is excellent. We have great friends who'll be in Quito and for that reason alone I think Quito would be good. All of Europe appeals to me, but the expense of Europe does not. La Paz is too high, literally, the altitude is often a problem. I'm interested to see where you end up, good luck!

Erin G said... [Reply]

I couldn't pick six, but I can tell you that Zagreb, Gaborone, Sarajevo and Addis would be amongst my top choices.

And that I would skip Bahrain and Conakry.

Do you let the kids vote when you get the list narrowed down a bit?

Donna said... [Reply]

@Linsey - funny to read your comment, as your thinking is almost exactly in line with mine. I don't like the high altitude of La Paz, and I LOVE the post report on Lima. I'm thinking it'll be way up high on our list. Quito might make the cut, too. Do you know anything about Managua?

Donna said... [Reply]

@Erin - Gaborone and Addis? Why those? I know nothing about Gaborone. Addis looks like one of those interesting places - but likely full of hardships. I haven't yet decided where it belongs on my list.

And we've been involving the kids all along, discussing the places and looking them up on maps. But we've also made it clear that in the end it won't be up to us, and we have to serve where we're sent. I hope they'll feel they have a say on places we bid on, but I also hope they understand that it ultimately isn't up to us, and we're serving a larger purpose through this lifestyle (so they can blame the USG, not me, for ruining their lives by moving!).

Betsy said... [Reply]

Wow, sounds like you have so many interesting possibilities. If I were choosing I would choose:

1. Copenhagen - love it there!
2. Helsinki - love the Finns
3. Riga
4. Baku
5. Zagreb

Your post makes me wonder if the FS is easier to get a child with medical problems overseas.

Hope you get one of your choices.

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Erin G said... [Reply]

no special reasons, I just like Africa. Addis is supposed to be a fascinating city, and developing very quickly, plus it's right in the center of the continent and has easy flights in/out of Africa, and the surrounding countries. (I don't think I would want to be anywhere else in Ethiopia besides Addis... not for anything more than a vacation, anyway!)

Gaborone is one of the safest places in southern Africa, apparently, and the opportunities to see and explore nature if you lived in Botswana long-term would be AMAZING.

Tanya said... [Reply]

Oh my goodness I am SO jealous!! What a fantastic list...Ho Chi Minh (awesome! easy place to live, great international schools)
Amman (safe, Petra on the doorstep, also easy place to live) Bangkok (no brainer very easy to live, great schools, all sorts of housing ops available)
Geneva (everyone I know whos lived there still raves about it)
Paris, Prague, Seoul, Athens, Cairo (absolutely we'd be off in a flash)
Manila (again a no brainer)
Id even give Jerusalem a couple of years what an opportunity and for the kids too!
I could go on but at the moment we live in Cambodia -THE best school my son- 15- has been to so far he says without a doubt but definately a hardship post especially in terms of the levels of corruption which my husband has to deal with on an almost hourly basis in his job, the safety issues, the access to good fresh food, clean water etc etc.
I would find it hard to pick just 6from that list. Our process (if you can call it that) requires the usual interviews etc as and when posts come up. We have never had more than 6 weeks from beginning to end and would consider ourselves lucky if we had a choice of two but thats banking for an Australasian company I guess.Good luck with the research Im looking forward to reading about whereever you end up going just as Ive enjoyed reading your Beijing posts to date

Maureen said... [Reply]

Hi Donna - we overlapped briefly in Almaty, but I don't think I ever got to meet any of your family besides Bart. My husband is currently assigned to the Embassy in Paris and we love it here. There are a few drawbacks (prices of everything, low morale at post), but I think the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

Jessica said... [Reply]

Baku is on your list! Baku, Baku!

Good luck w/ everything. I know how stressful it can be!

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