State/OIG on US Embassy Norway: "Ambassador is an effective political appointee"

What does that not mean, really?  I read through the OIG inspection report of US Embassy Norway and it looks like our ambassador there is an okay chief of mission, morale is good, and no one has asked to be transferred to Greater Georgebushistan. He is an “effective political appointee” according to the report.  The inspectors seem to be saying he’s good, too bad he’s not the real deal. I read quite a bunch of OIG reports for breakfast and I don’t think I’ve ever had my Honey Bunches of Oats with a report that says “he (or she) is an effective career appointee” for career diplomats. It seems like a low blow distinction. I mean, c’mon — the ambassador is either an effective ambassador or not.

The Office of the Inspector General conducted its inspection of US Embassy Oslo in Washington, DC, between September 1 and 29, 2010, and in Oslo, Norway, between November 1 and 15, 2010.  The publicly available report contains 13 recommendations and 17 informal recommendations.

The US Ambassador to Norway, Barry B. White arrived at post on 10/09. His Deputy Chief of Mission James T. Heg arrived at post on 07/09.
Ambassador White with hey —
that’s “No Way Out” Kevin Costner
Photo from US Embassy Oslo/Facebook 

Key Judgments extracted from the OIG report:
• Embassy Oslo’s political appointee Ambassador and experienced Foreign Service deputy chief of mission work closely to advance the goals identified in the embassy’s Mission Strategic and Resource Plan.
• The front office needs to do more to foster effective communication among
embassy elements, allowing sections, some of them on the outside of the policy
discussion, to work effectively beyond their own portfolios.
• The embassy’s workload, combined with the numerous high-level visitors and
congressional delegations that visit during the busy summer months, can push
the embassy to the limit of its capacity. Better strategic planning could help to
address this issue.
• The consular section has been proactive and effective in using a variety of
outreach tools, including town halls, travel and speaking engagements outside the capital, appearances on local and national media, and an innovative newsletter, to provide consular services and communicate and inform the American community in Norway.

• Norway has low unemployment and a highly competitive labor market, and
Embassy Oslo experiences unusually high local staff turnover. The embassy
should determine whether any changes are needed in the work environment to
promote retention of local staff.
A quick summary on Norway excerpted from the IG report:

“Norway is Scandinavia’s northernmost country, bordering Sweden, Finland, and Russia to the east, the Barents Sea to the north, and the Atlantic Ocean and North Sea to the west. Thanks to the large petroleum reserves on the Norwegian Continental Shelf and careful management of oil and gas revenues, it is one of the world’s wealthiest countries on a per capita basis and enjoys the highest standard of living, as measured by the Human Development Index. Roughly half of Norway’s population lives within 75 miles of downtown Oslo, whose population is among the fastest growing in Europe, due in almost equal degree to high birth rates and immigration.”

Controversy on the embassy’s surveillance detection unit:

“During the inspection, domestic political attention focused on the United States as a result of sensationalist press coverage alleging that the embassy’s surveillance detection unit had been conducting espionage on Norwegian citizens over the past 10 years. The unit became the object of a police investigation and a Ministry of Justice report to parliament to determine if its employees “spied for a foreign power” or violated Norway’s privacy laws. This case, with its potential to cast a shadow on the United States-Norway bilateral relationship, occupied much of the embassy’s attention during the OIG inspection.”

By the way, a similar investigation on SDUs was conducted by Sweden, and the Public Prosecutor had recently released its report and its decision not to pursue further investigation. The report is posted here at Cryptome. 

The ambassador gets an “A”, well, sort of —

“The Ambassador is an effective political appointee, who actively seeks to be a positive face of the United States. The deputy chief of mission (DCM) is an experienced, senior Foreign Service officer who takes his role as mentor seriously. Together, they have worked to advance the goals identified in the embassy’s Mission Strategic and Resource Plan (MSRP), including securing Norwegian cooperation on global and regional political-military issues; countering terrorism; winning support for U.S. policies; combating climate change; and promoting common economic and business objectives. Embassy staff perceives the Ambassador as open, friendly, and outgoing, and he is often seen around the chancery engaging with them. Morale in the embassy is good.

The DCM has responsibility for coordinating policy details, internal embassy management, and priority setting. This arrangement has freed the Ambassador to assume a more public, externally oriented role. The DCM and section and agency heads keep the Ambassador informed of developments. However, some elements within the mission characterized embassy communication, including within the front office itself, as incomplete. Indeed, the team observed a classic “stovepiping” of activity, with a high degree of delegation that leaves insufficient room for the coordinating function the front office should provide.”

LE staff turnover at 25% cannot be good — 

“Embassy Oslo has an unusually high employee turnover rate. The numbers reached a high of approximately 40 percent in 2007, and the 2010 turnover through November 1 is around 25 percent. The embassy has done standard exit interviews to determine why people are leaving, but there has been no systematic analysis of the information it has obtained. The high turnover creates inefficiencies, including a constant need for expensive and time-consuming training. Norway has very little unemployment, and the embassy has competition from many local and international employers; this situation would predict a higher turnover rate than at other embassies, but there are likely other factors contributing to the retention issue. Employees note that the embassy’s salary and benefits are competitive, and anecdotal evidence indicates that few depart because they are dissatisfied with their salary.”

Life is good but do something about the weather and the lack of Vitamin D – please?   

“Norway, with its wonderful summer environment and outdoor/health focus, enjoys a very high quality of life. However, it is not always an easy place for a non-Norwegian to live. Challenges include one of the world’s highest costs of living, and a persistent winter gloom that begins in November and ends in March. The cold weather and lack of sunshine require embassy staff to create opportunities for exercise and social activity during the long winters.”

Related item:

US Mission India: CODEL McConnell. April 20, 2011

Ambassador Roemer welcomed Senator Mitch McConnell, and an accompanying congressional delegation to India. The delegation includes representatives from Kentucky, Nebraska, Kansas, Ohio, and North Dakota. According to the embassy, they were there to meet with senior Indian officials and business leaders as part of a multi-city trip. The Ambassador hosted a reception for the delegation at Roosevelt House on April 20, 2011. The same delegation also visited the US embassy in Kabul. 

The embassy did not release the names of the members of the delegation but are those congressional wives below?  Can you spot them?  Um … so, they the spouses went to Delhi but not Kabul?  But the handwoven wool carpets in Kabul are really cute …

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.
Photos from US Embassy India/Flickr

US Embassaurus: No Seismic Bracing? No Big Deal… Did We Get That $132M Refund?

No More Heroes (album)Image via Wikipedia… did not know Baghdad is in an quake zone, sorry!

The State Department’s OIG office had posted its Audit of the Design and Construction of the New Embassy Compound in Baghdad over a year ago. I saw the report right after it was released, read it, and sat stewing about it. This embassaurus is a supreme gift that just kept on giving, doesn’t it? Here is part of it:

“Seismic bracing is normally provided for the protection of fire lines and other critical mechanical systems in the event of an earthquake. We found no evidence that First Kuwaiti or its subcontractors considered seismic bracing in their analyses or designs. In addition, we found that First Kuwaiti did not provide seismic bracing for fire protection lines and mechanical or electrical equipment in those parts of the NEC facilities built by First Kuwaiti. The COR told us that she did not enforce the seismic bracing requirement because an OBO fire protection engineer told her that although bracing was required by code, it was “no big deal.” The COR also stated that she was unaware that Baghdad was in an earthquake zone.”

Okdok. But wait — I know zilch about construction. But I don’t understand this. The codes and requirements are there for a reason, right? Why put the requirement in if its non-inclusion is “no big deal?” And why was it a no a big deal? Because the seismic intensity around Baghdad is moderate? Or is that because the dangers of an earthquake is overshadowed by the dangers of war? How many got killed in the last Baghdad earthquake? And how many got killed by snipers and EIDs?
The report also recommended getting a refund to the tune of $132 million from First Kuwaiti. The report, of course, did not call it a refund, and says only that the State Department “attempt to recover,” that amount.
“As a result of construction deficiencies, incomplete and undocumented design work, additional maintenance charges attributable to inadequate quality control and commissioning procedures, and unrecovered liquidated damages and interest on unauthorized advance mobilization payments, we recommend that the Department of State attempt to recover more than $132 million from First Kuwaiti.”

An estimated $43.2 million alone is to bring construction deficiencies to contract standards. The report cited the following construction deficiencies:
  • $4.6 million to repair safe areas, which are vital to protecting staff in emergency situations but which were not constructed according to contract specifications.
  • $14 million to install seismic bracing, which is required for safeguarding fire protection lines and other critical mechanical systems that First Kuwaiti had not completed.
  • $200,000 to correct deficiencies at the water treatment plant.
  • $1.7 million to repair the NEC wall surfaces and concrete walkways that were improperly installed and are now subject to cracking.
  • $200,000 to replace motor pool vehicle lifts that are not serviceable.
  • $500,000 to repair the NEC’s power plant for inadequate air flow because changes to the configuration of the power plant were not supported by appropriate design work.
  • $11 million in additional operating costs for the less efficient power plant equipment over its lifetime.
  • $4.4 million to repair the NEC’s power distribution system because First Kuwaiti substituted a less reliable system, including using nonstandard wiring.
  • $500,000 to complete and correct functions of the building automation system that is critical to monitor, measure, and optimize energy usage.
  • $4.6 million to correct fire protection systems because the walls in the housing units were not compliant with code and fire protection water mains were improperly constructed.
  • $1.5 million to correct plumbing deficiencies at over 200 locations at the NEC.
This is a report from 2009, you see. The reason I’m digging it up is I’m wondering if the U.S. Government ever recovered any of that money.

There are overseas posts with no lights in their hallways in an attempt to save money from an already pitiful budget already slashed down from prior years. There are people holding 2-3 jobs because there are not enough people and money to go around (that is, if you’re not in Baghdad, Kabul or Islamabad). Can you understand why one can get a tad cranky with a report like this?

What were they THINKING, really (sorry for using my uppercase voice) — but constructing that embassaurus of a building out there and blah, blah, blah? Well, it’s too late for any rants now, the folks who made this possible have mostly retired to their quarters with their Tivos. And the building is there to stay, a stark lamp post in history – or a bright one, depending on which memoir you read or what history book you stick your nose in.

As the government got on  with civilian de-surging or downlifting and downsizing previously and again upsizing and bulking up the embassy in Iraq this year, I wonder how much of the construction deficiencies have actually been fixed? Or will new moneys need to be allocated to fixed these deficiencies if no refund materialized? $132 million is not pocket change. That amount can build an entirely new embassy compound elsewhere that’s not the size of the Vatican City.
I do wish there is a somebody out there with cojones ala “go ahead, make my day Harry” to tell it like it is — no refund and forgettaboutbiddinagain. Simple English, don’t need another lengthy report for follow up.  

Related Item:

Audit of the Design and Construction of the NEC Baghdad
OIG Report No. AUD/IQO-09-25| October 2009

US Mission Afghanistan: CODEL McConnell, April 2011

Senator Mitch McConnell lead a delegation of Senators to Kabul which included Senators Tom Carper (D-DE), Mike Johanna (R-NE), Jerry Moran (R-KS), Robert Portman (R-OH) and Senator John Hoeven (R-ND). According to the embassy the Senators met with Afghan Parliament members and also with President Karzai while in Kabul.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.
Photos from US Embassy Kabul/Flickr