US Embassy Greece: OIG recommends elimination of R&Rs, closure of ConGen Thessaloniki

Seal of ThessalonikiImage via Wikipediaand reduction of language designated positions  

State/OIG recently posted its February 2011 inspection report of US Embassy Athens. Among other things, the IG report recommends the elimination of rest and recuperation (R&R) travel benefits for U.S. direct-hires on 3-year assignments (two R&Rs) and for ELOs on 2-year assignments (one R&R), reduction of its Greek-language designated positions and the closure of the Consulate General in Thessaloniki. Excerpts extracted from the report:

Rest and Recuperation Travel

Employees at Embassy Athens and Consulate General Thessaloniki have been receiving rest and recuperation (R&R) travel benefits since 2000. U.S. direct-hires on 3-year assignments receive two R&Rs, and ELOs on 2-year assignments receive one. Department regulations (3 FAH-1 H-3721.4) state that all posts that receive R&R are required to submit documentation to the appropriate regional bureau executive every 2 years to justify continued eligibility. The most recent justification submitted by Embassy Athens and the consulate general was 10 years ago.

The principal reason for providing R&R at that time was personal hardship. The inspection team found scant evidence to justify that decision today. The post’s own report of conditions in Athens and Thessaloniki cites adequate medical care, local transportation, communication, and recreation opportunities. The schools are good. It is easy and relatively inexpensive to travel to the Greek islands and other European countries. Traffic and summer pollution are problems, but no more so than in many other cities. In FY 2010, the Department spent $108,600 to fund R&R travel for 23 direct-hires and 24 dependents, which the team believes was an unnecessary expense. Many embassy employees agree that R&R is not justified for Greece.

Recommendation 24: The Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs should discontinue the rest and recuperation benefit for Embassy Athens. (Action: EUR)

Closure of Consulate General in Thessaloniki

In inspecting the consulate, the team was mindful that, in 2004, the last OIG inspection report had questioned the need to maintain a full consulate general in Thessaloniki. In addition, the Department’s operating budget is likely to face pressures in the years immediately ahead. With Portugal, Greece is among the smallest  countries in Western Europe where the Department still maintains a stand-alone constituent post. The consulate’s operating budget is approximately $2.2 million a year. Central support costs, the salaries and benefits of its three U.S. employees, and the cost of language training add another $600,000, at a minimum.

The OIG inspectors considered the post’s small output of reporting and analysis, its limited consular and public outreach programs, and the ease of transportation between Athens and Thessaloniki. The team concluded that, while Consulate General Thessaloniki adds a dimension to embassy reporting and outreach, it is not essential to achieving U.S. interests in Greece.

Recommendation 37: The Bureau of European Affairs, in coordination with Embassy Athens, the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations, the Bureau of Legislative Affairs, and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security should prepare a written plan for the Under Secretary for Management, outlining measures to close Consulate General Thessaloniki at the earliest opportunity.
(Action: EUR, in coordination with Embassy Athens, OBO, H, and DS)

The report notes that only 15,000 U.S. citizens reside in Thessaloniki’s consular district. It also points out that Embassy Athens could adequately provide these and other consular services, particularly if the embassy maintained a local staff member in Thessaloniki to assist.

Reduction of Language-Designated Positions

An excessive 36 officers and staff members received long-term language training prior to arrival at post. Twelve were trained to a level of 3/3. Most of those interviewed by the inspection team reported they seldom need to speak Greek for more than pleasantries in their professional work, relying instead on English. As a result, their language skills steadily deteriorate after arrival at post.

The inspection team estimates that only half a dozen Department officers have the ability, and need, to deliver substantive public addresses or conduct complex official discussions in Greek. Officers in the consular and public affairs sections regularly use Greek, but a number of political and economic officers who are trained to a professional 3/3 level probably could do equally well with a less expensive, working level 2/2, and with more emphasis on reading than speaking. The OIG team saw no work statements that require officers to maintain their language skills, although most participate in the post language program.
The inspection team believes the Department is misspending several hundred thousand dollars a year to give employees Greek language skills that quickly deteriorate and are not useful elsewhere except Cyprus, making it difficult to amortize training costs over several tours. The team estimates the cost of training an officer to a 3/3-level Greek to be approximately $150,000, counting salary, or roughly $50,000 a year for a 3-year tour. That would put the cost of training 12 officers to 3/3 level at approximately $600,000 a year. To this expense must be added the cost of training an additional 24 officers and staff to lower skill levels. Finally, based on 2009 figures, the Department spends $200,000 a year in language incentive pay for officers and staff in Greece. Some of these costs are justified, because they support officers who require Greek language skills to be effective in their jobs; other costs are unnecessary and should be eliminated.

Recommendation 2: Embassy Athens should submit a request to the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs that (1) reduces post’s 12 positions that are language-designated to a 3/3 level to 9 positions; (2) reduces the number of language-designated positions at post from 36 to 20; and (3) maximizes the number of officers and staff who are offered first-and secondtour
or other short-term training prior to arrival at post. The request should identify specific positions to be redesignated. (Action: Embassy Athens)

A few other items also caught my attention:

  • Ethics } The Ambassador told employees early on that he would adhere to the highest ethical standards and would require the same of them. The previous ambassador’s tenure was clouded by questions over ethics, primarily the acceptance of gifts from outside the embassy. In light of this, the current Ambassador is continuing a strengthened gifts policy, adopted in August 2010. This policy shifted responsibility for cataloguing gifts from an LE staff member in the protocol office to an American officer, who records and values incoming gifts from either a foreign government or nongovernmental source and flags any gifts that appear to be inappropriate.

To check on previous ambassadors to Greece, click here.

  • Consular Management }The FS-01 consul general leads a staff of two mid-level officers, three full-time ELOs, and one half-time ELO. One additional mid-level position was not filled this summer, and one of the two ELO positions will be eliminated when the current incumbent transfers next summer. […] While the consul general is directly involved in the ACS unit and backs up the ACS officer, he is less involved in the visa unit and adjudicates only Class A referrals. The IG report offers an informal recommendation that Embassy Athens should encourage the consul general to adjudicate visas on the line at least once a month to retain his skills and observe the operation.
  • Nepotism } Despite complaints about nepotism and favoritism, the OIG team found no specific examples of inappropriate hiring. The perception of nepotism stems from the fact that over 12 percent of the LE staff are related to each other. Any nepotism concerns had been properly addressed prior to hiring. The human resources officer has taken steps to open the hiring process, to reduce the possibility of family members exerting undue influence on hiring and promotion. He has insisted that all advertisements are placed in local newspapers and on the Internet. He and his senior financial specialist will review each application after an initial screening, to increase transparency.

The IG report cites two best practices from US Embassy Athens: 1) Professional Development for FAST Officers and Specialists: program includes 18 specific training goals (such as public speaking, interacting with other diplomats, and serving as control officers) and a detailed calendar of events, and features a broad array of programs, including those that expose management offi cers to political work and equally important, expose reporting officers to management work; 2) Expanded emergency call center: Under the supervision of the regional security office, the embassy has expanded the security receptionist program into a call center staffed by bilingual responders who can provide prompt 24-hour service and assistance to embassy staff and their families. The center also prepares an overnight briefing for the regional security office

Related item:

OIG Report No. ISP-I-11-15A – Inspection of Embassy Athens, Greece – February 2011