Is State/OBO’s Intense Focus on Design Excellence Driving Engineering Employees Away?

Posted: 1:22 am EDT
Updated: April 16, 2015, 7:42 pm PDT

 

Last week, there was a Burn Bag submission we posted on the many losses in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations’ engineering staff.  We’re republishing it below, as well as reblogging a post from The Skeptical Bureaucrat. Maybe this would help save the State Department leadership from having to say later on that no one made them aware of this issue.

We’re actually considering sending a love note to the 7th floor. Something like, “Hey, subscribe to Diplopundit. You may not always like what you read but we’ll tell you what do not always want to hear.” Or something like that.

On second thought, maybe we shouldn’t. They might decide to go back to just Internet Explorer and then all of our readers there won’t be able to read this blog ever again. In any case, here is that burn bag submission, repeated for emphasis:

Is the State Department leadership aware that there have been many losses of OBO [Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations] engineers in the last 18 months, leaving more than a 20% deficit (OBO words via email, not mine) in engineering staff, with more contemplating separation? Does it care?

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Below from The Skeptical Bureaucrat: Have Hard Hat, Will Travel (used with permission):

Diplopundit’s Burn Bag entry about OBO’s losses in engineering employees made me think back to the retirements and resignations I’ve noticed among my good friends in Overseas Buildings Operations over the last couple years. Yeah, I think there is indeed a pattern there.

A demoralization among OBO’s engineers would kind of make sense in the context of OBO’s overwhelming focus on Design Excellence, or, to use the new name for it, Just Plain Excellence. (The word “design” was dropped from the program’s name about one day after the disastrous House Oversight Committee hearing in which OBO’s Director and Deputy Director were severely criticized for favoring artsy & expensive embassy office buildings over functional & sensibly-priced ones.) In a Design Excellence organization, the architects are firmly in charge and the engineers will always play second fiddle.

According to the Burn Bag information, OBO has lost about 20 percent of its engineering staff. There is substantiation for that claim in the current USAJobs open announcement for Foreign Service Construction Engineers, which says OBO has “many vacancies” in that field:

Job Title: Foreign Service Construction Engineer
Department: Department Of State
Agency: Department of State
Agency Wide Job Announcement Number: CON-2015-0002

MANY vacancies – Washington DC,

A Foreign Service Construction Engineer (FSCE) is an engineer or architect, in the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations working specifically in the Office of Construction Management, responsible for managing Department of State construction projects overseas. The FSCE is a member of a U.S. Government team that ensures construction is professionally performed according to applicable plans, specifications, schedules, and standards. The FSCE must adhere to the highest standards of integrity, dependability, attention to detail, teamwork and cooperation while accepting the need to travel, to live overseas, and when necessary, to live away from family.

Those vacancies are for permanent, direct-hire, Foreign Service employees. In addition, there were also personal service contractor vacancies for OBO engineers announced on Monster.com five days ago. That one is looking for General Engineers, Mechanical Engineers, and Civil/Structural Engineers.

Why isn’t there also a need for Electrical Engineers? After all, you can’t spell Geek without two Es.

It looks like engineers are indeed exiting OBO in large numbers. Why that is, I can’t be sure. But I have to think it is not a good thing for my friends in OBO.

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Sources tell us that William Miner, the director of the OBO’s design and engineering office was one of those who left in the last 18 months and Patrick Collins, the chief architect retired in January this year. 

The USAjobs announcement cited by TSB does not indicate how many vacancies OBO plans to fill.  In addition to the open vacancies for Foreign Service Construction Engineers, USAJobs.gov also has one vacancy for a Supervisory Engineer (DEU) and one vacancy for Supervisory Architect (DEU).  The monster.com announcement linked to above includes full-time, non-permanent-temporary non-status jobs with initial 1 year appointment renewable for 4 years. All must be able to obtain and maintain a Top Secret security clearance. Oh, and relocation expenses will NOT be paid.

About OBO

 These are the jobs advertised via monster.com:

 

A  2013 HR stats indicate that OBO has 81 construction engineers including 10 who are members of the Senior Foreign Service (SFS).  Those numbers are, obviously, outdated now.   And we’re not sure what “more than 20% deficit” actually means in actual staffing numbers. But if we take a fifth from that HR stats, that’s about 16 engineers gone who must be replaced not just in the staffing chart but also in various construction projects overseas.

Even if OBO can ramp up its hiring the next 12 months, it will still have the challenge of bridging the experience gap. A kind of experience that you can’t reconstruct or replicate overnight unless OBO has an implantable chip issued together with badges for new engineers. Experience takes time, time that OBO does not have in great abundance. Experience that OBO also needs to rebuild every five years since in some of these cases, the new hires are on limited non-career appointments that do not exceed five years.

According to OBO, the State Department is entering an overseas construction program of unprecedented scale in the history of the bureau.  What might also be unprecedented is OBO engineers running out the door in droves.

Why is this happening? We can’t say for sure but …

  • We’ve heard allegations that an official has “run people out of the Department with his/her histrionic behaviors” and other unaddressed issues in the workplace that have generated complaints from staff but remained unresolved.
  • There are also allegations of “poor treatment” of OBO employees and families while in the Department or even when trying to separate.
  • One commenter to the Burn Bag post writes about problems within the Department of “an extreme lack of planning which will have caused our children to attend three schools in three countries just this year alone.”
  • Another commenter writes, “I know it’s TRUE, because I recently departed. Somewhere along the way OBO decided that Design Excellence meant more architecture and less engineering.”
Foggy Bottom, you’ve got a problem. People do not just quit their jobs and the security that goes with it for no reason. Somebody better be home to fix this before it gets much worse.
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The Great Firewall of State Bites, State/IRM Now Considers Diplopundit “Suspicious.” Humph!

Posted: 11:43 am EDT

 

The cornerstone of the 21st century statecraft policy agenda is Internet freedom. The policy contains three fundamental elements: the human rights of free speech, press, and assembly in cyberspace; open markets for digital goods and services to foster innovation, investment, and economic opportunity; and the freedom to connect—promoting access to connection technologies around the world. A third of the world’s population, even if they have access, live under governments that block content, censor speech, conduct invasive mass surveillance and curb the potential of the Internet as an engine of free speech and commerce.

— 21st Century Statecraft
U.S. Department of State

 

We’ve made references in this blog about the Great Firewall of State, most recently, when we blogged about the FS promotion stats on race and gender (see 2014 Foreign Service Promotion Results By Gender & Race Still Behind the Great Firewall of State),  What we did not realize is that there is an entire operation at the State Department running the firewall operations from Annex SA-9.  It is run by the Firewall Branch of the Bureau of Information Resource Management, Operations,  Office of Enterprise Network Management, Perimeter Security Division (IRM/OPS/ENM/PSD/FWB).

Sometime this week, some folks apparently were no longer able to access this blog from the State Department’s OpenNet.  OpenNet is the Sensitive but Unclassified (SBU) network in the Department. It provides access to standard desktop applications, such as word processing, e-mail, and Internet browsing, and supports a battery of custom Department software solutions and database management systems.

At this time, we believe that the block is not agency-wide and appears to affect only certain bureaus.  Not sure how that works. We understand that some employees have submitted “unblock requests” to the State Department’s Firewall Operations Branch and were reportedly told that http://www.diplopundit.com/ has been categorized as “Suspicious.”

via giphy.com

Holy moly macaroni!

We don’t know what constitute “suspicious” but apparently, under State’s Internet policy, this gives the agency the right to block State Department readers from connecting to this blog and reading its content.

But … but … this is the blog’s 8th year of operation and State has now just decreed that this blog is “suspicious”? Just for the record, this blog is hosted by WordPress, and supported by the wonderful people of Automattic. Apparently, the State Department’s DipNote also uses WordPress. Well, now that’s a tad awkward, hey?

Unless …

Was it something we wrote? Was it about the journalists who ran out of undies? NSFW? Nah, that couldn’t be it.   Was it about the petty little beaver? Um, seriously? Maybe that nugget about the aerial eradication in Colombia was upsetting? Pardon me, it’s not like we’re asking folks to drink the herbicide. Come again? You have no expectation of privacy when using the OpenNet? Well, can you blink three times when we hit the right note?

What should we call our State Department that’s quick to criticize foreign governments for blocking internet content for their nationals then turns around and blocks internet content for its employees?

Wass that?  The right hand does not know what the left hand is doing? Blink. Blink. Blink.

We sent a couple emails to the IRM shop — cio@state.gov and Dr. Glen H. Johnson, the senior official in charge of IRM ops asking what’s going on.  It seems the emails were chewed to bits, and we haven’t heard anything back.  Looking for Vanguard contractors to blame? Blink.Blink.Blink.  We’ll update if we hear anything more.

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Burn Bag: Is the State Department leadership aware of OBO losses …

Via Burn Bag:

 

Is the State Department leadership aware that there have been many losses of OBO [Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations] engineers in the last 18 months, leaving more than a 20% deficit (OBO words via email, not mine) in engineering staff, with more contemplating separation? Does it care?

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2014 Foreign Service Promotion Results By Gender & Race Still Behind the Great Firewall of State

Posted: 1:05 am EDT

 

The April 2015 issue of State Magazine includes the 2014 Foreign Service promotion statistics: a “modest decrease” in overall promotion rate it says:

Due to the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative (DRI) and Diplomacy 3.0 hiring efforts, Foreign Service hiring surged in the first decade of the 2000s. These employee cohorts are currently moving into the mid-ranked positions and above, intensifying the competition between employees for promotions. Although the total number of promotions increased to record levels over the past few years, the overall promotion rate decreased as the total number of promotion-eligible employees increased more rapidly. As a result, the overall 2014 promotion rate for all eligible Foreign Service employees experienced a modest decrease to 21 percent, compared with 22 percent in 2013 and 24 percent for the five-year average.

HR has made available online, behind the firewall, the 2014 promotion results by gender and ethnicity/race along with detailed breakouts by grade level for each generalist cone and specialist skill group. They are available at: http://intranet.hr.state.sbu/offices/rma/Pages/DiversityStats.aspx.

Details on Foreign Service promotion planning and promotion trends can also be found at: http://intranet.hr.state.sbu/Workforce/ WorkforcePlanning/Pages/default.aspx.

Ugh! Not again.

Yup, not only is this behind the great firewall, they put it in the “Sensitive But Unclassified” page so they can yank anyone who wants to pass this information out to us or anybody who is in the public sphere.

Last year, somebody in Secretary Kerry’s staff told us he’d take a look and see what can be done.  That’s the last we’ve heard of it and follow-up emails just went into dead email boxes. To this date, we have not learned of any legitimate reason why the detailed breakdown on gender and race in Foreign Service promotions are protected information.

The state.gov’s career website includes the following statement on diversity and inclusion from Secretary Kerry:

 In order to represent the United States to the world, the Department of State must have a workforce that reflects the rich composition of its citizenry. The skills, knowledge, perspectives, ideas, and experiences of all of its employees contribute to the vitality and success of the global mission. Our commitment to inclusion must be evident in the face we present to the world and in the decision-making processes that represent our diplomatic goals. The keys to leading a diverse workforce successfully are commitment and persistence. Delivering strong and effective action requires every employee’s commitment to equal employment opportunity principles. To that end, I pledge that at the Department of State we will: Propagate fairness, equity, and inclusion in the work environment both domestically and abroad…

But that commitment apparently does not include publicly sharing the Foreign Service promotion statistics by gender and race.

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Only 1 in 6 Employees Believe State Dept Senior Leadership Understands FS Work/Life Challenges

Posted: 3:01  am EDT

 

Via afsa.org:

In 2014, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) commissioned a third-party survey to better understand members’ views of AFSA as a professional association and union, as well as their opinions on AFSA’s advocacy and labor management priorities.  Of the nearly 3,500 responses, 1,600 came from active-duty State members who responded to State-specific questions.

The infographics made available by AFSA (pdf) notes that 40% agree or strongly agree that slowing promotion rates, limited career advancement, or a lack of professional development opportunities is causing them to consider leaving the Foreign Service. It also notes the membership opinion on quality of work and life issues as well as security issues.

Screen Shot 2015-03-24

Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 9.59.40 AM

 

We are still hunting down a copy of the full membership survey.  We should note that AFSA is the professional association and labor union of the United States Foreign Service with more than 16,345 dues-paying members. According to its 2014 annual report, it has 10,664 members who are in active-duty with the State Department and 3,717 members who are retired employees. Looks like 15% of the active service members and 51% of retired members participated in this survey.

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State Dept Issues Travel Warnings For Algeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia; Warns of “Imminent Attacks” in Kabul

Posted: 11:17 EST

 

On February 24, the State Department issued Travel Warnings for Algeria, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia:

Algeria Travel Warning:

The Department of State urges U.S. citizens who travel to Algeria to evaluate carefully the risks posed to their personal safety. There is a high threat of terrorism and kidnappings in Algeria, as noted in the Department of State’s latest Worldwide Caution. Although the major cities are heavily policed, attacks are still possible. The majority of terrorist attacks, including bombings, false roadblocks, kidnappings, and ambushes occur in the mountainous areas to the east of Algiers (Kabylie region and eastern wilayas) and in the expansive Saharan desert regions of the south and southeast. In September, the ISIL-affiliated Jund al-Khalifa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) abducted and beheaded a French citizen, in the Kabylie region.
[…]
The U.S. government considers the potential threat to U.S. Embassy personnel assigned to Algiers sufficiently serious to require them to live and work under security restrictions. The U.S. Department of State permits U.S. diplomats in Algeria to be accompanied only by adult family members, and children under age 12. Embassy travel restrictions limit and occasionally prevent the movement of U.S. Embassy officials and the provision of consular services in certain areas of the country. Likewise, the Government of Algeria requires U.S. Embassy personnel to seek permission to travel outside the wilaya of Algiers and provides police escorts. Travel to the military zone established around the Hassi Messaoud oil center requires Government of Algeria authorization.

state.gov/nea map

state.gov/nea map

Pakistan Travel Warning:

The U.S. Embassy in Islamabad and the U.S. Consulate General in Karachi continue to provide consular services for all U.S. citizens in Pakistan. The U.S. Consulate General in Peshawar no longer offers consular services and the U.S. Consulate General in Lahore remains temporarily closed for public services.
[…]
The presence of several foreign and indigenous terrorist groups poses a danger to U.S. citizens throughout Pakistan. Across the country, terrorist attacks frequently occur against civilian, government, and foreign targets.
[…]
U.S. government personnel travel within Pakistan is often restricted based on security or other reasons. Movements by U.S. government personnel assigned to the Consulates General are severely restricted, and consulate staff cannot drive personally-owned vehicles. Embassy staff is permitted at times to drive personally-owned vehicles in the greater Islamabad area.

U.S. officials in Islamabad are instructed to limit the frequency of travel and minimize the duration of trips to public markets, restaurants, and other locations. Official visitors are not authorized to stay overnight in local hotels. Depending on ongoing security assessments, the U.S. Mission sometimes places areas such as hotels, markets, and restaurants off-limits to official personnel. U.S. officials are not authorized to use public transportation.

Saudi Arabia Travel Warning:

The Department of State urges U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of traveling to Saudi Arabia. There have been recent attacks on U.S. citizens and other Western expatriates, an attack on Shi’ite Muslims outside a community center in the Eastern Province on November 3, 2014, and continuing reports of threats against U.S. citizens and other Westerners in the Kingdom.
[…]
Security threats are increasing and terrorist groups, some affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), have targeted both Saudi and Western interests. Possible targets include housing compounds, hotels, shopping areas, international schools, and other facilities where Westerners congregate, as well as Saudi government facilities and economic/commercial targets within the Kingdom.

On January 30, 2015, two U.S. citizens were fired upon and injured in Hofuf in Al Hasa Governorate (Eastern Province). The U.S. Embassy has instructed U.S. government personnel and their families to avoid all travel to Al Hasa Governorate, and advises all U.S. citizens to do the same. On October 14, 2014, two U.S. citizens were shot at a gas station in Riyadh. One was killed and the other wounded.

In related news — yesterday, the U.S. Embassy in Kabul also issued an Emergency Message concerning threats to American citizens in what is still a war zone.

“As of late February 2015, militants planned to conduct multiple imminent attacks against an unspecified target or targets in Kabul City, Afghanistan. There was no further information regarding the timing, target, location, or method of any planned attacks.”

Meanwhile, Afghanistan is the first overseas destination of the new defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter. According to the NYT, he arrived in Afghanistan over the weekend and opened up the possibility of “slowing the withdrawal of the last American troops in the country to help keep the Taliban at bay.”  Most of the remaining troops in the country are scheduled to be withdrawn by the end of 2016.

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State OIG Appoints Whistleblower Ombudsman, Releases “Know Your Rights” Video

 

The Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act of 2012, requires every IG to appoint an Ombudsman.  The Act requires that an ombudsman educate employees about the rights and protections available to whistleblowers.

The State Department IG Steve Linick has appointed Jeff McDermott as Ombudsman for the Department of State and the BBG. Mr. McDermott is a career appointee and his ombudsman duties are in addition to his duties as a senior investigative counsel.  He also serves as the OIG’s representative to the Justice Department’s whistleblower protection committee and counsels individual whistleblowers.  Within OIG, he works with the Office of Investigations to investigate allegations of retaliation by contractor and grantee employees.  He is available to discuss the protections against retaliation and how to make a protected disclosure, but he cannot act as your legal representative or advocate.  You may contact him at at OIGWPEAOmbuds@state.gov. Read more here. The “Know Your Rights” video is here. We asked the OIG a couple of questions:

Q: What protection is there for whistleblowers?

The law protects individuals from reprisal for reporting potential misconduct or alleged criminal activities. Reprisal can come in the form of a prohibited personnel practice which occurs when a person with authority takes, fails to take or threatens to take a personnel action against an employee because of the employee’s protected disclosure and can include details, transfers, reassignments, and significant changes in duties, responsibilities, or working conditions.

Q: Are hotline callers automatically considered whistleblowers? 

No, whether or not a hotline caller is considered a whistleblower depends first on whether the hotline caller has made a protected disclosure. The caller may be entitled to whistleblower protection if he or she indicates that a personnel action was taken because of the protected disclosure. Under the Whistleblower Protection Act, the Office of Special Counsel may receive and investigate claims for whistleblower protection from federal employees, former federal employees, and applicants for federal employment. In addition, OIG offers confidentiality or anonymity to any individual who contacts the hotline and fears retaliation because of the disclosure. In 2013, Congress created a pilot program whereby employees of contractors and grantees who allege they are retaliated against for whistleblowing can request an investigation by the OIG, and in these cases, OIG does determine whether a complainant qualifies as a whistleblower and whether retaliation occurred because of the whistleblowing activity.

We were told by State/OIG that in 2014, the office processed 1,278 Hotline complaints for the calendar year.  We understand that this is generally in line with the amount of complaints the OIG processed in 2013.  However, a significant portion of the OIG complaints reportedly pertain to visa issues, and those complaints are sent to Consular Affairs for appropriate response and action.  Occasionally, the office also receive complaints that do not pertain to Department of State or Broadcasting Board of Governors matters – i.e. Veteran’s Affairs, Department of Justice, Health and Human Services, etc. Those submissions are referred to the appropriate Office of Inspector General and are not counted in State/OIG’s tally of “processed Hotline complaints”.

Some notable whistleblowers have been brought to life on the big screen.  Check out the top 10 whistleblower movies via http://www.WatchMojo.com:

Come visit again, bookmark da blog!

 

UPDATE:

“A Concerned FS Officer” sent us the following for your consideration, appended to this post on 2/9/15 at 15:47 PST:

While “retaliation” is officially forbidden, it is close to impossible to prove. Assignments, for example, are at the Dept’s discretion, needs of the service, etc. and it can just be a coincidence that your whistleblowing and your assignment to the butthole of the world coincide. Same of course for the black hole of promotions.

Once you are a troublemaker, er, whistleblower, be prepared for a non-retaliatory “routine” deep dive into your life. Suddenly there’s a need to audit your travel vouchers back to the Dulles era, DS needs to update your clearance based on info received you can’t see, that sort of thing. All of those moves are well-within the Dept’s routine responsibilities and you’ll never prove they’re connected to your talking to the OIG.

If you are contemplating blowing the whistle, speak to a qualified, outside lawyer first. AFSA has its place, but you need serious advice from someone familiar with the real-world case law, not just Dept practices.

 

Related items:

 

 

‘Foreign Service Problems’ Gets a Tumblr — 48 Pages of Hilariousness, Laugh or Else!

— Domani Spero


“The best way to treat obstacles is to use them as stepping-stones. Laugh at them, tread on them, and let them lead you to something better.” 

― Enid BlytonMr Galliano’s Circus

 

The Tumblr for Foreign Service Problems has been around for many months now. Sometime this past spring it also joined Twitter. Yes, it is hysterical and absolutely spot on. Below are some of our favorite entries to delight your day. Unless, the Foreign Service has also ruined your sense of humor, in which case, we pray you get it back — fast! or that could quickly be a future entry.  With permission from @FS_Problems:

Screen Shot 2014-12-21 at 3.41.44 PM

_______________

When someone mistakes you for being the Ambassador’s personal household help rather than a Foreign Service Officer or Specialist

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) December 15, 2014

FSprob_butler

_______________

When you’re finally somewhere where you don’t have to soak your vegetables in bleach before eating them.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) July 13, 2014

FSprob_veges

_______________

When you hear someone complain that their free housing that has more bedrooms than they have family members and is in an expensive city, isn’t big enough.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) August 1, 2014

FSprobhousing

 

_______________

When someone asks GSO, who has no control over the furniture contract, why the Drexel Heritage furniture is so ugly…AGAIN.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) May 22, 2014 (Note: GSO for General Services Office)

FSprob-furniture

_______________

When someone is rude to an FS spouse at a reception because the spouse “isn’t important enough.”

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) May 18, 2014

FSprob_spouse

_______________

What posts say about life at post and the job when they’re trying to lure bidders into accepting a handshake.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) October 27, 2014

FSprob_bidding

_______________

When the ELO you’re supervising complains about having to do a visa tour in a visa waiver country when you served at a visa mill before applications were electronic.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) December 14, 2014 (Note: ELO for entry level officer)

FSprob_elos

_______________

When you see incompetent people on the promotion list, while excellent people get passed over for promotion.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) October 2, 2014

FSprob_promotion

_______________

What you do when your boss is looking for someone to work the Shopdel coming to post over Christmas.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) December 5, 2014 (Note: Shopdel, a variation of a CODEL, that is, a congressional delegation mainly for shopping).

FSprob_shopdel

_______________

When someone at home assumes you can get away with anything since you have diplomatic immunity.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) November 8, 2014

FSprob_immunity

 _______________

When a family member back home insists that you must be a spy, because who ever heard of the Foreign Service anyway?

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) August 20, 2014

FSprob_spy

 _______________

When you watch Madam Secretary and can’t stand the inaccuracies.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) November 3, 2014

FSprob_madam

_______________

When you think you might disagree with an official policy.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) September 22, 2014

FSprob_policy

_______________

Foreign Service truth that they don’t tell you in orientation.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) June 13, 2014

FSprob_truth

_______________

When things are going to hell in a handbasket at post but Washington refuses to acknowledge anything’s wrong.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) October 21, 2014

FSprob_nothingtosee

_______________

What post management says when you’re put in charge of the 4th of July party and given a piddly budget.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) October 9, 2014

FSprob_4july

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When you know that you won’t be promoted before you TIS/TIC out and just don’t care any more.

— FS Problems (@FS_Problems) August 22, 2014 (Note: TIS for time-in- service, time in a combination of salary classes, computed from date of entry into the Foreign Service;  TIC for time-in-class, time in a single salary class).

FSprob_tis

_______________

And oh, look, we made it there, too…

That’s really sweet.  Thanks @FS_Problems! Stay sharp.

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Death in the Foreign Service: Why we said “no” to an Embassy Information Sanitation Dude

— Domani Spero

 

In the next couple of weeks, we will try to revisit some of the topics that we have blogged about in the past but did not get a chance to follow-up.

In the last several years, we’ve covered  the deaths of State Department and Foreign Service personnel due to terrorist attacks, natural calamities, suicide, violent crime, and accidents (see In the Foreign Service: Death, Too Close An Acquaintance). Here are some of the blogposts we did,this is not an exhaustive list:

While we did receive a screaming owler one time when we were asking questions about a death in Afghanistan, not once have we ever received an email from a family member of a deceased employee asking us not to mention that their loved ones who died overseas worked for Uncle Sam, or refrain from noting the passing of loved ones who died in the service of our country. Not once.

In June this year, we blogged about a Foreign Service employee at the US Embassy in Moscow who was killed in a gas explosion there:

Two State Department sources confirmed that the employee, an OMS on official orders working at the embassy had died. After the embassy employee was heloed to a local Russian hospital, she was reportedly airlifted by the State Department soon thereafter to a special burn hospital in Linkoping, outside of Stockholm where she died a few days later.

A former co-worker at another post was concerned that there has been no public  statement about the employee’s death. “I would think the death of a diplomat would get something from AFSA or State, even if it was from an accident.”  We sent out several inquiries but no one would speak on the record.  Since the name has not been officially released, and no obit has yet been published, we will refrain from identifying the victim at this time.

This past August, a brief obituary of that employee appeared on State magazine, the official trade publication of the State Department and we blogged about it. Shortly after that, we received an email from an individual using a hotmail account:

Hi, Durron’s family did not want this information to be disclosed to the press. Please honor their request. Personally I share your view, but also honor the family’s wishes.

Moscow is hard post to serve, and the Embassy community was very shocked by this news. I personally know many people who lived in the apartment complex where she died (MFA apartment housing), and I was also shocked by this news. I can’t say any more about this unfortunately. The past year was very hard for Embassy Moscow, especially in light of the death of an FSN who was very much loved by all who worked there. 

The request, as you can see, is polite, even volunteering that the writer shares the blog writer’s view. Then the “guilty hook,” asking that we “honor the family’s wishes.” The writer did not/not present himself as a government  official, and seemed to only appear as an interested third party purporting to pass on the wishes of the deceased employee’s family.

Our correspondent, who could not get the deceased employees straight (Durron was the Consular Affairs employee who died in Florida), was in fact, an embassy official, basically asking us not to make a public connection to the death of the  USG employee who died in Sweden to the gas explosion in a USG (Russian MFA) housing in Moscow. We only knew that the individual is a USG official because of …Googles! Not sure the individual is still at post at this time.

Our gut feeling was that this is legitimate news; we blogged about the fact that an employee of the U.S. Government was injured in Moscow, and subsequently died from those injuries in Sweden. And we waited until there was an official obituary before we put the information together and named the deceased individual.  Three months after the incident.

Deceased individuals are not covered by the Privacy Act. That said, if a USG employee die overseas for whatever reason, should we be obligated to not/not report it if his/her family ask that it not be reported for privacy reasons? That’s not exactly the case here because we were only told second hand that the deceased’s family did not want it reported in the press (except that the death was reported in the publicly available State magazine). But the “what-if” was a dilemma we spent considerable time thinking about for a period of time.

How do you balance the public’s right to know with a family’s request for privacy?

We’ve consulted with a professional journalist we admire, and an authority on media ethics at the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley.   All agreed that 1) employees sent overseas are on official duty, and that any life-threatening mishap or death they suffer is by definition of public interest, and 2) that we ought to consider the request if it comes directly from a family member, and pull the blogpost down only if the family makes a compelling case that publication caused them or somebody else harm.  One surmised that the request received may have more to do with the State Dept’s own reasons or some fear of official embarrassment.

We did send a response to our “non-official” correspondent basically declining the request since he was not a member of the family.  We informed the writer that we would consider pulling the material down if we hear directly from the family and only if there is a compelling reason for the request. We also offered to write directly to the family if the official would provide us a contact email.  We certainly did not want to be insensitive and we understand that the incident occurred  at a challenging post, but the death of a Foreign Service person abroad is of public interest. That’s the last we’ve heard from that official via hotmail. And we would have forgotten about this except that it came to our attention  that the USG had been more aggressive about sanitizing this information than we first thought.

A journalist from a large media organization subsequently told us that he/she was privately admonished after asking publicly why the State Dept had not expressed condolences on the death of the employee in Moscow. The admonishment came from a USG official who again, cited the family’s privacy. From best we could tell, these contacts/admonishment to the journalist and to this blog came from two separate officials. How many other journalists (not just blogger in pjs, mind you) had been similarly admonished to not report about this death citing the family’s request for privacy?

In the aftermath of this incident in May 2014, we sent an email inquiry to the public affairs office of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.  Our email got lost in a sink hole and we never heard anything back. We must note that this incident occurred after the departure of then Ambassador McFaul. It also predates the arrival of John Tefft, the current ambassador to Moscow and his the new public affairs officer there.

It goes without saying — but we’ll repeat it anyway —  that we clearly understand that accidents happen. And we’re not looking for a cover-up at every post unless it has to do with the furniture!  But, because there’s always a but — accidents do not absolve the embassy or the State Department from answering questions about the circumstances surrounding an employee’s death or at a minimum, publicly acknowledging that a death of an employee occurred overseas. We will be sensitive and respectful as we have always been, but we will ask questions.

What bothered us about this?  By citing the deceased family’s purported request for privacy, the State Department and Embassy Moscow basically shut down any further questions about the incident. How is it possible to have something of an information blackout on the death of an employee we sent overseas on the country’s behalf?

Whatever happened to that promised investigation?

We understand that then chargé d’affaires (CDA) in Moscow, Sheila Gwaltney  told personnel that they will be informed of the results of the investigation, regardless of the outcome. We sent an email inquiry to the analysis division of OBO’s Office of Fire Protection (OBO/OPS/FIR) requesting for an update to the fire inspector investigation. We received the following response on October 23 from Christine Foushee, State/OBO’s Director of External Affairs:

Thanks for your inquiry.  The investigation you’ve referenced is still ongoing, so we are not in a position to comment on results.

Per 15 FAM 825:

a. As soon as possible after being notified of a fire, OBO/OPS/FIR, will dispatch a team of trained fire/arson investigators to fires that resulted in serious injury or death; those where the cause is arson or is of a suspicious nature; those causing extensive damage or significant disruption to official activities; or those deemed to be of special interest to the Department of State.

b. Fire-related mishaps involving injury, illness, or death that meet criteria for Class A or B mishaps under Department of State policy will be investigated and reported using 15 FAM 964 requirements. An Office of Fire Protection official, in OBO/OPS/FIR, will be assigned to any Class A or B board conducted by OBO’s Office of Safety, Health, and Environmental Management, in the Directorate for Operations, (OBO/OPS/SHEM). In addition to addressing the root causes of the fire event, the mishap board report must evaluate the impact of Department of State organizational systems, procedures, or policies on the fire event. The report also could contain recommendations for specific modifications to such procedures and policies. Both OBO/OPS/FIR and OBO/OPS/SHEM receive copies of the report, and OBO/OPS/SHEM coordinates with the Department of State’s Designated Agency Safety and Health Official (DASHO) to meet 15 FAM 964 requirements. OBO/OPS/FIR reports findings and recommendations for corrective action to the Director of OBO, who informs the Accountability Review Board’s Permanent Coordinating Committee. (See 12 FAM 032.)

We sent another follow up email this week to State/OBO.  The explosion happened in May 2014. Here we are at the end of the year and we don’t know what happened to that investigation. Is this length of time typical of these types of investigations? We will update this blogpost if we hear from the fire people with something to say.

We think this a good opportunity as any to call on the State Department to voluntarily release an annual report of deaths of official Americans overseas.  DOD identifies its casualties — name, rank, age, state of residence, date and place of death, and cause of death — why not the State Department?  At a minimum there ought to be  an annual reporting of all deaths from unnatural causes of USG personnel and family members on government orders under Chief of Mission authority. Diplomatic Security already publishes an annual report,would it be too much to ask that they be allowed to include this information?

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High Risk Pregnancy Overseas: State/MED’s SOP Took Precedence Over the FAM? No Shit, Sherlock!

— Domani Spero

 

The Foreign Affairs Manual says that it is the general policy of the Department of State “to  provide all medical program participants with the best medical care possible at post. In a situation where local medical facilities are inadequate to provide required services, travel to locations where such services can be obtained may be authorized.” (see 16 FAM 311).  Elsewhere on the same regs, the FAM says  that “a pregnant patient who is abroad under U.S. Government authorization is strongly encouraged to have her delivery in the United States. The patient may depart from post approximately 45 days prior to the expected date of delivery and is expected to return to post within 45 days after delivery, subject to medical clearance or approval.” (see 16 FAM 315.2 Travel for Obstetrical Care).

A grievance case involving a high risk pregnancy of a Foreign Service spouse was recently decided by the Foreign Service Grievance Board (FSGB).  This is one case where you kind of want to bang your head on the wall. The FAM gets the last word in the Foreign Service, but in this case (and we don’t know how many more), the State Department  ditched the relevant citation on the Foreign Affairs Manual in favor of a longstanding practice on its Standard Operating Procedure (SOP). Specifically, the Department’s Office of Medical Services (MED)  SOP. So basically, MED relied on its interpretation of the regulations contained on its SOP instead of the clear language included in the FAM.

No shit, Sherlock!

Excerpt below from FSGB Case No. 2014-007.

SUMMARY: During grievant’s tour in his spouse became pregnant. She had had five previous pregnancies, none of which resulted in a viable birth. The post medical team (FSMP) and the State Department Office of Medical Services (MED) both agreed that this was a very high-risk pregnancy and that the preferred option was that the spouse return to the U.S. as soon as possible for a special procedure and stay under the care of a single obstetrician specializing in high-risk care for the remainder of her pregnancy. Although MED authorized a 14-day medical evacuation for the procedure, it advised grievant that, under its longstanding practice, it could not authorize further medical evacuation per diem under 16 FAM 317.1(c) prior to the 24th week of gestation. MED instead directed grievant to seek the much lower Separate Maintenance Allowance (SMA).

Grievant claimed that the regulation itself stated only that per diem for complicated obstetrical care could be provided for up to 180 days, and therefore permitted his spouse to receive such per diem beginning in approximately the 10th week of pregnancy, when she returned to the U.S. for treatment. He also claimed that he was entitled to have his airline ticket paid for by the agency as a non-medical attendant when he accompanied his wife back to the U.S., since her condition precluded her from carrying her own bags.

The Board concluded that the agency’s regulation was not ambiguous, and that any clarification meant to be provided by the agency’s longstanding practice was both plainly erroneous and inconsistent with the agency’s own regulations, and arbitrary and capricious. We, therefore, did not accord any deference to the agency’s interpretation of its regulations by virtue of this practice, and relied instead on the language of the regulation itself.

Here is the FAM section on Complicated obstetrical care:

16 FAM 317.1(c):  If the Medical Director or designee or the FSMP [Foreign Service Medical Provider] at post determines that there are medical complications necessitating early departure from post or delayed return to post, per diem at the rates described in 16 FAM 316.1, may be extended, as necessary, from 90 days for up to a total of 180 days.  

More from the Record of Proceeding:

When FSMP contacted MED in Washington, DC, they were given the response that MED does not medevac for obstetrical care until after the 24th week of gestation. The 24th week of gestation is when the medical world deems a fetus viable outside of the womb. Grievant claims both FSMP and the post’s Human Resources (HR) reviewed the FAM and other MED documents to determine how MED handles high risk pregnancies at a hardship post and could not find any reference that limited a high risk pregnancy to the 24 weeks claimed by MED.

Grievant claims he contacted the head of MED and asked for an explanation as to why MED was not following 16 FAM 317.1(c), which allowed for medevac for high risk pregnancies. M/MED/FP responded with the following in an e-mail dated August 27, 2013:

This issue of how early a woman can be medevac’d for delivery comes up regularly. So does the situation of cervical cerclage – up to 80,000 procedures are done in the U.S. per year. While not in the FAM, MED has a long standing internal SOP that the earliest we will medevac a mother for obstetrical delivery is at 24 weeks gestation. 

Grievant claims that his spouse’s pregnancy was high-risk enough to qualify for medical evacuation prior to the 24 weeks’ gestation. Grievant also argues that every medical professional in and in Washington, including MED staff, agreed. Grievant argues that MED’s justification for how they choose which pregnancy to deem OB-medevac-worthy for high risk is ambiguous. Grievant takes issue with MED imposing internal rules that are not published in the FAM. Grievant claims that the alternatives offered by MED were not in accordance with 16 FAM 317.1(c).

What was the official State Department position?

The agency asserts that grievant’s wife was medevac’d to Washington, DC, to receive obstetrical care. MED did not believe there were medical complications necessitating early departure from post or delayed return to post. Thus, the agency claims, 16 FAM 317.1(c) does not apply to her situation.

Did it not matter that the FSO’s wife “had had five previous pregnancies, none of which resulted in a viable birth?”  The Department also made the following argument:

The agency further argues that, in any event, although not compelled by law, the Department’s Office of Medical Services (MED) has a longstanding internal Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that the earliest MED will authorize a medevac of a pregnant woman for delivery, even in the case of complicated pregnancies, is 24 weeks’ gestational age. This SOP, MED asserts, is based on the medical community’s widely accepted recognition that the gestational age for fetal viability is 24 weeks. 

Ugh!

The ROP states that MED personnel communicating with both grievant and the post FSMP repeatedly relied on the SOP that no medevac would be provided prior to the 24th week of pregnancy as the basis for their guidance. They did not cite grievant’s wife’s particular medical circumstances as the rationale for denying an earlier continuous medevac.

You might remember that the last time MED failed to use common sense, the State Department ended up as a target of a class action lawsuit.

Here is the Board’s view:

It is the Board’s view that 16 FAM 317.1(c) is not ambiguous. It provides for the Medical Director or designee or the FSMP at post to determine if there is a complication requiring early departure or a delayed return, and authorizes up to 180 days’ per diem when such a determination is made. The entire context of the provision is to define what benefits are provided when based upon medical needs, and the provision appears to reflect the individualized medical decision making required in the case of complicated obstetrical care. Although the preceding provision, 16 FAM 317.1(b),8 places a set 45-day limit for per diem both before and after an uncomplicated pregnancy and birth, that limit is also, by all appearances, based on medical analysis of normal pregnancies and deliveries, which lend themselves to such generalizations. Airlines do not allow pregnant women to travel less than 45 days before birth, because of the risks involved. 16 FAM 317.1(b) recognizes and incorporates that medical evaluation under the circumstances of a normal pregnancy. Although not stated explicitly in the record, we assume that the 45 days of per diem permitted after delivery also reflects a medical assessment of recovery times under normal circumstances, which, because they are normal, can be generalized.
[…]
In the Board’s view, the longstanding practice is also arbitrary and capricious and an abuse of discretion. As stated by MED, the rationale for the 24-week practice is that a fetus is generally not considered viable before the 24th week of pregnancy. It is not based on, and does not take into consideration, whether the mother’s need for medical care can be provided safely at post prior to the 24th week, or whether the medical care needed by any fetus of less than 24 weeks to come to full term as a healthy baby can safely be provided at post. It is difficult to see any link at all between the rationale offered by State/MED with the recognition of medical needs established in the regulations.

It is the Board’s conclusion that 16 FAM 317.1(c) is not ambiguous, and that any clarification meant to be provided by the Department’s longstanding practice of requiring the 24-week waiting period in cases of complicated pregnancies is both plainly erroneous and inconsistent with the Department’s own regulations, and arbitrary and capricious. We, therefore, do not accord any deference to the Department’s interpretation of its regulations by virtue of this practice, and rely instead on the regulation itself.

To the extent that the agency is arguing that the SOP is freestanding and applies by its own terms, apart from 16 FAM 317.1(c), again, we conclude that the agency is in error. By the same analysis as outlined above, the SOP conflicts with the provision of the published regulations of the agency. An SOP may not take precedence over a regulation with which it is in conflict.

The Board’s conclusion, based on the record, is that this was a high-risk pregnancy, with risks to both the mother and the fetus, and that the necessary obstetrical care was in the U.S. Under these circumstances, medical evacuation per diem should have been authorized beginning upon the return of grievant’s wife to the U.S., and continuing for 180 days.

Doesn’t it makes you wonder how many high risk pregnant women on USG orders overseas were affected by this longstanding internal Standard Operating Procedure (SOP)?  If planning on getting pregnant overseas, read the redacted ROP below:

 

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