US Embassy Denmark: A Flat Stanley-Mission, Well Sort Of, But Not Really – Oh, Confusion!

About a year ago, we posted about the OIG inspection of the US Embassy in Denmark (see State/OIG on US Embassy Denmark: “Ambassador has, in effect, become a first-line supervisor”).

Two items stand out from that report:

  • The embassy staff perceives that the Ambassador is unwilling to delegate authority, and that this weakens the chain of command and disempowers section leaders, making it difficult for them to organize their work and to hold officers within their sections accountable.
  • The Ambassador has, in effect, become a first-line supervisor, and can be harsh in dealing with any lapses she perceives.[REDACTED]

State/OIG had since concluded a Compliance Follow-up Review (CFR) which took place in Washington, DC, between October 31 and November 4, 2011, and in Copenhagen, Denmark, between November 7 and 17, 2011. The report was recently posted online. Excerpt below:

Although the mission seemed to be functioning adequately, the inspection team found [REDACED] problems with senior mission leadership. In response to several key judgments on leadership, the team recommended that the Ambassador return to Washington for consultations that had not been possible before her arrival in Copenhagen and issued three other recommendations that sought to clarify the chain of command. In a meeting with the deputy inspector general in December 2010, the Ambassador asked for a CFR. She felt that the inspection was unduly critical because it did not take into account the fact that it was conducted just as a new team, which she had selected, arrived.
The inspection report for Embassy Copenhagen, issued early in 2011, noted problems of clarity in delineating the responsibilities and authorities of the DCM; problems with senior mission officers understanding the chain of command, including section chiefs’ responsibilities for the work of their subordinates; and problems of communication and transparency across the mission. Inspectors issued three recommendations intended to address these problems. Mission officers told the CFR team that they have seen some improvement and many believed their relationships with the Ambassador have also improved.

As was the case at the time of the inspection, the Ambassador prefers to run a relatively flat organization; the Ambassador reaches out to individual officers for information or to assign them tasks. Often, section chiefs are unaware of assigned tasks until advised by their subordinates. While it is the prerogative of the Ambassador and DCM to operate a relatively flat organization, including reaching out directly to any member of the mission, the absence of a clear system to keep supervisors informed about those contacts hinders section chiefs’ ability to maintain oversight and quality control over their officers’ work. This practice also results in a loss of accountability, and in the case of some entry-level officers, their involvement with special projects may have limited their exposure to the core programs that they need to master.

Image from Wikipedia

Reissuing the inspection recommendation to distribute an administrative notice that delineates a clear chain of command will not, in itself, address the issues identified by the inspection. The Ambassador believes the current approach works best for her. The system has not resulted in obvious lost opportunities or unforced errors. Nevertheless, this approach has the effect of denying the Ambassador the shaping and enrichment of her thinking by professionals with experience in Department processes, as well as some who have experience and understanding of Denmark. Additionally, some officers do not feel that they have been able to do the jobs they expected to do. Compared to the original inspection, survey results from mission staff in personal questionnaires completed prior to the CFR have not significantly improved, and overall mission morale, as measured by the OIG survey, is about the same.
The Ambassador has established guidelines for messages and emails that the DCM may approve. It is not always clear to mission staff the exact criteria for messages the DCM is authorized to approve. By default, there is a tendency in all sections to assume the Ambassador will want to approve most messages. That assumption is correct.

Oh, dear! And this is just one more example why a political ambassador can have a bumpy ride at an overseas mission.

The State Department, including its embassies and consulates overseas are hierarchical creatures. They are all versions of a pyramid with large numbers of people at the bottom and fewer people as you get to the top, arranged in order of rank, grade or class. Members of these structures mainly communicate with their immediate superior and with their immediate subordinates. That’s the way its been since …well, since the beginning of time.

Then you get an ambassador who prefers to run her embassy as a “relatively flat organization.”  We presume from reading the report that this includes less management layer, more direct staff input, shorter chain of command, and more direct tasking of entry level officers and other staff. Which cuts off “oversight” and “quality control” by supervisors and midlevel managers; a hallmark of flatter organizations where responsibilities are shifted from levels of management directly to employees, empowering them to take charge.

At an embassy where the flat experience without a doubt is limited to a visit by Flat Stanley, there will surely be a clash of undiplomatic proportion which results in some motion sickness and disorientation for everyone.

There will be confusion.  Of course, the chain of command is suddenly unrecognizable. The more senior officers may suddenly feel like spare wheels and less important. Information as power no longer works.

Regretfully, chewing a gum would not help if you have Visually Induced Mission Sickness (VIMS); that’s the ailment for those suffering disorientation from being out of the loop.

The less senior employees may suddenly feel empowered but also concerned, after all, if the big boss is giving them direct assignments, who will be their rating officers? And if their rating officers or reviewing officers are out of the loop, how do you get a performance review that would snag tenure or promotion?

Oh, Confusion, you naughty child of organizational culture clash!

What this show is that bureaucracies despite touting smarts and innovation and whatnot, and despite good intentions are true creatures of its cultures, which can often be fixed and rigid, and coping mechanisms are not as agile as needed.

Update: 4/18/2012 @11:18 pm

The point I missed on the OIG Denmark report —

One of our readers told us that we’ve missed the point in the report.  Like – “Embassy Copenhagen isn’t very big–so we’re not talking about layer upon layer of intermediate managers.”  Okay, we got that.  So if everything has to go to the big boss for approval (or if everyone thinks it should), we’re told that is “sclerotic.” Yep, the wheels on the bus grinds to a slow-mo.

“If first-line supervisors don’t know what their staffs are doing, they can neither manage them properly nor provide the advice any ambassador should need and want.  And if junior officers are being diverted from their functional tasks and aren’t learning core skills and programs, then they are not being prepared for advancement (and the work they getting paid for isn’t getting done, thus wasting taxpayer funds).  This isn’t innovation, it’s micromanagement.”

And we get all that.  But we rather think that the preference for a flatter structure is a management style not an innovative initiative per se in this case.  Micromanagement is not an unknown issue at State, where some career ambassadors and DCMs are known to be so themselves, and employees learn to managed up, as they say in those corridors (although most if not all trust their DCMs to sign off on things that need approval). If ELOs are not doing visa interviews and are instead sent window shopping or something, then we’d be very concerned about taxpayer’s funds. But if they are doing special projects prioritized by the chief of mission, included in the embassy’s strategic plan or whatever they call those things these days, they’re still doing a job for the mission, just not the job written in their work requirement statements. Disruptive, yes, but is it wasteful? The OIG report did say that this has “not resulted in obvious lost opportunities or unforced errors.”  Our correspondent’s point taken, but we still think of this under the larger umbrella of a culture clash.

We’d hate to be in that DCM’s place though.

Domani Spero


Related post:
State/OIG on US Embassy Denmark: “Ambassador has, in effect, become a first-line supervisor”

Related items:
-03/31/11   Inspection of Embassy Copenhagen, Denmark (ISP-I-11-19A) March 2011  [4434 Kb]
-04/09/12   Compliance Follow-up Review of Embassy Copenhagen, Denmark (ISP-C-12-20)  [534 Kb]