A blog mistake hounds an FSO: Despite a good reputation for work, “there was the blog thing.”

Posted: 3:43 am EDT

 

There are over 500 Foreign Service blogs by State Department employees and family members. Long-time readers of this blog may remember the tigers who bite bloggers (see Foreign Service Blogging: Tigers Have Teeth, Rather Sharp … Rawr!!!).

When I wrote that Rawr piece in 2011, I wrote this:

I have not seen or heard of Tigers actually yanking anybody’s clearance due to an offending blog. I am aware of private sessions of discouragements, issues with onward assignments, and of course, threats of various colors and stripes among directed at FS bloggers.  And as far as I know, they have not technically kicked out anyone who blogs either —  unless you call the “push” to retirement a payback kick.

Well, State did yank Peter Van Buren‘s clearance afterwards, but it was for more than just a blog.  Occasionally, I get a request to cite a case where identified individuals got into real trouble due to blogging in the Foreign Service. Except for a small number of cases (PVB, ADA and MLC), I’ve refrained from writing about the blog troubles out of concern that writing about them makes it worse for the individual bloggers. In many cases, the bloggers themselves quietly remove their blogs online without official prompting. Out of the abundance of caution.

A recent FSGB case decided in January 2015 shows a charge of “Poor Judgment” against an FSO based on a post in her personal blog written in October 2008.  That’s right. The blog post was online for barely a day and was taken down in 2008. To be clear, the poor judgment charge related to the blog is just half the charges filed against this employee.  But in January 2013, State proposed a five day suspension for the FSO. Excerpt from the FSGB record of proceeding available online:

The Improper Personal Conduct charges are based on grievant’s personal relationships in the summer of 2008 with two individuals to whom she had previously issued non-immigrant visas, and the Poor Judgment charge is based on a post in her personal Internet blog in October of 2008.
[…]
During a flight to the United States during the spring of 2008, grievant unexpectedly encountered another citizen of Country X (Citizen B) for whom she had issued a visa, fell into conversation with him, and exchanged contact information. Upon her return to Country X, grievant was hospitalized in June 2008. While in the hospital, she received a call from Citizen B, who said he would ask his family members to visit her. They did so. Soon after Citizen B returned to Country X, grievant invited him to lunch. Thereafter, the two conducted an intimate relationship for about three weeks.

Later, Citizen A contacted grievant requesting her assistance in issuing a visa to his new wife. Grievant told him she could not be involved in his wife’s visa application process because she knew him. Consequently, another Consular Officer adjudicated and issued the visa for Citizen A’s new wife. Shortly thereafter, grievant posted on her personal blog (using Citizen A’s initials) a comment saying, in effect, that sharing a bottle of wine with someone could be disastrous, especially when that person shows up at your workplace seeking a visa for his new bride. Within a day of this blog posting, grievant was warned by a colleague to take it down, and grievant did so.
[…]
In a letter issued on January 31, 2013, the Department of State proposed to suspend grievant for five workdays, based on three charges that arose from conduct occurring in 2008. Ultimately, the suspension was reduced to three workdays. Grievant’s appeal raised issues of timeliness as well as challenges to the substance of the charges. Grievant is a class FS- 04 Consular Officer who was serving abroad in 2008. In May 2009, a co-worker at her Embassy complained to the RSO that grievant had become too close to some visa applicants and their attorneys and was maintaining improper personal relationships with them. The Office of the RSO investigated the allegations and eventually referred the matter to the Consular Integrity Division (CID). In its report of October 2009, CID found no wrongdoing and returned the matter to post. Nonetheless, the RSO referred the complaint of the co-worker to DS for investigation, but did not do so until January 2011. DS, for no articulated reason, did not assign the case to a field agent until September 28, 2011. DS then did not complete its investigation and forward the matter to HR until late October or early November 2012.

The Board concluded that there was no fact-based excuse for the delay at the RSO level and that there was no evidence of necessity for the length of time engulfed in the DS investigation. The Board found that the grievant had been harmed by the overall delay, caused by two different bureaucracies in the Department. The Board identified the harm as the statistically diminished promotability of this particular officer, given her combination of time-in-service and time-in- class.

The FSGB explains in the footnotes that 1) “She [grievant] was unmarried and remained unmarried through at least the date of her suspension. We mention her marital status only because in other disciplinary cases, an officer’s married status has been deemed a risk for coercion if someone knowing of the sexual misconduct threatened to reveal it to the officer’s spouse. Here, however, it does not appear that the grievant’s marital status was relevant to the selection of penalty or the choice of the charges. Noting grievant’s marital status may obviate confusion, if anyone examining other grievances or appeals should consider this case for comparison purposes.” 2) “Because of sensitivity surrounding the country in which grievant served her first tour, both parties refer to it as “Country X…”

In its decision last January, the FSGB held (pdf) that “grievant had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the Department’s delay of over three years in proposing grievant’s suspension was unexcused and unreasonable and that grievant’s promotional opportunities had been harmed as a result of the delay. Grievant is entitled to reversal of the three-day suspension for charges of Improper Personal Conduct and Poor Judgment, as well as removal of the suspension letter from her OPF. Grievant is entitled to promotion to the FS-03 level, as recommended by the 2013 Selection Boards, retroactive to 2013.”

While this case was resolved on the FSO’s favor, I’m taking note of this case here for several reasons:

1) According to the redacted report published online, the misconduct was reported to the agency by one of grievant’s co-workers on May 20, 2009.  An embassy is a fishbowl.  Anyone at post familiar with one’s activities, in real life or online can file an allegation. If you write a blog specific to your post, people at post inevitably will connect you to it. A single blogpost, even if taken down, can reach back and bite. Across many years.  State’s position is that grievant’s argument that the Department had no regulations or guidelines about personal blogs in 2008 “does not make her posting any less wrong.” Interestingly, that official line doesn’t seem to apply when it comes to the former secretary of state’s use of private email.

2)  Even if an allegation is dismissed by the Consular Integrity Division (CID), it does not mean the end of it, as this case clearly shows.  After the case was dismissed by CID, the case was forwarded to Diplomatic Security for another investigation.  “Counting from the date on which the behavior was reported (as specific misconduct) to the agency to the date of proposal of the five-day suspension, the period of delay in dispute is three (3) years and eight months.” While I can understand what might have prompted the initial complaint, I’m curious about the second referral.  I’d be interested to see comparable cases to this. I’m wondering if this case would have been referred to a second investigation if she were a male officer? Absolutely, yes, no? But why a duplicate investigation?

3) When grievant departed Country X for a new post,  her continued blogging activity prompted other Consular (CID) investigations.  Since there are no public records of these incidents until the cases end up in the FSGB, it is impossible to tell how many FS employees have been referred to CID or DS for their blogging activities. Or for that matter, what kind of topics got them in trouble.  I am aware of cases where FS bloggers had difficulties with onward assignment, but those were never officially tied to their blogging activities; that is, there were no paper trail pointing directly at their blogs.  This is the first case where we’re seeing on paper what happens:

Grievant states in the ROP that “while in [REDACTED] she did not receive any of the initial positions she bid on. Eventually, she was told that even though she had a good reputation for her work, “there was the blog thing.” Also, she recalls that a “handshake” offer of a Consular Chief position in [REDACTED] was rescinded. She attributes this to an unnamed official’s claim that “Embassy decided they did not want me after CID told them about my history (presumably the blog, and my time in Country X).”

4) Beyond the consequences of not getting onward assignments, here’s the larger impact:  “In 2015, the first year her file would be reviewed without any discipline letter, grievant would have been in the Foreign Service for nine years and in class FS-04 for seven years. In point of fact, these lengths of time in service and time in class fall far above the average promotion times for officers moving from grade FS-04 to FS-03.[…]  We conclude, under the totality of circumstances, that the untimely suspension prejudiced her chances for promotion to FS-03 in the years 2015-2018.”

5) Beyond the blog thing — the FSO in this grievance case was an untenured officer serving her first tour at a “sensitive” country the FSGB would only refer to as Country X. When the FSO argue that she was never counseled at post regarding these relationships (other half of charges is for Improper Personal Conduct), the State Department contends that “any lack of counseling “does not erase the perception of impropriety [grievant’s] actions could create if made public, nor does it serve as an implicit concession that [grievant’s] actions were somehow appropriate.”   \

Well, okay, but ….. 3 FAM 4100 is the rules for the road when it comes to  employee responsibility and conduct. Which part of the current A100 or leadership and management classes are these FAM sections incorporated?  While I can understand the  department’s contention above, it also does not absolve the agency from its responsibility to provide appropriate counsel and training, most especially for entry level officers. Or is this a gap in the training of new employees?  When a new, inexperienced officer is first posted overseas, who can he/she ask about delicate issues like this? Is there a Dear Abby newbies can write to or call for counsel at the State Department without the question trailing the employee down every corridor?

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Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct: Is it only the little people who are taken to task?

Posted: 12:48 am EDT
Updated: 3:07 pm EDT

 

In March 2012, AFSA’s General Counsel Sharon Papp reported about a State Department proposal related to the “state of affairs” in the Foreign Service ….no, the other kind of affairs:

In 2011, the State Department proposed disciplinary action against a handful of employees for off-duty conduct that it had not sought to regulate in the past (i.e., extramarital affairs between consenting adults). 

When we reviewed several sex-related grievance cases in 2012, we came to the conclusion that from the agency’s view, widespread notoriety is not required to demonstrate an adverse effect on the efficiency of the Service. Further, the potential for embarrassment and damaged to U.S. interests seems as weighty as actual embarrassment and damage. See: Sex, Lies, and No Videotapes, Just Cases for the Grievance Board

We recently received the following in our mailbox (edited to remove the most identifying details):

The married DCM at the embassy of a major Middle East ally slept with a married ELO whose husband worked for him. He blamed his alcoholism. As “punishment,” he was assigned as DCM at a significant high risk/high threat post. Next up? One of the top jobs at an embassy located in a Western European country.  Where’s the accountability at State? Is it only the little people that are taken to task? 

Well, that is an excellent question given another allegation we’ve received about another front office occupant involved in domestic violence overseas (another story we hope to write another day).

Extra-marital affairs, of course, are not mentioned anywhere in the Foreign Affairs Manual but below is what the regs say on sexual activity (pdf) and what constitutes, “notoriously disgraceful conduct.” Both sections were last updated in 2012, and applies to Foreign Service employees at State and USAID:

3 FAM 4139.1 Sexual Activity
(CT:PER-673; 04-27-2012) (Uniform State/USAID) (Applies to Foreign Service Employees) 

The agencies recognize that, in our society, there are considerable differences of opinion in matters of sexual conduct, and that there are some matters which are of no concern to the U.S. Government. However, serious suitability concerns are raised by sexual activity by an individual which reasonably may be expected to hamper the effective fulfillment by the agencies of any of their duties and responsibilities, or which may impair the individual’s position performance by reason of, for example, the possibility of blackmail, coercion, or improper influence. The standards of conduct enumerated in 3 FAM 4138 are of particular relevance in determining whether the conduct in question threatens the mission of the employing agency or the individual’s effectiveness.

3 FAM 4139.14 Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct
(CT:PER-673; 04-27-2012) (Uniform State/USAID) (Applies to Foreign Service Employees) 

Notoriously disgraceful conduct is that conduct which, were it to become widely known, would embarrass, discredit, or subject to opprobrium the perpetrator, the Foreign Service, and the United States. Examples of such conduct include but are not limited to the frequenting of prostitutes, engaging in public or promiscuous sexual relations, spousal abuse, neglect or abuse of children, manufacturing or distributing pornography, entering into debts the employee could not pay, or making use of one’s position or immunity to profit or to provide favor to another (see also 5 CFR 2635) or to create the impression of gaining or giving improper favor. Disqualification of a candidate or discipline of an employee, including separation for cause, is warranted when the potential for opprobrium or contempt should the conduct become public knowledge could be reasonably expected to affect adversely the person’s ability to perform his or her own job or the agency’s ability to carry out its responsibilities. Evaluators must be careful to avoid letting personal disapproval of such conduct influence their decisions.

One might argue that an extra-marital affair between two consenting adults is a private matter.  And in most cases, it is; who wants to be the sex police?  But. If the allegations are true, can you really consider it private, particularly in a case that involves the second highest ranking public official at an embassy and an entry level officer (ELO) assigned under his command? Even if the DCM is not the ELO’s rating or reviewing officer —  how does this not affect the proper functioning of the mission? Can anyone exclude undue influence, potential favoritism or preferential treatment?  Which section chief would give a bad performance review to a junior officer who slept with the section chief’s own reviewing officer? Even if not widely known outside the Foreign Service, can anyone make a case that this is not disgraceful or notorious?  For real life consequences when a junior officer has a “special relationship” and “unrestricted access” to an embassy’s front office occupant, read the walking calamity illustrated in this case FSGBNo.2004-061 (pdf).

Look … if widespread notoriety is not required to demonstrate an adverse effect on the efficiency of the Service for the lower ranks, why should it be a requirement for the upper ranks?  It’s not? Well, how else can we explain a good number of senior officials who allegedly looked the other way?


Can’t you see I’m busy? Besides I did not/did not see anything!

 

We went and looked up the Foreign Service Grievance Board cases related extra-marital affairs or related to notoriously disgraceful conduct. Here are some quick summaries.

  • In 2011, the State Department handed down a 30-day suspension to a junior officer for “off-color and offensive emails about women he dated, which were widely disseminated” after his private email account was hacked.  State said this constituted “notoriously disgraceful conduct.” (pdf)
  • Another case in 2011 involves an FSO who was told by the State Department: “Given the nature of Foreign Service life, you are aware that you are on duty 24/7. These multiple extramarital affairs involving sexual relations with an estimated 13 women during two separate assignments overseas without your spouse’s knowledge show poor judgment for a Foreign Service Officer.” (pdf) (note: two separate assignments could mean 4-6 years; untenured tours at 2 years, tenured tours typically at 3 years).
  • A Diplomatic Security (DS) Special Agent was suspended for three days for Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct arising from a domestic violence incident with his spouse. (pdf)
  • A married FP-04 Information Management Specialist (IMS), received a 20-day suspension, subsequently reduced to 10 days, for improper personal conduct and failure to follow regulations. The employee served at a critical threat post, and admitted having an extramarital relationship with a local embassy employee as well as engaging in sexual relations with two “massage techs.” (pdf)
  • An untenured FP-04 Diplomatic Security (DS) agent was disciplined for poor judgment and improper personal conduct. The employee brought a  woman to his hotel room and engaged in sex with her. Although the employee voluntarily disclosed the incident and asserted that the woman was not a prostitute, the Department contends that the incident at a minimum gave the appearance of engaging in prostitution and as such violated 3 FAM 4139.14 or Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct. (pdf)
  • A married FS-02 Information Management Officer (IMO) with seventeen years in the Department, with numerous awards and no disciplinary record, was found in his personal vehicle that was parked in an isolated area, and in a dazed condition with injuries suggesting he had been assaulted. He stated that during the prior night he had picked up a woman unknown to him, shared wine with her while driving, pulled over to the side of the road and then had no recollection of what followed, presumably because she had introduced a substance into his drink. During the ensuing investigation, the employee revealed he had picked up four or five women on previous occasions over a four-month period and had sex with them without the knowledge of his wife.  As a result, the Department proposed a ten-day suspension based on the charges of Poor Judgment and Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct. (pdf)
  • An FP-04 Diplomatic Security (DS) agent was given a five-day suspension without pay on the charge of Improper Personal Conduct. The charge is based on an incident in a criterion country in which employee (an unmarried person) engaged in consensual sex with a local woman and gave her $60.00 after the sexual activity had concluded. There was no evidence that the woman was a prostitute and there were no witnesses to their encounter. The employee self-reported the incident immediately to his supervisors, who took no disciplinary action. Eighteen months later, the Department opened an investigation and eventually suspended the employee. The deciding official concluded that employee’s conduct had violated two regulations governing behavior subject to discipline: 3 FAM 4139.1 (Sexual Activity) and 3 FAM 4139.14 (Notoriously Disgraceful Conduct). (pdf)

So —

We have so far been unable to locate FSGB cases of “notoriously disgraceful conduct” involving senior Foreign Service officials; certainly nothing at the DCM or COM level. It could be that 1) our search function is broken; 2) the folks are so risk-aversed and discreet that there are no cases involving a single one of them, or 3) potential such cases were swept under the rug, nothing makes it to the public records of the Foreign Service Grievance Board.

Which.Is.It? Will accept breadcrumbs …

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The Best Lines From “10 Ways to Fix America’s Ailing State Department”

Posted: 1:56 am EDT

 

Joseph Cassidy served 25 years in the Foreign Service. He joined the Service in 1989 and previously served in Georgetown, Nairobi, Windhoek, OSCE, USUN and Baghdad. He also served at IO, DRL, the WH, and as Special Assistant to P, INR and the Executive Secretariat. His most immediate assignment prior to retirement this past spring is Director of Policy and Regional and Functional Organizations at the Bureau of International Organizations.  He pens 10 fixes for America’s ailing State Department in Foreign Policy’s Argument column.

Here are the best lines, in no particular order, from his FP piece; in technicolor font, of course, because, why not?

1. “[I]t’s not clear what authority remains for State, other than delivering the diplomatic mail.”

2. “The regional bureau assistant secretaries occupy sixth floor offices beneath the secretary, and the functional bureau assistant secretaries fight like cats in a bag for the next best real estate.”

Image from xlestatx72.tumblr.com via buzzfeed

Image from xlestatx72.tumblr.com via buzzfeed

3. “There are certain exceptions to the rule that upper floors are closer to God (including some temporarily semi-powerful special envoys slumming it on the lower floors), but employees below the sixth floor can’t help but feel like passengers berthed in steerage on the Titanic.”

4. “This centralization of diplomatic interactions by senior officials who are not subject matter experts is a particular temptation at State because high-level diplomacy is, well, fun.”

5. “It is no wonder that senior officials are reticent, even if unconsciously, to devolve responsibility down, or that too many “kiss-up, kick-down” style mid-level managers covet that high-level life and manage as if their subordinates exist only to make them look good.”

6. “Limiting their numbers, and cutting the large number of semi-independent special envoys, can help restore a more sustainable hierarchy, instead of what we have now, which is like fielding a soccer team with nine strikers clustered around the opponent’s goal, and a goalie and single defender lonely in the backfield.”

7. “If the intent is to simultaneously demonstrate haughty disdain and weaselly incompetence, the midday press briefing ritual — badgering reporters cornering a backpedaling, defensive State spokesperson — is the perfect vehicle.”

YouTube is littered with fine examples

8. “[D]ecisions by the sorting hat don’t always match an officer’s interests and experience. And, like trying to move from Hufflepuff to Ravenclaw, changing one’s cone can be as unpleasant as the semiofficial department term for it: “conal rectification.”

9. “The department does have senior leaders with broad talents. But we also have too many who write beautifully but couldn’t organize a grade school lunch line. Others can speak authoritatively, but lack reporting experience beyond writing an annual holiday card, or can balance a budget but possess diplomatic skills more likely to produce enemies than allies for the United States.”

10. “Gryffindor’s quidditch team didn’t operate on the principle of “One Team, Multiple Systems” and neither should State.”

11. “Like the pack dogs in the movie Up constantly distracted by squirrels, too many senior officials spend too much time preoccupied with the urgent rather than the important.”

12. “State’s organizational culture is antiquate and inefficient, concentrating decisionmaking in the hands of a few extremely overburdened top officials.”

via Canadian FS Problems

via Canadian FS Problems

13.  “Every large organization should be on guard against groupthink among key leaders and morale problems stemming from their isolation from average employees.”

14. “We need to unlearn the harmful axiom that only senior State officials with broad mandates can and should think strategically.”

Read the full article at FP here (registration maybe required).

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Some reaction via Twitter:

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We’re Hosting a Q&A With FSO Mark D. Perry of CorridorRep.com — Saturday, July 18, 7pm EST

Posted: 2:23 pm EDT
Updated: 8:41 pm EDT
Updated: 12:43 pm EDT

 

On July 7, I did a blogpost about CorridorRep.com, a website owned by Transparency In Government Performance, LLC. (See “Corridor Reputation” Gets a Makeover, And OMG …. It’s Now Online!)

CorridorRep.com’s site administrator is Foreign Service Officer Mark D. Perry. (Note: he is not the Mark Perry on LinkedIn). We requested a short bio and here is what he sent us:

Mark D. Perry is a consular-coned Foreign Service Officer who has served overseas in Monterrey, Cairo, and Lima.  He is currently working in a domestic assignment at the Buffalo Passport Agency.  He enjoys chocolate and looking for ways to make life better through the use of technology. Prior to joining the service, he worked in corporate HR for Tyco International, Ltd.

We cannot give you firsthand assessment of the site but readers writing this blog seems split between “this is great, yay!” or this is a terrible idea.

Mr. Perry told us via email that he has been thinking about this idea for years and floated it to a number of trusted friends. “Some said wow this is great and others said you are crazy,” he writes.

Another feedback we got is along the line of — hey, it only took a minute to figure out who runs this site; if he’s not good at protecting himself … what about my information?

We asked Mr. Perry about that and he explained that he created the LLC not to hide his identity, but to provide some additional legal protection.  That is true enough as LLC owners are protected from personal liability for business debts and claims.

We also asked about some readers’ concerns on data security, and here is his response:

I can understand the concerns about data security but I think the potential benefits outweigh these risks. Anything posted here could also be overheard in a cafe or sent by personal email to a friend or already on someone’s Facebook page. All of these are also easy targets for collection. This is nothing new. The site might make it marginally easier but I really do not see much risk in that aspect.

One reader asked about an “opt-out” so we also put that question to Mr. Perry.

[T]here really is not [a] way to prevent someone from  rating you. Preventing someone from being rated would be technically  close to impossible. Anyone can delete or edit the ratings they have  entered for others but could not delete ratings from others about  themselves. Anyone can choose not to visit the site so I guess that is one way one could opt out.

The site itself says that “you now have access to honest 360 reviews.”  One of the screencaps on the site is a section that says “Will work again with You” with the following options:  1) Supervisor, 2) Subordinate, 3) Colleague, 4) Other and 5) All.  We should note that the State Department has been using the 360 degree feedback for years primarily as a placement tool during the assignments process, and as far as we know, not as a developmental tool. See update below.

So think Yelp, Trip Advisor, Amazon and other online rating sites out there, except that the employee is now the rated brand/product.  Or perhaps the closest ones would be the student rating sites for teachers/professors performance.  Online reviews are popular and have grown prevalent in recent years.  There are even online reviews written by ex-convicts!  These online reviews have also grown controversial, of course, with some allegations of manipulation (and some real) orchestrated by companies to trick potential customers. The Harvard Business review last year, however notes that “voracious information-seeking has become deeply ingrained in many consumers, and we can envision no scenario in which they will see traditional marketing as a better provider of product information.”

In some ways, corridorrep.com is probably more like glassdoor.com, a career community that depends on everyone being able to share an inside look at a company they know.  Corridorrep.com depends on everyone being able to share an inside look about each other; it’s success certainly depends on the participation of enough individuals rating each other. Its stated goal is to have 5,000 reviews. Since we posted about the site, the online reviews have gone from 26 to 83, averaging about six reviews a day in the last 9 days.  That’s not a significant number at this time but if the number of posts continue at this rate, we estimate that the site will reach its goal in slightly over a couple of years.  The question now is how many of the Foreign Service’s 13,908 employees are willing to participate? Will Civil Service employees and Foreign Service Nationals, who all have state.gov emails also participate?

We understand that the site has become fairly controversial within the FS community. We are sure there are many more questions out there for corridorrep.com. We have offered to host a Q&A at our forum and Mr. Perry has accepted the invitation.  He will answer your questions on Saturday, July 18, 7pm EST. This forum is set as “open” so non-registered members of the forum and readers of the blog will be able to post questions of interest. You may post your questions ahead of time here: http://forums.diplopundit.net/?forum=457155.

See you at the forum!

Update:  We received the following nugget from an FSO with clarification on current use of 360 at State; our correspondent is not sure if there is a similar process for the Civil Service:

“State’s mandatory leadership and management training that everyone in the Foreign Service has to take each time they are promoted to the next level (at least for promotions to 02, 01 and into the SFS, not sure about below that) has a 360 component. You have to submit 10-15 names to review you anonymously, inlcuding subordinates, peers and bosses (the bosses are not anonymous). The results and comments are shared with you and the FSI instructors and I’ve found it quite useful. You also do one for yourself and seeing the similarities or differences between your self-image of your strengths and weaknesses and how others view you is very instructive.”

A Consular Officer also sent us the following details on the use of 360s at State/CA:

The Bureau of Consular Affairs also uses 360s as a development tool. Its CBAT program collects 360s for bidders and shares the report of the assessors’ input with the bidder. There are fewer questions than on the leadership training 360s mentioned above, but the CBAT does ask “would you work with this employee again?” and offers free text fields for assessors to say whatever they want. In general, the new (2 years old) CBAT process has been received pretty well, although I think some officers have been surprised by frank feedback.  And on the leadership training you mentioned, that is also open to Civil Service employees. I think it is mandatory at GS-13/14/15.

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Related posts:

 

 

“Corridor Reputation” Gets a Makeover, And OMG …. It’s Now Online!

Posted: 11:15 am  PDT
Updated: July 8, 5:28 pm PDT

 

Every spring, our Foreign Service folks get a stressful season added to their lives. It’s called the EER Season. It’s when most people in the Foreign Service must do their Employee Evaluation Review, their annual report cards. It’s like doing your own tax return. It’s painful. People hate doing it. But it must be done, and done well, if folks want that promotion.

One FSO once quipped about the wisdom of “scheduling EER due dates at the same time as your tax returns; at least you’re combining as much pain and suffering into as short a time as possible.”  Another describes it as “a period of several weeks during which the entire service withdraws to semi-hibernation in their offices to produce and push around the mountain of paper that is the annual Employee Evaluation Review.” The Daily Demarche calls it the Creative Writing Season at the State Department, writing, “It is only with slight exaggeration [they] I say some reports use phrases like “when Dick is not walking on water he is busy turning it into wine.”  

There are tips and tricks online on EER preparation, see this and this, both written by FS-bloggers, who by the way, are no longer blogging. Also read this old post from Life After Jerusalem, it’ll crack you up.

An old adage is repeated in the Foreign Service Journal: “The EER system doesn’t work, so all we can do is gossip to keep bad people from getting good jobs.”  

We’ve heard it said often enough that the EER gets you the promotion, but your corridor reputation gets you your next job. Is that still true?

In a perfect world, the performance evaluation report should be the most useful tool in getting an individual, as they say, on the right bus. But that’s not the case in the Foreign Service. The Foreign Service where the entrance requirement is proudly based on merit, actually bases its assignment process on who you know, and what’s often called “corridor reputation,” instead of ability and talent.

So it was only a matter of time… and bang! This happened.

We received the following note:

As I have worked as an FSO for the better part of a decade, I have experienced a lot of different types of employees.  Like many others, I have often wondered how certain people got promoted and why certain others did not.  I have pondered the ridiculousness of the current EER system and its  unnatural obsession with style over substance.  How many times do I really need to roll it back to step 4 to make a comma edit and should that really sink my chance at a promotion?  I have wished that I would have known going in that my new boss would be horrible, and I have wished I could tell the world by boss was awesome.

Eventually, I came to the conclusion that Department needs a place to discuss the performance of people.  It has to be outside official channels and done in a way so others feel like they can comment without reprisal.  After this realization, a long period of denial, and more than a few sleepless nights, the site http://www.corridorrep.com was born.  It is limited only to people with a state.gov email address and does not pretend to be any type of official or statistically valid tool.  It is just a forum for openly discussing the performance of others.  The hope is that by providing visible access to one’s corridor reputation, the good performers get publically recognized and the not so good ones know where they can improve.  Is this risky? Yes.  Will people be offended?  Probably.  Will I get sued?  Maybe.  Is it needed?  I think so.

Regular folks who get frustrated long enough with the process long acknowledged to be broken will occasionally roll the dice.

According to its Terms of Use, http://www.corridorrep.com is owned by Transparency in Government Performance, LLC, registered out of Arizona. Its intended users are “employees of the U.S. State Department and other government agencies as determined by the site administrator. The purpose of this site is to provide mechanism for rating employees based on a 5-star rating system.  It will allow users to view their own individual rating, as well as highlight top performers.  Users will access the site to see how they have been rated and to rate others.”

The site’s stated goal is to rate 5,000 employees. It has 26 ratings right now.  We are unable to read the full reports but one of those “Recently Liked” under “Poor Performer” starts with “It was the longest tour of my life…”  Another one under “Officer Bob” starts with “It was a dark and stormy…”

In order to use the site, users “must provide” their state.gov email address. “This is only used to ensure that Department employees can access the site. Your confirmation email will be sent to this address and once you confirm your account none of your activity will be traceable to it.” The site says that registration is limited to U.S. Department of State employees at this time, but may be extended to include other agencies as determined by the site administrator.

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Note:  Thanks for all your tips. Since the owner of the LLC who operates this new site has not self-identify as site administrator of CorridorRep.com, we will not identify that individual in this blog at this time. We have reached out to the site  administrator and will update when we hear more.  

Burn Bag: Unclear on the concept?

Via Burn Bag:

During Ramadan our FSNs fast during the day. In an effort to build unity, our political section is holding its second offsite in 6 months for 7 Americans and 10 FSNs. They are paying a speaker over a thousand dollars to lecture on diversity in the workplace. Coffee breaks and a fancy lunch will be catered for the Americans. 

via Doctor Who Tumblr

via Doctor Who Tumblr

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FSNs – Foreign Service Nationals also known as Locally Employed Staff (LES).

Fobs For Everyone: 624,000 More Hours of Productivity at the State Department! Woohoo!

Posted: 4:33 pm EDT

 

Not too long ago, State Department EFM Jen Denoia wrote about the reasonable expectation of family members to have access to the department’s online resources:

Eligible Family Members (EFMs) such as myself are still mired in the same backwards technology that existed when our family joined the State Department 15 years ago. Despite advances such as the development of fobs, a device many employees use to generate passwords for intranet access from off-site computers, EFMs have not been granted access to such tools. While we tend to do most of the post research, we are still reliant upon non-State resources in order to retrieve bidding information when we need it the most.

A year after Secretary Clinton arrived at State (and to this day), there is still no decent online access for family members of State Department employees.  The Foreign Service version of MilitaryOneSource for family members may remain only a dream for the foreseeable future.  In 2009, a senior adviser at the State Department helped justify the “fobs for everyone” by citing that the program “will produce new fewer than 624,000 more hours of productivity by end of year.”

On May 12, 2009, CIO Susan Swart wrote an email to Alec Ross, then State Department senior advisor for innovation:

I met with Pat today and we did discuss expansion of the fob program. He is supportive and asked that we do a decision memo to him. WE need this get decision on funding and longer term strategy but I don’t see this as slowing down an announcement the Secretary might make, we just need to coordinate timing.

A couple days later, Alec Ross sent an email to Cheryl Mills and Jake Sullivan:

We’re going to forward with the doubling of mobile access to email and productivity tools. It’s INSANE that fewer than 1 in 5 state Department are able to access their email or documents when they’re away from their desk.

It has contributed to the 9:00-5:00 culture here and exacerbates the disconnection between D.C. and the missions. This is a good short-term win and by my estimates will produce new fewer than 624,000 more hours of productivity by end of year one which I think is extremely conservative – it assumes just 1.5 additional hour online per employee per week.

Given that those being given the tools are principally foreign service officers and people more senior than the mean average DoS employee, I think this is very reasonable. Will put an evaluative instrument into this to see if I’m correct.

More detail on all this below if you want it.

I should point out that Pat Kennedy and the CIO have been great. This has been one of several instances where they listened, they got it, and they’re moving forward. The CIO said she’d thought of it before, just didn’t know if she could handle the politics. I’m not going to spend a ton of time on our “corporate IT” but in obvious cases like this I’ll keep jumping in.

Last thing — this idea got a lot of attention on The Sounding Board. I propose that HRC respond to the staff (maybe in a quick 60 second video that we post there) saying in effect – Thank you for sharing your thinking. I heard you. Because of you we’re doing this.

Re-enforce that HRC is still listening to the staff.

That same day, Cheryl Mills forwarded the email to HRC:

FYI – we’re going to get a short video from you that we’ll put on our site announcing this. It’s also one of the ideas we can use for how we are reforming the department for the reform committee.

Secretary Clinton replied:

Sounds great but you’ll have to explain to me!

So then Ms. Mills sent the following:

sure — bottom line – you need a special security code to get on line from a computer outside the building. Only 1 in 5 of our employees has gotten the device (fob) that allows you to do this access.

This effort is making sure they get fobs into the hands of more (or all) employees so folks can work from home thereby increasing productivity substantially since the 4 in 5 essentially do no work from home once they leave the building until they get in again b/c they don’t have access to their email.

On May 14, 2009, at 10:20 PM, the Secretary replied:

Got it. Is the other matter fixed. Anything else going on?

Whatever it was she was asking about,  Ms. Mills told her, it was “fixed.”  The rest of the email chain is redacted. Click C05761923 (pdf) to read this emails via foia.state.gov.

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@StateDept Ranks #3 in Happiest Senior Executives, Mind the Happiness Gap

Posted: 12:50 am  EDT

 

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This report is based on the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey (FEVS), a tool that “measures employees’ perceptions of whether, and to what extent, conditions characterizing successful organizations are present in their agencies.” The full report is available here.

June Is PTSD Awareness Month — Let’s Talk Mental Health, Join Us at the Forum

Posted: 11:13 pm  EDT

Join us at the forum today at http://forums.diplopundit.net, noon – 2pm, EST

I’ve blogged about mental health in the State Department for years now (see links below). I know that a mental health issue affecting one person is not a story of just one person.  It affects parents, spouses, children, siblings, friends; it affects the home and the workplace. It is a story of families and communities. While there is extensive support in the military community, that’s not always the case when it comes to members of the Foreign Service.

I once wrote about a former Foreign Service kid and his dad with severe PTSD. A few of you took the time to write and/or send books to the ex-FS employee incarcerated in Colorado, thank you.

I’ve written about Ron CappsRachel SchnellerCandace Faber, FSOs who came forward to share their brave struggles with all of us. There was also a senior diplomat disciplined for volatile behavior who cited PTSD, I’ve also written about Michael C. Dempsey, USAID’s first war-zone related suicide, and railed about suicide prevention resources.  The 2014 Foreign Service Grievance Board 2014 annual report says that eight of the new cases filed involved a claim that a disability, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or other medical condition affected the employee performance or conduct that resulted in a separation recommendation.

With very few exceptions, people who write to this blog about mental health and PTSD do so only on background. Here are a few:

  • A State Department employee with PTSD recently told this blog that “Anyone outside of our little insular community would be appalled at the way we treat our mentally ill.”  The individual concludes with clear frustration that it “seems sometimes the only unofficially sanctioned treatment plan encouraged is to keep the commissaries well stocked with the adult beverage of your choice.” 
  • Another one whose PTSD claim from service at a PRT in Iraq languished at OWCP said, “I can assure you that OER and State Med have been nothing but obstructions… as a vet, I have been treated at VA for the past ten months, else I would have killed myself long ago.”
  • Still another one writes: “VA indicates the average time between trauma and treatment-seeking is eight years. The longer it is undiagnosed and treated, the more difficult to ameliorate. I have a formal diagnosis from VA but could not even get the name of a competent psychiatrist from DoS. The bulk of DoS PTSD claims are still a few years away (2008/2009 PLUS 8), with no competent preparation or process.”
  • A friend of a State employee wrote that her DOS friend was “deployed/assigned to a  war-torn country not too long ago for a year. Came back with PTSD and  was forced by superiors to return to very stressful/high pressure work  duties while also seeking medical attention for an undiagnosed then, but eventually diagnosed (took about 6 months) disease  triggered by environmental conditions where s/he was last posted.”
  • Another FSO said, “I actually thought State did a decent job with my PTSD. After I was subject to an attack in Kabul, the social worker at post was readily available and helpful. He indicated I could depart post immediately if I needed to (and many did after the attack). When I departed post I was screened for PTSD and referred to MED here in DC. After a few sessions here with MED, I was referred to a private psychologist who fixed things up in a few months.”
  • One FSO who suffered from PTSD assured us that “State has come a very long way since 2005″ and that it has made remarkable progress for an institution. Her concerns is that PTSD is widespread in the Department in the sense that people develop it in a wide range of posts and assignments. She cited consular officers in particular, who evacuate people from natural disasters and civil wars and deal with death cases on a regular basis, and are particularly at risk.

 

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June is PTSD Awareness Month. We are hosting a forum at http://forums.diplopundit.net for an open discussion on PTSD.

It’s not everyday that we get a chance to ask questions from somebody with post traumatic stress disorder. On Monday, June 29, FSO Rachel Schneller will join the forum and answer readers’ questions  based on her personal experience with PTSD.  She will be at this blog’s forum from noon to 2 pm EST. She will join the forum in her personal capacity, with her own views and not as a representative of the State Department or the U.S. Government.  She’s doing this as a volunteer, and we appreciate her time and effort in obtaining official permission and  joining us to help spread PTSD awareness. Please feel free to post your questions here.

Rachel Schneller joined the Foreign Service in 2001. Following a tour in Iraq 2005-6, she was diagnosed with PTSD. Her efforts to highlight the needs of Foreign Service Officers returning from tours in war zones helped prompt a number of changes in the State Department, for which she was awarded the 2008 Rivkin Award for Constructive Dissent.

Prior to joining the U.S. Department of State, Rachel served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali from 1996-98. She earned her MA from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 2001. We have previously featured Rachel in this blog here, and here.

The forum, specifically created for PTSD discussion is setup as an “open” forum at this time; readers may post questions without registration.  We’re hosting, same Privacy Policy apply.

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Below are some of our previous blog posts on mental health, PTSD, security clearance and the State Department’s programs:

What to do when different voices start delivering multiple démarches in your head?]

USAID’s First War-Zone Related Suicide – Michael C. Dempsey, Rest in Peace

State Dept’s Suicide Prevention Resources — A Topic So Secret No One Wants to Talk About It

Former Foreign Service Kid Writes About Dad With Severe PTSD  (Many thanks to readers who took the time to write and send books to Tony Gooch! We appreciate your kindness).

Ron Capps | Back From The Brink: War, Suicide, And PTSD

Rachel Schneller | PTSD: The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me

Senior Diplomat Disciplined for Volatile Behavior Cites PTSD in Grievance Case, Fails

Pick the Long or Short Form, But Take the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Screening

On the Infamous Q21, PTSD (Again) and High Threat Unaccompanied Assignments

Ambassador Crocker Arrested for Hit and Run and DUI in Spokane

Quickie | Running Amok: Mental Health in the U.S. Foreign Service

Former FSO William Anthony Gooch: No Mercy for Broken Men?

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: The Ticking Bomb in the Foreign Service

Clinton issues note on mental health; seeking help a sign of maturity and professionalism

EFM shouldn’t have to see three RMOs, do a PPT presentation and wait 352 days for help

Join the Petition: Revised Q21 for the Foreign Service

State Dept’s WarZone Deployment Incentives, Programs, Training and Medical Support

DMW: Mental Health Treatment Still a Security Clearance Issue at State Department

Insider Quote: Returning to the Real World

What’s State Doing with Question 21?

 

State/OIG Report on US Embassy Estonia Gets a “D” For Um … Dazzle?

Posted: 2:09 am  EDT

 

The Office of the Inspector General inspected the U.S. Embassy in Tallinn, Estonia from October 3–22, 2014.  It released its inspection report  on June 18, 2015.

Inspection of Embassy Tallinn, Estonia
Posted On: June 18, 2015 Report Date: June 2015
Report Number: ISP-I-15-23A
Report: application/pdf icon isp-i-15-23a.pdf

Quick look at post fro the IG report:

Missionwide staffing is 42 U.S. direct-hire employees, including 27 Department U.S. direct-hire employees. The FY 2014 missionwide budget was $8.9 million. Other agencies represented at the mission include elements of the U.S. Departments of Defense, Justice, and Homeland Security. A small number of U.S. military personnel on rotation to Estonia fall under chief of mission authority. The mission has no consulates. The mission’s FY 2015 request for foreign assistance funds totaled $3.6 million for Estonian military stabilization operations and security sector reform ($2.4 million for foreign military funding and $1.2 million for international military education and training). Embassy Tallinn’s missionwide budget for FY 2014 was approximately $8.9 million. Department staffing was 27 U.S. direct-hire employees and 85 locally employed (LE) staff members.

Excerpt from key findings:

  • The Ambassador and the deputy chief of mission provide appropriate oversight to the country team, and U.S. Department of State sections, in accordance with Section 207(a) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980. However, stronger leadership from the Ambassador and his greater adherence to Department of State rules and regulations are necessary.
  • The political/economic section is staffed adequately to carry out its policy advocacy and reporting responsibilities but needs to adjust local staff portfolios and the language requirements of its U.S. officers to maximize resources.
  • The public affairs section is central to mission efforts to carry out Integrated Country Strategy objectives, using traditional public diplomacy tools, media engagement, social media, and regional outreach to amplify policy messages.
  • The embassy’s consular warden system has not been reviewed, activated, or tested since at least 2011. Worldwide tensions increase the need for an effective warden system with the flexibility to meet multiple contingencies, including the potential interruption of electronic messaging capability.
  • The aging chancery does not meet—and cannot be retrofitted to meet—even the most basic security standards, and numerous infrastructure deficiencies need to be addressed if the embassy is to remain at its present location.
  • The telecommunications and power cabling infrastructure throughout the chancery is disorganized and largely undocumented, which limits the ability of information management staff to carry out their duties.
  • The embassy needs a comprehensive training plan for locally employed staff that reflects priority training needs.
  • Internal management controls need to be strengthened, with particular attention to separation of duties, documenting processes and standard operating procedures, clarifying backup duties, and reassessing organization structure.

Here is what Section 207(a) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 says:

excerpt from Foreign Service Act of 1980

 

Quite impressive, yo!

The ambassador is popular with the Estonian public, helped sold Javelin missiles worth $50–$60 million, met so infrequently with senior Estonian Government officials but succeeded, nonetheless, to get Estonia to accept one Gitmo detainee. This report reminds us of those evaluation reports where the drafter attempts walking on water. Excerpts:

  • The Ambassador’s interpersonal skills have enabled him to participate effectively in public affairs and other programing in several parts of the country and have garnered him personal popularity with the Estonian public.
  • His support for the military includes advocacy for U.S. military sales. His efforts have helped secure a sale to the Estonian Government of U.S. Javelin missiles worth $50–$60 million.
  • The Ambassador, however, has not established strong relationships at the Government of Estonia’s ministerial level. In his 2 years as Chief of Mission, he has met infrequently with the Prime Minister or other ministers in the cabinet (less than 12 times during his 24 months in the embassy, in addition to initial courtesy calls or accompanying visitors and at public events). … Despite the infrequency of his meetings with senior Estonian Government officials, the Ambassador successfully led the effort to obtain the government’s acceptance of a Guantanamo detainee—an impressive achievement given the small size of the country and the government’s reluctance.

On getting the Estonians to “yes,” how did he do it? The IG report did not say, which would have been really helpful given how many Gitmo detainees we still need to place elsewhere.

On leadership, the IG report says:

The most significant findings concern the need for stronger leadership from the Ambassador and his greater adherence to ethics principles, Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) guidelines, and security policies.

Buried in the report is this:

[T]he embassy staff rated the Ambassador below average in leadership categories, including vision, engagement, fairness, and ethics. Segments of the mission community, including some U.S. direct-hire and LE female employees told the OIG team that they feel undervalued. .. Some American and LE staff members gave examples of preferential treatment that the Ambassador afforded to specific employees and interns. It is imperative that the Ambassador reverse these perceptions; he indicated that he is willing to work hard to do so, and he began the process by apologizing to his staff before the inspection team’s departure.

On the EEO program, the report says, “The EEO program at Embassy Tallinn requires attention by embassy leadership.” Oy! What happened?

Non-review of visa issuances/refusals:

The DCM has not met requirements in 9 FAM 41.113 and 9 FAM 41.121 to review nonimmigrant visa issuances and refusals. The most recent regional consular officer report for Tallinn, dated January 2014, states that “[t]he DCM did not meet adjudication review standards…since the last regional officer report visit [in May 2013].” A Bureau of Consular Affairs preinspection report found that standards had also not been met between May 1 and July 30, 2014. The DCM’s review of visa adjudications at single officer embassies is especially important, as no other person provides required oversight and quality control.

Things that happen just before the OIG starts work, or leave post:

  • The Ambassador’s efforts to establish an overall strategic vision, in accordance with 3 Foreign Affairs Manual (FAM) 1214, have not been successful. Few of Embassy Tallinn’s senior leaders can articulate the Ambassador’s overall strategic vision or identify the top priorities contained therein, despite an off-site planning session held just days before the start of the inspection. The Ambassador held the previous planning off site almost 2 years earlier—too long ago to enable employees to have a lasting awareness of his goals and direction. A clear shared vision—key to coordinated team work and productivity—is missing. Greater communication is needed. No structured effort exists to inform the mission employees, including LE staff members, of the outcome of the planning session, which has left a large part of the embassy team uninformed.
  • At the start of the inspection no program was in place for mentoring the mission’s two first- and second-tour (FAST) employees, and some mid-level officers stated that they would welcome mentoring on career development issues. The DCM structured a FAST program and scheduled initial mentoring sessions prior to the inspection team’s departure.

Counsel from EUR/Office of the Legal Adviser?

Elsewhere on the report, it says that “the OIG team identified instances in which the Ambassador did not appear to adhere to established Department rules and regulations. Each instance was small, but collectively they suggest his disregard for adherence to the rules.” It recommends that EUR, in coordination with the Office of the Legal Adviser, should counsel the Embassy Tallinn Ambassador concerning ways to avoid breaches of Department of State rules and regulations.


What the hey?  

[T] he Ambassador has been involved only marginally in efforts that would identify potential opportunities in Estonia for U.S. businesses, as outlined in 18 FAM 015. He agreed to increase efforts in that area, as well as not to pursue Estonian export interests that would not directly result in U.S. jobs.

The IG inspectors cited Section 207(a) of the Foreign Service Act of 1980 on its key findings but forgot Section 207 (c) of the Act?


Oh darn, we almost forgot —  whatabout curtailments?  

Read more about that in U.S. Embassy of Curtailments.


Recusals, anyone?

Embassy Tallinn’s chief of mission is Jeffrey Levine. Prior to his appointment  as ambassador to Estonia, he was the State Department’s director of Recruitment, Examination and Employment from 2010-2012 (HR/REE).

The OIG team who inspected the mission was headed by Marianne Myles who was previously Ambassador to Cape Verde (2008-2010). Prior to her appointment to Cape Verde, she, too was the director of the State Department’s Office of Recruitment, Examination and Employment (HR/REE). She was also Director of Policy Coordination for the Foreign Service’s Director General (DG/HR).

A side note here, HR/REE had three directors spanning at least  six years who went directly from HR to an ambassadorship. (Luis Arreaga, the HR/REE director from 2008-2010 was appointed Ambassador to Iceland from 2010-2013).  This is an extremely small club to belong to.

So we asked Mr. Linick’s office about its recusal policy. Wasn’t IG Linick concerned about potential conflict of interest in this instance? We also asked if there has ever been an instance when OIG inspectors who are/were FS members recused themselves when there is potential or appearance of conflict of interest?

Over the weekend, we received the OIG’s response to our inquiry.  Repeated below in its entirety:

OIG strictly follows the  independence standards established by the Council of the Inspectors General on Integrity and Efficiency (CIGIE).    In order to ensure each inspector is free, both in fact and appearance, from personal, external, and organizational impairments to independence, OIG has a rigorous conflict review within the Office of Inspections (ISP).

Pursuant to this policy, prior to an inspection, every member of the inspection team must review a staffing chart with every employee of the inspected entity, and report, in writing, all prior professional and personal relationships with any such individual.  ISP management  and the Office of General Counsel carefully review this information to ensure that all ISP teams’ members are independent and free from real or apparent conflicts of interest.  This process happens  early in the inspection process as ISP assigns staff to individual teams.   If any such conflicts are identified, ISP takes action to mitigate the conflict, which could include removing a team member from a team.  OIG  provides training to all inspectors on CIGIE independence standards and how to avoid conflicts of interest.

Regarding the Tallin inspection, OIG followed its standard procedure in reviewing input from Ambassador Myles regarding any relationships with employees in Embassy Tallinn and concluded her participation in the inspection was appropriate under CIGIE standards and OIG policy.

So there you go.

We must note that for years, the names of the OIG inspection team members were redacted from these publicly released OIG reports. We have railed about those redactions for various reasons. In 2013, when Steve Linick assumed charge of the OIG — the first Senate-confirmed IG since the 2007 resignation of Howard J. Krongard —  one of his first actions was to release the names of the inspectors with the publicly available reports. We have not forgotten that.

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