US Embassy Nassau: Where Absence Makes the Heart Not/Not Grow Fonder

On March 2008, the State Department’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued (pdf) a limited scope review of the US Embassy in the Bahamas. Below is an excerpt from that report:

Under an interim chargé d’affaires for six months prior to the inspection, Embassy Nassau by all accounts has strong and centralized policy leadership. It supported the programs of the mission’s component agencies, strove successfully to assert Chief of Mission authority and dampened interagency frictions, earning agency chiefs’ declared respect in the process. Therefore, the inspection finds a smoothly working mission that lays claim to a long list of policy accomplishments.

The OIG has now posted its newest inspection report of the US Embassy Bahamas on February 23.  This inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 13 and 28, 2011; in Nassau, The Bahamas, between September 29 and October 12, 2011; and in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, on October 2, 2011.  At the time of the inspection, the mission was led by an “active noncareer Ambassador at post for 2 years and an experienced DCM at post for less than 90 days.” The report is referring to Ambassador Nicole Avant who was appointed chief of mission by President Obama in 2009, and DCM, John Dinkelman who arrived at post in August 2011.  Ambassador Avant departed post on November 21, 2011 and Mr. Dinkelman has since assumed duties as Chargé d’Affaires. The former Deputy Chief of Mission in Nassau referred to in this report is currently a Charge d’Affaires a.i. at another embassy in the Western Hemisphere.

Ambassador Avant with local straw weaver Miss Emily of Arthur's Town's Emily's Island Crafts and Straw Work. (Photo State Dept.)

Here is a brief description of mission presence:

Embassy Nassau hosts a complement of 22 direct-hire Department employees (plus 6 Marine security guards) who also support and coordinate the activities of 4 other Cabinet departments, comprising 115 U.S. direct hires. Its staffing totals some 154 American personnel and 61 locally employed (LE) staff. The chancery is a poorly designed building with few common areas and little setback. The Department has scheduled it for replacement in 2016. Most of the large Department of Homeland Security presence is at international airports in Nassau and Freeport. Freeport is located on Grand Bahama Island, 120 miles or an hour flight from Nassau. The embassy had a limited-scope inspection in 2007.

Below is a quick run down of the report’s key judgments:

  • The Ambassador and new deputy chief of mission (DCM) are emerging strongly from a period of dysfunctional leadership and management. [REDACTED]
  • The Ambassador’s authorized absences from post exceeded those allowed in guidelines issued by the Under Secretary for Management. The embassy and the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs did not follow Department of State (Department) procedures for vetting these absences.
  • The regional security office is performing well in this critical crime threat post [REDACTED]
  • The large and diverse law enforcement community in Mission Bahamas works well together, under the Ambassador’s leadership, to counter threats to U.S. national security.
  • The consular section provides excellent services in a large geographic area of responsibility. However, its efforts have been hampered by the embassy’s inability to establish a consular agency in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
  • The public affairs section (PAS), invigorated with the arrival of its first American public affairs officer in nearly two decades, manages an effective and robust outreach effort, though it should develop a network of exchange program alumni.
  • The management section is also emerging from a difficult period, as evidenced by lower than-average customer satisfaction scores. The DCM and new management officer are working to improve internal coordination among management sections and provide better service to employees, including those stationed at Freeport, Grand Bahama Island.
  • Political and economic cables reflect excellent access to Bahamians at every level of society and government. Drafters, however, consistently neglect to add context or analysis to explain how events affect U.S. interests.

There are some good news:

  • The mission is led by an active noncareer Ambassador at post for 2 years and an experienced DCM at post for less than 90 days. The two are forging a good team, with the Ambassador focused principally on public outreach activities associated with the Mission Strategic and Resource Plan (MSRP) and the DCM on needed improvements in internal management. Mission personnel are encouraged by the new front office spirit.
  • The Ambassador’s efforts to facilitate law enforcement cooperation are notable. For example, when a Bahamian newspaper publisher attacked Department of Homeland Security officers in his publication, the Ambassador initiated a dialogue that defused the situation.
  • The Ambassador has been active in promoting business education and development. She invited a music industry executive and former basketball player Magic Johnson to the Bahamas to speak to the Bahamian Chamber of Commerce. She also promotes women in business fora for professionals and students.

Also, the OIG recommended one additional employment opportunity for spouses by hiring an EFM instead of a direct-hire OMS and saving the mission some $500,000.   So, definitely a win-win situation, and yes, with that kind of money, the mission can hire a dozen EFMs a year and still have change:

But there are not so good news in the report:

The report also says that the embassy’s entry-level officer program has been neglected and is ineffective. “Entry- level officers have come to rely on immediate supervisors for informal guidance. Front office engagement has been sporadic and unfocused. Entry-level officers have not been included regularly in mission representational events nor have regular discussion sessions been held.”

Traditionally, the DCM handles internal embassy issues while the Ambassador takes care of external issues. And yet, the previous DCM in Nassau is now in charge of another embassy in the Western Hemisphere?  Pardon me? What do you mean it’s a recycling program at work?

Okay – there is also that two years of wasted rental money for the requested Turks and Caicos Islands consular agent  in Providenciales:

The Under Secretary for Management approved the post in September 2008. The U.S. Government leased office space on August 31, 2009, and as of September 2011 paid $20,800 per year in rent. The embassy requested permission to establish the consular agency from the United Kingdom only in September 2011. The request was approved 3 weeks later, during the inspection. The embassy hired a half-time consular agent in May 2010, and she attended basic consular training at the Foreign Service Institute in July 2011. However, because the U.S. Government did not have permission to open the consular agency, it had not outfitted the rented office space. The matter finally seems to be proceeding forward after years of mismanagement.

And finally, the absences.  There’s the matter on ambassadorial absences, which is sure to catch fire.  Here is what the OIG report says:

The Department has not followed its own guidance or procedures for approving COM absences from post. The Ambassador was absent from post for 276 days during a 670-day period from November 19, 2009, to September 19, 2011—an average of 12 days per month. The 276 days include 84 nonwork days (weekends and holidays) and 102 personal leave days. The Ambassador also traveled to the United States for 77 work days on what she identified as business, with 23 days on what appear to have been official travel orders. All travel was at her personal expense except when she was on official travel orders. The Ambassador requested permission each time from the Department when she visited the United States. In each case, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs approved her request. The frequent absences of the Ambassador contributed to poor mission management.

Wait — that’s a lot of absences from post — but she did not go AWOP (absent without permission), did she?.  The Bureau of Western Hemisphere could have disapproved Ambassador Avant’s leave request but did not. WHA must know that frequent absences could contribute to “poor mission management” and still it granted her permission to leave post.

OPM notes that officers and employees who are appointed by the President (PAS and PA) are not covered by the Federal leave system established by chapter 63 of title 5, United States Code. Presidential appointees do not earn annual and sick leave and cannot be charged leave for absences from work.

But here is the more troubling part:

And this is where I get terribly confused, I am sorry to say.

WHA referred three instances of absence to “M”, but Embassy Nassau did not follow “the requirements” and WHA did not follow the memo, so “M” did not have “accurate information” to make a decision? This was back in 2010. Like there’s no one at “M” who could have opened MS Outlook and send an email asking Nassau and WHA for the “accurate information” it needs?

Didst thou not hear a noise?  I heard the owl scream and the crickets cry. 

And the sound of water, and Lifebuoy soap, the original deodorant soap, as thou wash thy hands …

But seriously — according to the OIG inspectors, “3 FAM 3320 and 3 FAH-1 H-3320 sections governing absence of the COM have not been updated since March 24, 2005. The current process is confusing and subject to potential abuse.” It recommended that “The Bureau of Human Resources should update the Foreign Affairs Manual and the Foreign Affairs Handbook to reflect the current process for approving chief of mission absences from post. (Action: DGHR)”

Alas, the day is full of mine confusion, still…

Domani Spero

 

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Can you imagine having your HHE delivered to your hotel in WashDC?

FSGB Case No. 2011-037 is about a Foreign Service Officer with 30 years of service, whose last overseas assignment was to a Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Iraq.  Approaching retirement in the fall of 2009, grievant left Iraq and returned to Washington.  He leased a temporary residence at the Remington Hotel in Washington D.C.  Grievant retired from the Foreign Service, effective Sunday, February 28, 2010.  He remained in the Washington D.C. area, residing at the Remington Hotel.

On Monday March 1, 2010, grievant received a phone call from HR informing him that he has not updated his OF-126 (Residence and Dependency Report) and his most recent OF-126 in his OPF was dated April 30, 1985. Following completion of that conversation, HR e-mailed a blank form OF-126 to grievant. Grievant filled out the form, placing his current Washington D.C. address in Block 8, and electronically signed and dated the form, March 1, 2010.

In October 2010, while attending the Retirement Job Search Program, grievant contacted the Department’s Transportation Office to arrange to have his HHE sent to his retirement home in Baytown, Texas.  He was told that his retirement address was Washington D.C., so his effects could not be shipped at government expense to Texas.

In short, the FSO could proceed to his retirement home in Texas but his 30 years worth of household effects which may or may not have reached the statutory limit of 8,165 kilograms or 18,000 pounds, net weight was stuck in Washington, D.C.

Bulldozer relocating a house in c. 1920

Image via Wikipedia

According to the record of proceeding, which is publicly available online with the names redacted, the grievant contacted HR and was informed the Assignments Panel directed that a Decision Memorandum be sent to the Director General of the Foreign Service.  On November 1, the HR Executive Office (HR/EX) sent a Decision Memorandum to the Director General recommending against approving grievant’s request to retroactively change his separation address to Baytown, Texas.  Excerpt below from the Decision Memorandum:

Mr. [Grievant] (FE-OC) transferred from Iraq to Washington D.C. in October/November 2009.  Facing age limitation mandatory separation, he submitted his retirement package which included the attached OF-126, dated March 1, 2010.  He requested Washington D.C. as his separation address.  No travel orders were issued because his separation address is within a 50-mile radius from Washington D.C.

Mr. [Grievant]’s retirement was effective February 28, 2010.  He has been working in the Department as a WAE since his retirement and recently contacted his CDO to say that he had made a mistake when he completed the OF-126.  He said the correct separation location should have been Baytown, Texas instead of Washington D.C.  He asked that he be re-paneled and retroactively separated to Baytown.  HR/EX would have to issue a travel authorization if his request is approved.

On November 5, the Director General issued her decision, denying the request.

What a way to say “thank you for your service.”

On January 31, 2012, the Foreign Service Grievance Board held that “The grievant met his burden of showing, by a preponderance of the evidence, that his grievance is meritorious.  The grievance is sustained in part, and the Department is ordered to issue grievant travel orders, and ship his household effects (HHE) to the service separation address listed in the form OF-126 in effect on the date of his retirement on February 28, 2010.” 

Below is the case overview from the FSGB:

The grievant, a Foreign Service Officer who retired from the U.S. Department of State, received a telephone call from his Career Development Officer (CDO) in HR/CDA on the first workday (March 1, 2010) after his retirement, in which the CDO told grievant that his OF-126 form must be updated, as the then-current form in grievant’s file was dated in 1985.  Grievant and his CDO did not discuss the significance of the form, or that its contents, specifically Block 8, would be used as the destination for grievant’s travel and the shipment of his HHE.  Without reading the instructions for the form (which he claims not to have received from his CDO), grievant filled it out, citing his temporary quarters in a Washington, D.C. hotel as his separation address, and emailed it back to his CDO.

Several months later, while attending the Job Search Program, grievant called the Department’s transportation division to arrange for shipment of his HHE to his new home in Baytown, Texas, a Houston suburb.  He was told that he was not authorized any shipment as his separation address, as recorded on the March 1, 2010 OF-126, was Washington D.C.  Grievant then called his CDO and asked to have the address changed back to the Houston area.  This required a decision memo to the Director General (DG), which recommended against authorizing the change grievant requested.  The DG denied the request.

The Board found credible the grievant’s contention that he would not have changed his OF-126 had his CDO not called and told him he must do so.  The Board also gave credence to grievant’s argument that given grievant’s last assignment to a provincial post in Iraq, he may not have received the Department notice explaining the importance of keeping the OF-126 updated; it is possible that he was unaware that the form would be used to authorize the final destination of his HHE.  Finally, the Department’s argument that the grievant could not change his retirement address after his effective date of retirement, when the Department did just that only a few months earlier, fails.

The Department is ordered to authorize travel and shipment of effects to the service separation address in grievant’s file on February 28, 2010, the effective date of his retirement, in Houston, Texas.   It is also ordered to reimburse grievant for the costs of storage of his HHE from January 1, 2011 until shipment to Texas.  Grievant’s request to have shipment authorized to Baytown, Texas is denied.

It might be useful to note that the OF-126 is also the basis when you request for Emergency visitation travel (EVT) from the post of assignment to the United States or to other locations in certain situations of family emergency.  Here is the relevant part: “In the event the seriously ill, injured, or deceased family member or incapacitated parent is located outside the United States, or the remains of an immediate family member who has died abroad are to be accompanied to a place outside the United States, travel costs are “constructed,” i.e., the cost of the travel by the employee or employee’s spouse or domestic partner (as defined in 3 FAM 1610) may not exceed the transportation expenses that would have been incurred for travel between the post and the employee’s service separation residence address.”

I’m glad the FSGB did not like the special way they said thank you over there, too.

Domani Spero