State/OIG recently posted its inspection report of the US Embassy in Bangui, a 15% danger pay post, as well as a 35% COLA and 35% hardship differential pay assignment. The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 10 and 28, 2012, and in Bangui, the Central African Republic, between November 5 and 12, 2012.
The diplomatic mission is headed by Ambassador Laurence D. Wohlers, a career diplomat. The deputy chief of mission is Brennan M. Gilmore. The embassy temporarily suspended operations on December 28, 2012, as a result of the security situation in the country. We’ve blogged about it here.
Here are the key findings from the OIG report:
- The Department of State’s (Department) inability to staff Embassy Bangui adequately has prevented it from functioning as an effective mission.
- Embassy Bangui, a 15-percent danger pay post, faces numerous threats
- If the Department cannot adequately staff and protect the embassy, it needs to consider whether the risks to personnel in Bangui are justified or find another way to maintain diplomatic representation in the Central African Republic, such as regional accreditation from a nearby embassy.
- Post leadership has not developed a sense of team and unity of purpose.
- Embassy reporting is excellent and appreciated by Washington consumers.
- Embassy Bangui is unable to provide sufficient administrative support in house and would benefit from more support from larger embassies in the region.
- Information systems security and management is inadequate. There is no U.S. direct-hire information management employee at the embassy, and temporary support does not provide sufficient oversight.
Quick background of US Embassy Bangui via the OIG report:
The United States has had diplomatic relations with the Central African Republic since its independence from France in 1960. The U.S. embassy in Bangui was closed in 1997 and again in 2002 in response to political and physical insecurity. The embassy reopened in 2005, and a resident U.S. Ambassador was appointed in 2007.
Embassy Bangui is staffed by 7 U.S. direct hires, 2 local-hire Americans, and 35 locally employed (LE) staff members. One temporary liaison officer from the U.S. Army’s Africa Command represents the only other agency at the mission. The embassy’s total funding is $3.6 million. OIG conducted a management assessment review in 2004. At that time the American staff had been evacuated and only the LE staff was present.
Front Office Report Card:
The OIG report also details some of the Front Office shortcomings, primarily on leadership, morale and communication issues. No mention on how well or how badly the senior leadership did in their OIG questionnaires. Excerpt below from the IG report:
- The Ambassador arrived in September 2010 and the deputy chief of mission (DCM) in July 2011. They constitute a team that is particularly strong in outreach and reporting and have successfully weathered a series of management challenges. They are not as successful when it comes to leadership and morale.
- Despite the embassy’s small size, executive direction is more hierarchical than collegial. A weekly country team meeting provides the Ambassador an opportunity to inform the team on his recent contacts with senior government officials. The communication from the country team to the Ambassador is not as effective. Notwithstanding weekly, topical staff meetings and monthly town hall gatherings with LE staff, some of the American and LE staff members feel distanced from the front office.
- The DCM has broad executive responsibilities. He supervises the reporting agenda assigned to the first-tour political/economic/consular officer. The officer meets weekly with the DCM and usually the Ambassador as well. The DCM is responsible primarily for military affairs, which include the U.S. Special Forces deployment to the eastern Central African Republic and a rotational U.S. Africa Command liaison officer position.
- The Ambassador has been effective in his dealings outside the chancery but less so in leading and inspiring his team. In addition, the DCM is overextended. At a mission where security-imposed restrictions on mobility, a tropical climate, daunting health challenges, and a dearth of entertainment test morale in the best of circumstances, the front office has attempted to build better morale. Despite the planning activities discussed earlier, the staff has a poor sense of Embassy Bangui’s place in the larger U.S. diplomatic agenda in Africa and asserts that it is inadequately supported. The OIG team counseled post management to look for more ways to better connect with their employees.
16 TDYs in 20 Months and Other Management Challenges, Holy Smokes!
- The embassy’s management challenges, however, are not being fully met. The embassy struggled to overhaul its operations after reopening, including doubling its U.S. direct-hire staff, and a major restructuring of LE staffing—all in the absence of a permanent management officer. Excessive dependence on temporary duty support (about 10 temporary duty personnel a month in the past year) has compromised effective use of embassy resources and increased the cost of operating the embassy. Another issue is the Department’s increasing dependence on automated management systems that impose a bureaucratic overhead on small posts with inexperienced staff.
- Embassy Bangui is too small to have functional depth or to benefit from economies of scale. There are too few people trying to do too much. The U.S. direct-hire staff consists of one management officer and one entry-level general services officer. Because the embassy has been chronically unable to recruit an at-grade, in-cone management officer, there is no permanent U.S. direct-hire management experience at the embassy. The current entry-level general services officer worked under 16 temporary duty management officers in 20 months.
Post was shuttered in 1997, again in 2002 and once more in 2012. Not sure how many times it had been evacuated, but presumably at least three times as the evacuations typically precedes post closure. If history is a predictor, the embassy will potentially reopen in 1-3 years and after a brief interval, closes again. We agree with the IG that if the State Dept cannot adequately staff and protect the embassy, it needs to consider whether the risks to personnel in Bangui are justified. And if it decides that the risks are justified despite post’s many shortcomings, then you want that in writing from the accountable officials. So if something bad happens, we’d know that a lowly deputy assistant secretary did not go rogue and we won’t need to pick up the flattened DASes thrown under the buses after multiple congressional hearings.
In any case, we noticed that the IG inspectors seem to massaged its report with phrases such as “ not as successful” or “less [effective] … in leading and inspiring his team” or is “more hierarchical than collegial.” That’s sorta like giving you a tall glass of juice to take with an almost bitter pill.
Look, this is a tiny mission with 7 direct hire American employees (an ideal team composition by the way), and a total staff of no more than 50. Sometimes working at a small post can really pull people together. At other times, it can make it seem like a 24/7, 365 days a year root canal – you just want to be numb with Novacaine and get out of there. For now, they’re all out of there except for the local employees. But — can you imagine if you were an entry level officer working for 16 management officers on TDY in a span of 20 months?
While this OIG report highlighted US Embassy Bangui’s Front Office’s less than ideal leadership, morale and communication at post, we should note that the embassy is not alone.
We’ve been hearing for a while now that US Embassy Cairo is suffering from “abysmal morale.” A recent posting on the Secretary’s Sounding Board regarding its 15% hardship diffential is just one part of it. (Apparently it has been at 15% for 15 years and State sat on Cairo’s differential update request for six months. Despite changing conditions in Egypt, State reportedly refused the request with no explanation). But see – folks normally do not refer to their morale as “abysmal” also known as “appalling” or “extremely bad” if it only has to do with the differential. Don’t forget the human. Plenty of unhappy people there, the differential is one reason; there are reportedly many more.
The thing that should give State’s Seventh Floors some pause is — Embassy Bangui has 7 U.S.direct hire. Embassy Cairo’s staffing is 68X that of Bangui’s, with 476 U.S. direct hire and a total staff of 1,874 (at least according to the 2009 OIG staffing numbers).
Perhaps it’s time for the OIG to pay another visit to the land of pharaohs? The last OIG inspection was in 2009. With upheaval in the host country in the last two years and significantly changing conditions at post, we think Cairo deserves a visit, don’t you? Oh, and please do keep a close eye on USCG Alexandria.