US Embassy Dhaka: Persistent Staffing Gaps, Workload Stress, a Triple Stretch

 

In July 2016, the US Embassy in Bangladesh went on voluntary evacuation (U.S. Embassy Dhaka: Now on “Authorized Departure” For Family Members of USG Personnel). State/OIG conducted the inspection of U.S. Embassy Dhaka in Bangladesh from September 3, 2019, to January 28, 2020. The report released in June 2020 notes that “In 2016, following a terrorist attack in Dhaka, the Department decided to allow only adult dependents to accompany employees. Many American staff members told OIG this change made the embassy unattractive to Foreign Service employees with children.”
What OIG Found

The Ambassador and the Deputy Chief of Mission led Embassy Dhaka in a collaborative and professional manner. Staff described both leaders as energetic and approachable.

• The embassy had difficulty filling mid-level positions after the withdrawal of minor dependents following a 2016 terrorist attack. Many managerial positions had long staffing gaps that exacerbated workload pressures on the remaining staff.

• The Ambassador’s active outreach efforts advanced efforts to build political capital and goodwill. However, particularly given the staffing shortages throughout the embassy, the Ambassador contributed to the workload stress of embassy staff by not prioritizing demands he placed on employees to support these efforts.

• The Ambassador engaged extensively with Bangladeshi Government officials and led efforts by the international community to assist 900,000 Rohingya refugees who had fled Burma.

• Consular Section staff routinely worked long hours in an effort to manage a growing backlog of immigrant visa work.

• The embassy’s social media program did not comply with Department of State standards.

• The network cabling infrastructure in Embassy Dhaka’s unclassified server and telephone frame rooms was antiquated and did not comply with Department standards.

• Spotlights on Success: The Information Management Office created a tracking system for employee checks of the emergency and evacuation radio network that increased participation rates dramatically. In addition, the office created a travel request application that saved time for travelers and travel managers

[…]

At the time of the inspection, Embassy Dhaka had 139 authorized U.S direct-hire employees, of whom 66 worked for the Department of State (Department) and 73 worked for other agencies, including the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Departments of Defense, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Agriculture. The embassy also had 511 locally employed (LE) staff and 5 eligible family members. The embassy occupies two compounds, with the chancery having been built in 1988. The Department is planning to construct a new chancery and annexes during the next several years.

[…]

The embassy had difficulty in recent years filling mid-level positions. In the year prior to the inspection, several mid-level positions in different sections either had no assigned employee or had long gaps. For example, the embassy experienced a 30-month gap between Facility Managers, a 10-month gap between Public Affairs Officers, a 15-month gap between Information Management Specialists, a 34-month gap between the Management Section’s Office Management Specialists, and 24-month gaps in two of five Regional Security Office positions.

Excerpt from Embassy Dhaka’s response specific to the staffing gaps:

The Embassy appreciates mention of the staffing gaps identified on page three of the OIG Draft Report. However, the paragraph understates Post’s chronic and severe understaffing and its impact. In addition to the page three gaps, during the Ambassador’s tenure:

• The Front Office was short one OMS for seven months and had a four-month gap in the DCM position, filled only part of that time by an REA TDYer also serving as Acting Management Officer;

• Pol/Econ was without a Chief or Deputy for three months and the Acting Chief was also P/E Deputy, Econ Chief, and Labor Officer for three months. The incoming Refugee Coordinator broke his handshake causing gaps in that position;

• The Visa Chief position was vacant for 14 months; a ConOff position was vacant for five months; and the incoming Deputy Consular Chief who will replace her predecessor who departed during the October inspection has not yet arrived.

Additionally, Post was unable to fill numerous EFM positions in the Section due to the paucity of family members who chose to come to our then unaccompanied Post;

• The previous Management Officer curtailed in August 2019; the DCM recruited an REA officer to temporarily fill the position who was formally recalled to service in January 2020. The A/GSO EPAP departed in September 2019; her replacement is scheduled to arrive in summer 2020. The S/GSO left in May 2019; his replacement arrived four months later. The FMO arrived after a three-month gap. The ISO position has been empty since June 2019 and there is no replacement in the pipeline. Post has had no CLO since February 2019; the position was also vacant for 10 months until April 2018;

• The Deputy CAO – a second-tour Officer — filled the PAO position for 10 months; this was a triple stretch. The remaining two American positions were filled by Civil Servants in hard-to-fill positions; neither had served in a PD position or overseas.

With such substantial staffing gaps, during the tense and violent run up to national elections and the tumultuous aftermath, in times of heightened terrorist threat, and to support multiple VIP visits to Cox’s Bazar and the world’s largest refugee camp, some employees did occasionally work seven days a week. Post appreciated the strain on particular offices and officers and worked hard to burden share with our limited personnel resources. As is typical when new Chiefs of Mission arrive, the Ambassador accepted more invitations his first few months in order to promote crucial U.S. foreign policy objectives including the new Indo-Pacific Strategy, conduct high-profile advocacy over concerns for Bangladesh’s shrinking democratic space, press the Government of Bangladesh to address trafficking-in-persons issues, and protect human rights and voices of dissent in the aftermath of the hugely flawed national election. While the Front Office may not have been explicit in tying all outreach and travel to the ICS, the Ambassador was careful to accept engagement opportunities that furthered ICS objectives which are, as the OIG noted, displayed prominently throughout the Embassy. Further, the Embassy had and continues to have a strategic travel working group which develops quarterly travel schedules and plans.

OIG report says that in February the State Department agreed with Embassy Dhaka’s recommendation to return to fully accompanied status “which should help alleviate continuing staffing and related concerns by 2021, including by filling long-vacant EFM positions.”

FSGB Case: When “there were no mitigating circumstances” considered despite conditions identified by MED

 

Via FSGB: FSGB Case No. 2019-034, July 2, 2020
Held – The Board found that the Department of State (the “Department” or “agency”) did not establish cause to separate the charged employee from the Foreign Service because the Deciding Official (“DO”) did not consider evidence of his personality problems as a mitigating circumstance. The Board was persuaded by evidence in the record that the agency should exercise its authority to initiate, as an alternative to separation, the option of a disability retirement, pursuant to 3 FAM 6164.3(a).
Case Summary – The Department charged the employee with Improper Personal Conduct based upon a pattern of unprofessional and inappropriate conduct toward colleagues, primarily hundreds of unwanted emails and text messages with sexual content. The Department’s Bureau of Medical Services (“MED”) had conducted a mental health evaluation of the charged employee and concluded that “to a reasonable degree of certainty,” the charged employee exhibited “behavior or symptoms (which may not rise to the level of formal diagnosis) of an emotional, mental or personality condition that may impair his reliability, judgment or trustworthiness.” The DO determined that the charged employee committed the charged offenses and that there were no mitigating circumstances. In finding no mitigating circumstances, the DO attested in the separation hearing that she did not take into consideration either the charged employee’s emotional, mental or personality condition that MED identified or the charged employee’s emails to coworkers that included references to his communications with divine beings as well as references to his own possible mental illness. The DO notified the charged employee of her proposal to separate him from the Foreign Service and provided him the opportunity to reply in person or in writing. The DO recommended separating the charged employee to promote the efficiency of the Service. The charged employee did not respond in person or in writing to the DO’s notification of her proposal to separate him from the Service recommendation or participate in the separation hearing. The Board found the Department did not establish cause to separate the charged employee because the DO did not consider the so-called Douglas Factor #11 on the agency’s checklist that relates to mitigating circumstances surrounding personality problems, and did not exercise the agency’s authority under 3 FAM 6164.3(a) to initiate a disability retirement on behalf of the charged employee as an alternative to disciplinary action.

[…]

We do not claim medical or psychological expertise, but, in our perusal of the record, we found indicators that the charged employee was described as exhibiting personality problems, and possibly more serious mental impairment or illness, from the emails and text messages he sent to former colleagues. For example, in specification 84, the charged employee is charged with offering to help Ms. B draft a complaint and get himself fired and committed to a mental hospital for the rest of his life. Also, in specifications 86 and 87, respectively, the charged employee is alleged to have first made reference to someone wanting him to commit suicide, then later noted asking God if his wife would commit suicide and informing Ms. D that the Virgin Mary told him to inform Ms. D that he knew she was worried that he might kill himself. Further, the charged employee displayed unusual behavior when he emailed Ms. B on June 6, 2017 at 8:31 p.m. that he had declined to see a psychiatrist before consulting attorneys about his options to file a lawsuit.11 That suggests the possibility that someone raised with the charged employee the matter of seeking a psychological consultation or examination.
In addition, DS ROI #1 included a statement by the charged employee’s wife that she believed her husband suffered from mental impairment, requiring medical treatment. The record further contains evidence, according to the spouse, that MED had conducted a thorough mental health evaluation of the charged employee on four separate dates. Similarly, DS ROI #2 concluded that the charged employee had expressed that he heard voices and instructions from God, the Devil, and the Virgin Mary. (See Specifications 6-8, 25, 29, 38, 76 and 87).
[…]
In the instant case, while the agency has provided credible evidence that the charged employee’s conduct does not promote the efficiency of the Service, we find the decision falls short on consideration of so-called Douglas Factor #11 on the agency’s checklist that relates to personality problems as a mitigating factor. We also credit the charged employee’s 19 years of distinguished service before his display of conduct that gave rise to the LOR and the proposal to separate him from the Service.12
Moreover, the Board is unaware of a requirement that a DO must be privy to private medical information or be a medical professional to initiate an application for disability retirement. To the contrary, under 3 FAM 6164.2-3, HR/ER, in consultation with MED, can initiate an application for disability retirement on behalf of an employee if, inter alia, 1) the agency has issued a proposal to remove the employee, 2) the agency has a reasonable basis to conclude that illness may be the cause of the employee’s conduct which renders him unable to work satisfactorily, or 3) the employee is incompetent and there is no guardian willing to file an application on the employee’s behalf. The existence of any one of these three conditions is sufficient for the agency to initiate an action for disability retirement, and the Board finds that the conditions in 1) and 2), supra, are apparent in this case.
Accordingly, the Board is of the view that the agency has not considered all mitigating factors before recommending separation for cause and has not exercised its authority to initiate, as an alternative to separation, the option of a disability retirement for the charged employee where grounds for such a retirement are apparent on the record. Pursuant to 3 FAM 6164.3(a), MED then would determine whether the charged employee is incapacitated for useful and efficient service, which is the standard for disability retirement.

@StateDept Did Not Comply With Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) Requirements

 

Via FSGB: FSGB Case No. 2018-003
HELD – The Board granted grievant’s appeal, finding that the U.S. Department of State (Department) did not comply with the requirements of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) when it failed to provide grievant with a reasonable accommodation for her disability. The Board directed, among other things, that the parties engage in the interactive process required under the ADA to determine a reasonable accommodation.
SUMMARY – Due to a lengthy illness with cancer grievant, while serving on a limited noncareer appointment in the consular skill code, did not receive an Employee Evaluation Report (EER) from an overseas posting. A Commissioning and Tenure Board (CTB) deferred a decision on tenure until she was able to be appraised on her performance at an overseas posting. The Department assigned grievant to an overseas posting to enable her to receive such an EER. However, as a consequence of her chemotherapy, grievant experienced neuropathy in her hands, and she developed an allergy to nickel. Accordingly, she requested that she be permanently reassigned assigned to the economic skill code, which she said would require handling a smaller volume of materials. The Department denied that accommodation request but did provide her with special office equipment that it said would address her nickel allergy. Grievant continued to experience neuropathy during her overseas assignment and was medically curtailed from post without receiving an EER. As a result, her next CTB recommended that she not receive tenure, and the Department terminated her appointment. The Board held that the Department failed to meet the requirement under the ADA and Department regulations to engage with an employee with a qualifying disability, such as grievant, in an “interactive process” to determine a reasonable accommodation. Although grievant’s request to be permanently reassigned to another skill code would be a “last resort” under Department regulations, that did not relieve the Department of the duty to consider other options such as assigning grievant to positions in the consular skill code that did not involve processing large numbers of passport and visa applications. Further, the Department had an ongoing duty to find a reasonable accommodation when it became clear that the accommodation it did provide was not effective. Accordingly, the Board directed that when grievant was cleared medically to serve in an overseas posting, the parties engage in the interactive process to identify an effective accommodation for grievant’s disability.

 

New USAID appointee’s transfer is “being greeted with all the excitement of a root canal”

 

 

FSGB 2020-008: Voluntarily Curtail Under Threat of Involuntary Curtailment or a Bad EER

 

Via FSGB 2020-008
Grievant is a tenured FP-02 Diplomatic Security Special Agent assigned as the Regional Security Officer (“RSO”) at U.S. Embassy [REDACTED] from June 2, 2017 until her involuntary curtailment on May 30, 2019. On July 3, 2019 she filed a complaint with the Department’s Office of Civil Rights (“S/OCR”) alleging sex, disability and age discrimination and reprisal for prior protected activity. In her S/OCR complaint dated July 3, 2019, she alleged 10 separate incidents of discrimination or reprisal by her rater, the Deputy Chief of Mission (“DCM”). She also alleged that at a May 8, 2019 meeting with the Ambassador (her reviewer), the rater and other senior officials, the Ambassador asked her to voluntarily curtail. When she refused, her rater informed her that her Employee Evaluation Report (“EER”) from April 16, 2018 to April 15, 2019 would contain a negative review statement. She ultimately declined to voluntarily curtail.
[…]
Grievant’s recitation of the facts – the underlying transactions – are contained in her agency filing as she has not yet filed her supplemental submission where she would have an opportunity to refine further her claims and remedies. In that filing, she provides extensive background chronicling allegations of sex and other forms of discrimination by her rater, the DCM. She also describes in detail four instances in which she invoked the displeasure of the Ambassador, her reviewer, for raising concerns that his actions or proposed actions constituted security risks. She then describes the removal of laudatory language in the draft rater’s statement and the circumstances surrounding her involuntary curtailment where she claims the DCM threatened to insert a negative reviewer’s statement into her previously drafted EER. She attributes both of these actions to retaliation for informing the DCM that she was initiating S/OCR proceedings.
From footnote, p.9:
“In stating I was going to seek EEO counsel and AFSA guidance related to discrimination I faced from the DCM, as I believe there were reprisal protections in place, I never envisioned I would face retaliation in the form of an involuntarily curtailment. It was only after I stated I was going to seek EEO counseling and AFSA guidance related to the DCM’s changes to the rater statement and then my refusal to voluntarily curtail under threat of involuntarily curtailment that a review statement which contained alleged performance issues materialized in retaliation for not acquiescing to the Front Office’s discrimination and reprisal.”
The FSGB Board issued the following order:
“… the Department’s Motion to Dismiss is denied in its entirety. Since the Department did not consider grievant’s claims on the merits, the Board remands the case to the Department for a decision on the merits. The Department should advise the Board of its decision not later than 45 days from the date of this order. Pending that decision, the Board retains jurisdiction of the case. Once the Department’s amended decision has been issued, grievant will have 60 days to amend her grievance appeal to the Board. In the meantime, the proceedings before the Board are stayed. The timeline for discovery will start anew when grievant files her amended appeal or advises the Board that no such amended appeal will be forthcoming.”
The FSGB files are not readable online; the files have to be downloaded first. Click here and locate FSGB 2020-008 from “Decision and Orders 2020” to read the full Motion to Dismiss order.

US Mission Saudi Arabia Now on Voluntary Evacuation After COVID-19 Cases Leaked #HoldOn

On Monday,  June 29, 2020, the State Department issued an updated Travel Advisory for Saudi Arabia announcing that on Wednesday, June 24, it authorized the voluntary evacuation of nonemergency personnel and family members from the US Mission in Saudi Arabia. This includes Embassy Riyadh, and the consulates general in Jeddah and Dhahran. The order was issued “due to current conditions in Saudi Arabia associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.”

On June 24, 2020, the Department of State authorized the departure of non-emergency U.S. personnel and family members from the U.S. Mission to Saudi Arabia, which is comprised of the Embassy in Riyadh and the Consulates General in Jeddah and Dhahran, due to current conditions in Saudi Arabia associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Apparently, dozens of mission employees got sick last month, and many more were quarantined. A third country national working as a driver for the mission’s top diplomats had reportedly died. The Embassy’s Emergency Action Committee “approved the departure for high risk individuals” but the State Department “denied” the request advising post  “to do whatever it can to hold on until the Covid problem improves.”
Whatthewhat? Hold on is the plan?
Also that “more recently, officials on the embassy’s emergency action committee recommended to Mr. Abizaid that most American employees should be ordered to evacuate, with only emergency personnel staying. Mr. Abizaid has not acted on that.”
Reminds us of what happened at some posts back in March (Is @StateDept Actively Discouraging US Embassies From Requesting Mandatory Evacuations For Staff? #CentralAsia? #Worldwide?). COVID-19 Pandemic Howler: “No one in DC, to include S, gives AF about AF”.  More recently, reports of COVID-19 cases at US Embassy Kabul (US Embassy Kabul: As Many as 20 People Infected With COVID-19 (Via AP).  Where else?

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Foreign Service Posts Celebrate #PrideMonth #LGBTI #HappyPride2020

 

Inbox: I spent several years as a DS special agent and observed systemic racism at the federal level

 

Via email received from Foggy Bottom:
I spent several years as a DS special agent and observed systemic racism even at the federal level.  While most of my time was spent overseas doing meaningful work alongside some amazing people, the first three months of my long initial training was at the federal law enforcement training center in Brunswick, GA– coincidentally the very same town in which Ahmaud Arbery was killed.  It was eye opening, and often not in a positive way.
That massive academy in southeast Georgia trains everyone from DS and the Secret Service and U.S. Marshals to the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Bureau of Prisons.  It was all too common to hear horribly racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, and homophobic comments while in the chow hall, the gym, or most egregiously at the campus bar.  If this was how some new recruits viewed the world, how could anyone expect them to behave impartially and fairly.  Fairly young at the time with no prior experience in weapons or tactics, the advice given to me when I started was “keep your mouth closed and your head down.” That I did, although looking back, shamefully so.
When I finished training and made it to the field office, I thought I had escaped those types of officers.  In DS, the average new hire had at least a Masters degree and fluency in a foreign language, not to mention had to pass rigorous interviews and assessments.  Months into my first assignment we had a presentation from a Diplomat in Residence (DIR) – who spoke to our field office about the next generation of employees.  She spoke of the Foreign Service reputation as “too male, Yale, and pale” and gave a fantastic rundown of diversity recruitment programs.
The following day while eating lunch after a law enforcement operation with about a half dozen new agents who had just graduated from BSAC, one expressed his disgust at the Ambassador’s remarks and more notably, referred to this Senior Foreign Service DIR as a “Black b****.”  That wasn’t even the worst of what he said.  I was horrified.  His beliefs – spoken in a public restaurant in a major city – were blatantly racist and more troublesome, represented what I believed to be dangerous when held by someone carrying a gun and a badge.  I walked out of the restaurant alone mid-meal shaking from what I heard but didn’t have the strength to confront him.  I was ashamed that someone like that wore the same badge and swore the same oath in front of the Secretary of State as me.
I ultimately left law enforcement several years later for a better fit for my family.  I worked with overwhelmingly good people, many whom I remain friends with and who have expressed their own horror and condemnation over these last few days.  The best agents I know do not hesitate to confront the small cadre of morally repugnant bigots.  These are the men and women who I still look up to, despite no longer working in their field.
An old friend sent me screenshots of a conversation that took place [recently] in a private Facebook group for DS agents.  One agent called into question the troubling experiences of her African-American DS colleague, writing in rejection to his clearly-firsthand accounts “that’s strange because I’ve been in law enforcement for 20 years and never heard any of that from any of my sisters and brothers in blue.”  When pressed on her naiveté, she doubled down with something so gross that I won’t even quote here but ask any of the hundreds of DS agents present on that social media page.  She was appropriately shunned and humiliated by her bosses and peers for showing her true colors and will face the consequences, but anyone in law enforcement who pretends that systemic racism doesn’t exist should do the responsible thing and hand in your gun and badge now before your beliefs affect your actions.  If colleagues had stood up to officers like Derek Chauvin, maybe it would have prevented a death.
Meanwhile, also in Foggy Bottom:

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Post of the Month: In a Time of Pandemic, a U.S. Embassy Launches a Witch Hunt

“Your previous article has really stirred things up …. a lot of retaliation against who people think might have written you…which is now a large group of suspects…”

Related posts:

Is @StateDept Actively Discouraging US Embassies From Requesting Mandatory Evacuations For Staff? #CentralAsia? #Worldwide? March 23, 2020

DGHR Notifies HR Employees of Measures to Manage COVID-19 in SA-1  

 

We learned from two sources that State Department DGHR Carol Perez sent out an email notice to HR Employees on “Measures to Manage COVID-19 in SA-1 ” on the evening of March 24.  SA-1 is a State Department annex office located on E Street in Columbia Plaza A & B that includes multiple agency tenants like the HR (now GTM) bureau and the Bureau of Administration.

“GTM was notified today of a presumptive positive case of COVID-19 in SA-1.  The person has been out of the office since the close of business Thursday, March 19.”

The email went on to describe the measures the State Department has undertaken including the A bureau cordoning off “space on the floor where the person works for disinfection.” The DGHR’s email notified HR employees that MED and the Bureau of Administration supervised a vendor conducting “a deliberate and professional disinfection of those spaces.”
“The disinfected spaces will be safe for re-occupation tomorrow, March 25,” the DGHR writes. Her email also told employees that “Areas contiguous to those spaces (hallways, elevators) continue to be safe for use” and that  GTM (HR) “remains operational, and the rest of SA-1 remains open as a worksite. ”
The notice ends with a reminder that employees should be aware of CDC guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19 and says that “ Employees should stay home and not come to work if they feel sick or have symptoms of illness.” Employees are also reminded if they are at work to “wash their hands frequently and employ social distancing” and that “Directorates and Offices should not engage in group events of 10 or more individuals at this time.”
DGHR’s closing line said “The health and safety of our employees remains our top priority.  Please take care of yourselves and each other.”
One source told us that the DGHR message was apparently sent only to those in the HR (GTM) bureau. Sender A asks:

“If someone working in HR was exposed, then, ostensibly, does that not mean that anyone else working in that same building (SA-1) might also have been exposed irrespective of whether or not they work for HR? Or that customers of that HR officer who visited SA-1 might’ve been? I mean, really? Are we REALLY stove piping info like this?!”

A second source told us that this was the approach the Consular Affairs bureau took in communicating about the positive case of COVID-19 in SA-17
We don’t know if the presumptive positive case is with HR or the A bureau, but if it’s the latter, it would be weird for HR employees to be notified but not the A bureau, hey?
The top official who says “The health and safety of our employees remains our top priority” can do better communicating information about COVID-19 cases within the State Department. We were informed that there is still “no central info on cases department-wide or measures individual embassies are taking to share best practices or information on gravity of situation.” Note that MED said it is tracking cases. See COVID-19 Tracker: State Department and Foreign Service Posts (March 25 Update).
We’re having a hard time understanding that. This is an agency that takes notes about everything but is unable to track this virus in domestic offices and overseas posts?
These are scary times, no doubt but remember the human. I often do yard work these days to keep my anxiety down or I won’t get anything done.  Different folks deal with anxieties, uncertainties and fears differently, except that it gets more difficult to do absent relevant needed information. Do folks really want to see rumors flying around the annexes? As often said, rumors express and gratify the emotional needs of the community. It occupies the space where that need is not meet, and particularly when there is deficient communication.
Valued employees deserve more.