U.S. Embassy Burundi — Sacrificing Free Time Is Worthwhile, Rinse, Repeat

— Domani Spero
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State/OIG has just posted its inspection report of the U.S. Embassy in Bujumbura, Burundi. Post is headed by career diplomat, Dawn Liberi who was appointed to post in 2012 and assumed office in January 2013, plus a revolving door of DCMs since late last year.

Below are the key findings:

  • The Ambassador’s vision of growing the size of the embassy is not supported by available resources.
  • Political and economic reporting lacks classified analysis, and the volume is limited.
  • The embassy does not prioritize its personnel and resources, especially in the area of public diplomacy, and its workload level is not sustainable.
  • American staff morale is low, in part a result of work pressure and travel restrictions.
  • The embassy is not reimbursed for all the costs of supporting military personnel assigned to the embassy by the regional combatant command.
  • Funding and staffing levels are adequate for embassy operations.
  • The management section provides good administrative support services.
US Embassy Burundi/FB

US Embassy Burundi/FB

 

Below are additional details extracted from the OIG report. About that New Embassy Compound Bujumbura, here is what the inspectors say:

In October 2012, the embassy occupied the new embassy compound. In addition to the Department of State (Department), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Department of Defense (DOD) are represented in the embassy. The mission has a total staff of 186, with 33 authorized U.S. direct-hire positions. The embassy occupies a modern compound with an electrical generating capacity equal to that of the entire national grid. The capital cost of the new embassy compound, $137 million, is 25 percent of the national government’s annual budget.

Just pause for a moment and digest that — “equal to that of the entire national grid” of Burundi.

Perhaps the more disturbing part of the report, which is not uncommon in the last few reports issued, has been the deficient leadership at the top of the mission.  This is the kind of ‘taking care of the troops’ that impairs the mission, demoralized employees, impacts the future of the Service and one more reason why we think scrutiny of chief of mission candidates should not be solely focused on political appointees.

The Ambassador as Hub of Embassy Operations?

The embassy staff respects the Ambassador for her achievements, vision, and indefatigable energy in advancing U.S. interests in Burundi but is hard pressed to keep up with expectations. The Ambassador has made herself the hub of embassy operations, with section and agency heads reporting directly to her. This hub-and-spoke organizational structure results in the Ambassador making decisions on issues such as leave requests for U.S. direct hires. She monitors coverage plans for individual absences and occasionally withholds approval, if she deems them inadequate. A revolving door of temporary DCMs, including the embassy’s third-tour political officer, assisted the Ambassador for the 3 months prior to the inspection. The presence of three short-term, acting DCMs—who lacked sufficient time on the ground to gain the Ambassador’s confidence and an understanding of embassy operations—reinforced the Ambassador’s tendency to micromanage.

Multiple interviews of staff members and responses to OIG surveys revealed staff members’ concern that the Ambassador has an occasionally harsh leadership style. This assessment was based on incidents when she scolded individuals in a group setting over performance shortcomings. As a result, staff members have told the OIG team they are less willing to show initiative or take chances, because they are concerned about failing to meet the Ambassador’s high expectations. The arrival of a permanent DCM in April 2014 represents an opportunity for the Ambassador to delegate operational authority.

But why should anyone have weekends?

Despite her self-assessment to the OIG team that the pace and volume of current work at her embassy is unsustainable, the Ambassador either has accepted or initiated many new activities over the past 6 months, such as preparing a quarterly assessment of Burundian conditions indicating a risk of political violence. Embassy staff strains to keep up with work demands; many U.S. direct hires routinely work extra hours to accommodate the Ambassador’s demands on staff to organize special events, draft speeches, and coordinate media coverage. The staff manages these demands by working weekends and staying late in the office on weekdays.

Of course, sacrificing free time is worthwhile, silly!

The Ambassador, whose position allows her to work from home while others cannot, has not succeeded in convincing her overworked staff that sustaining a high operations tempo and sacrificing free time are worthwhile. She conveys the impression that this kind of 24/7 work rhythm is normal. Personal questionnaires indicate that the embassy’s operating tempo has eroded morale and has also undermined the embassy’s ability to surge should events require. The OIG team counseled the Ambassador on the need to apply, in a disciplined fashion and within existing resources, the embassy’s ICS priorities to its operational activities. Staff morale at the embassy is below average, according to the OIG survey and interviews with personnel. This low morale is due to two sets of factors: the hardship associated with Burundi’s isolation and lack of free-time amenities, compounded by restrictions on travel. Further contributing to the situation are the country’s extreme poverty and uneven availability of ordinary consumer items, the tropical environment, and overtime work to keep up with the Ambassador’s high expectations and operations tempo. The effect is that the U.S. staff is wearing down. This is especially noticeable among the first- and second-tour officers, though as a group they continue to perform at high levels. The arrival of a new permanent DCM is an opportunity to reset the embassy’s operational pace and address morale problems.

Overexposed? Is there a press release for that?

The Ambassador is overexposed in the Burundian media. She has diluted the impact of the small public diplomacy staff with demands for outreach at every opportunity, without regard to prioritizing resources on high-yield activities more likely to receive media attention. In a 1-week period during the inspection, the embassy issued four press releases on the Ambassador’s outside events, but these received scant local media coverage. The OIG team counseled the Ambassador on ways to improve embassy media coverage.

No More Facebook and YouTube?

Burundi has a miniscule audience for digital products. Only 1.7 percent of the public has access to the Internet, and only 17 percent of that audience accesses the Internet for news. Facebook statistics show it has a penetration rate of 0.4 percent. The embassy posted two videos to YouTube, which, at the time of the inspection 9 months later, had combined total views of only 322. Because social media demands regular interaction with users, neither the staffing in the section nor the audience in Burundi can justify this activity. The public affairs officer agreed to focus staff time on the embassy Web site, which needs attention. At the time of the inspection, it featured an announcement for a recruiting effort that had ended more than a month earlier.

Recommendation 14: Embassy Bujumbura should close its Facebook and YouTube pages. (Action: Embassy Bujumbura)

 Professional development and experience gaps?

The embassy does not have a formal, structured program for the professional development of first- and second-tour (FAST) officers. Embassy Bujumbura has eight FAST officers, three of whom are specialists. FAST officers comprise half the Department’s U.S. direct-hire employees at the embassy. Every section has a FAST officer, with the exception of public affairs. Only one Department employee in the embassy has had more than three assignments overseas.
[…]
Consular Training and Backup. The officer who will replace the current consular chief in summer 2014 has no previous consular experience. To ensure an adequate level of performance and compliance with regulations, the new consular chief will need embassy-specific training and clear, detailed guidance, in addition to standard consular training in Washington, to help her fulfill the many obligations she will face as the new consular chief.

Please, more of everything here!

In the embassy’s ICS and Mission Resource Request, as well as in OIG interviews, the Ambassador has made clear her ambitions to grow the embassy from a Class 2 to a Class 3 mission.1 In her view, more personnel resources are needed for the embassy to carry out its mission. Since the 2007 OIG inspection report, the mission’s U.S. direct-hire staffing has grown by 9 positions: 3 from the Department and 6 from other agencies. LE staffing increased by 59 positions: 52 from the Department and 7 from other agencies. At the same time, the total Department operating budget increased by $1.82 million. By 2018, the embassy predicts a net increase of 23 positions: 7 U.S. direct hires, 1 eligible family member, and 15 LE staff members. In its 2013 analysis, the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing, and Innovation predicts modest increases of only 1 U.S direct hire and 9 LE staff members. The OIG team found no evidence of the Department’s willingness to fund the embassy’s projected growth. The embassy’s rightsizing review does not reflect realistic goals and objectives. The Bureau of African Affairs did not respond to the embassy’s most recent Mission Resource Request concerning plans for embassy growth.

 

This OIG report has a classified annex.  The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between January 6 and 30, 2014, and in Bujumbura, Burundi, between February 18 and 28, 2014. Ambassador Lawrence Butler (team leader), Kenneth Hillas (deputy team leader), Paul Cantrell, Ellen Engels, James Norton, John Philibin, Lavon Sajona, Scott Thayer, Ken Moskowitz, and Timothy Wildy conducted the inspection.

-07/31/14   Inspection of Embassy Bujumbura, Burundi (ISP-I-14-20A)  [301 Kb]  Posted on July 30, 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

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