US Embassy Barbados: Paradise Inspected, Again — Still Expensive, Isolated and Uh-oh! (Updated)

— Domani Spero

In 2009, we blogged about the U.S. Embassy in Bridgetown, Barbados (see US Embassy Barbados: Paradise Inspected).  In 2012 Ambassador Larry Palmer, a career diplomat succeeded political ambassador Mary Martin Ourisman who was appointed by George W. Bush as U.S. ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Carribean from 2006-2008.

Embassy Bridgetown’s DCM is Christopher J. Sandrolini, who was post’s chargé d’affaires, a.i. prior to Ambassador Palmer’s arrival.  We remember him responding to our inquiry with an unofficial note in the wake of  George Gaines’ tragic death in Barbados in 2012.

This week, State/OIG released its latest report on the  Inspection of Embassy Bridgetown, Barbados, and Embassy St. George’s, Grenada (ISP-I-14-09A).

 

The view over Castries Harbor from a viewing point just below the Government House of St. Lucia. Photo by Cultural Affairs Assistant, Khalil Goodman, US Embassy Bridgetown/FB

The view over Castries Harbor from a viewing point just below the Government House of St. Lucia. Photo by Cultural Affairs Assistant, Khalil Goodman, US Embassy Bridgetown/FB

The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 3 and October 17, 2013, and in Bridgetown, Barbados, between October 20 and November 4, 2013. The overseas portion of the inspection was truncated due to the partial Federal Government shutdown. Ambassador Pamela Smith (team leader), Lavon Sajona (deputy team leader), Paul Cantrell, Eric Chavera, Mark Jacobs, John Philibin, Iris Rosenfeld, Scott Thayer, and Steven White conducted the inspection.  The following details extracted from the publicly available report.

Post Snapshot:

Barbados is the largest of the seven island nations of the Lesser Antilles to which the embassy is accredited. The others are the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Dominica, St. Lucia, and Grenada, which has a small U.S. embassy whose existence is rooted in the 1983 ouster of Cuban troops by American military forces.

The mission includes 81 U.S. direct-hire positions representing 8 agencies, including the Departments of State, Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, and Health and Human Services, as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Internal Revenue Service. Two-thirds of the officers, including nine section and agency heads, turned over in summer 2013. Ninety Peace Corps volunteers are assigned to Dominica, Grenada, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent. Peace Corp operations in Antigua and Barbuda and in St. Kitts and Nevis ceased at the beginning of 2013 because of budget cutbacks. Embassy expenditures in FY 2013 totaled $46.5 million.

Key Judgments 

  • The Ambassador must address his leadership issues regarding his strategic vision, favoritism, team building, proper delegation, and overbearing treatment of some employees.
  • Embassy Bridgetown’s emergency preparedness program lacks direction and focus. The embassy has not exercised the safe areas and alternate command center to determine their adequacy. Embassy personnel are unaware of their roles and responsibilities in the event of an emergency.
  • The consular section services U.S. citizens spread over seven countries and numerous islands. Consular managers should exercise closer supervision over consular operations in Bridgetown and at the consular agencies in Antigua and Martinique.
  • Embassy Bridgetown’s consular section needs to improve crisis management planning and coordination with consular agents, wardens, and U.S. citizen residents in this hurricane prone region.
  • The management section delivers good customer service; however, the section needs to address several management control issues.


First, Some Good News

  • Embassy Bridgetown maintains productive relations with the seven governments to which it is accredited. The Ambassador works hard and travels often in the region to build personal rapport with leaders and advance U.S. interests.
  • Interagency cooperation not only runs smoothly at the mission but also represents an achievement for which the Ambassador and DCM can both take credit. Prior to their arrival, internal frictions hampered embassy operations.
  • A combined political/economic section reports on issues in the seven countries to which the Ambassador is accredited, but the high cost of travel, unreliable transportation, and limited lodging compound the challenge of covering a vast geographic area. Despite these challenges, the section produced nearly 100 required reports and responded to nearly 1,000 taskings from Washington in the past 12 months.
  • This past year, the embassy was able to consolidate personal property into one warehouse, saving $75,000 per year in rent.
  • The Ambassador and DCM also make a priority of fostering a family-friendly work environment, an attitude appreciated by American employees with families and the locally employed (LE) staff.

 

Leadership and Management – Uh-oh! 

  • The Ambassador involves himself in administrative matters that he should delegate to the management officer or DCM. For example, until midpoint of the inspection, he personally approved all official travel. He sometimes calls entry-level American officers and LE staff to his office without their supervisors, often when he is dissatisfied with their work. These interactions should be delegated to supervisors or the DCM. The Ambassador also holds some decisions until the last moment or reverses his decisions, upending plans.
  • Most employees find the Ambassador’s leadership style inspiring, but some staff expressed that it is overbearing and inhibits their performance. The Ambassador did not realize he needed to modulate his behavior for different staff members until the inspectors pointed it out to him. He admitted that a few times he had lost his temper and reprimanded employees in front of others, which led some employees to feel intimidated and to fear retribution. The OIG team found no evidence of actual threats or retribution. The Ambassador stated that he harbored no intention to intimidate and was surprised to learn that some colleagues felt as they do. He accepted a packet of Department guidance, pertinent articles, and the inspectors’ advice about intimidation. He also agreed with the inspection team’s suggestion to turn to his DCM more frequently to address problematic issues.
  • The Ambassador does not have an official residence expense (ORE) house manager at his residence and relies on the human resources section to manage the ORE staff of four. As a result, human resources staff must perform daily operations, such as tracking time and attendance and ensuring that substitute staff are available when others are absent from work. This is burdensome and inappropriate, because ORE employees are the personal employees of the Ambassador.
  • Mission policy authorizes the Ambassador and DCM to travel officially using the lowest unrestricted fare as the cost basis, while requiring all other employees to use less flexible restricted fares.

 

No State Department EER since 2005

  • The Ambassador has not received an employee evaluation report prepared by a Department official since 2005. For subsequent years the Ambassador was assigned to an independent U.S. Government agency or filled temporary Department assignments. While the Ambassador is not required to receive a rating in the 2 years prior to his retirement, the WHA Assistant Secretary may prepare a rating at her discretion.
  • Prior to the inspection, the Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA) was aware of some of the leadership issues covered in this report. More active engagement from WHA will solidify progress that embassy leadership pledged to make in addressing these shortcomings. The Foreign Affairs Manual (1 FAM 112 [3]) enjoins assistant secretaries of the regional bureaus to actively support chiefs of mission in carrying out their official duty to implement U.S. foreign policy and lead their missions effectively.

 

Morale and Workplace Issues: Divided Staff, Favoritism  and Which Staff Member?

  • Many staff members believe the Ambassador shows undue favoritism toward a member of his front office staff. The Ambassador’s and the DCM’s low scores on inspection questionnaires, corroborated by personal interviews, reflect this view. For example, many employees expressed that the Ambassador had empowered the staff member–whose conduct is widely perceived as inappropriately demanding, non-collegial, and unprofessional–to speak for him. In addition, the Ambassador allowed the staff member to take over duties more appropriately conducted by the DCM or other senior officers. Employees cited numerous examples of the employee’s inability to carry out basic duties. The staff consumes unnecessary time discussing this issue, which has become a distraction from the embassy’s central mission.
  • Among the conditions that have led to this untenable situation are poor implementation of normal front office procedures, a failure of the staff member’s work requirements to align with actual and appropriate duties, and a lack of clarity as to the responsibilities of front office personnel. A thorough review and operational realignment of duties among front office staff could resolve many of these issues and improve internal functions. Clearly articulating the results of that review to all mission employees is an essential step in the process.
  • Embassy Bridgetown’s staff is divided. Staff referred continuously to the “old team,” the new “Team Palmer,” and the “A Team.” Employees from the “old team,” many of whom departed the embassy in summer 2013, were at odds with the Ambassador, who is perceived to value new arrivals over them. The sudden death of a widely admired American colleague on the eve of the Ambassador’s arrival also split the embassy community into two groups: those who experienced the trauma and those who came after it. Although the Ambassador and the DCM get along well, the division of labor and leadership styles between them has not produced the collaboration of a true partnership.


Quality of Life

Despite beautiful weather and beaches, many Department employees at Embassy Bridgetown find life on Barbados extremely confining and isolated. Travel to the United States or to other locales in the region is expensive. As a result, employees receive one rest and recuperation trip for a 2-year tour and two trips during a 3-year tour. The rest and recuperation point in the United States is Miami, Florida. Employees are also authorized a 5-percent post differential due to the hardship of living on a small island, and a 50-percent cost-of-living allowance to reflect the high cost of goods and services on an island that imports nearly 100 percent of its consumer products.

 

The Consular Section: A Familiar Complaint

A number of LE staff members have more than 30 years’ experience working in the consular section. Among these veterans are the local supervisors in the nonimmigrant visa, immigrant visa, American citizens services, and fraud prevention units. The FAST officers in the section rotate through the four functional units for periods ranging from 4 to 10 months. During their time in the units, these American officers—some of whom have no consular experience— serve as unit chiefs and supervise local staff members. FAST officers like this policy, but their LE colleagues have reservations. LE staff members are constantly training new supervisors, which they report compromises the smooth running of operations. They describe examples of inexperienced American officers making uninformed decisions about workflow and policy without listening to the local staff. The inspection team concluded their concerns were justified. Each unit has a weekly meeting that the LE staff members and their immediate American supervisors attend to discuss workflow and processes. However, the consul general and deputy consul typically do not attend these meetings.

The IG report notes that the consular agents in Antigua and Martinique also failed to comply with all the requirements for consular agents. Both have expired appointment commissions. Neither agent responded to a required questionnaire about fee collection procedures that the Bureau of Consular Affairs sent to them in June 2013.The report points to post’s need to enforce the visa referral policy, the expectation that the cashier provide an OF-158 receipt for consular fees to the accountable consular officer on a daily basis, and for the DCM to review NIV adjudications. The DCM is not reviewing the nonimmigrant visa adjudications of the consul general because of functionality problems with the required software, according to the inspectors.


Art in Embassies Program Alert!

Inventory records for high-value artworks are incorrect. For example, works donated by the Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies, worth thousands of dollars each, show a value of one dollar.

$1.00 !!!

The Foundation also known as FAPE, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing permanent works of American art for U.S. embassies worldwide would not like that at all.

Read more here.  And hey, you cannot auction off laptops simply because the encryption keys were lost!

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