US Embassy Brunei: Ambassador Shields Gets High Marks for Leadership and Mission Success

US Embassy Bandar Seri Begawan in the Sultanate of Brunei is a small post with 8 U.S. direct-hire Department employees and 64 locally employed (LE) staff. Representatives of the Department of Defense, the Foreign Commercial Service, and other U.S. agencies are nonresident and provide regional support. The total mission budget for FY 2011 was $3.3 million. Actual costs for operations in FY 2010 totaled $3.5 million. The mission is headed by an East Asia hand, Ambassador Daniel L. Shields III who arrived in March 2011, with Alexander L. Barrasso as Deputy Chief of Mission.

State’s OIG recently released its inspection report of the embassy with the following key judgments:

  • Under the assured leadership of a strong Ambassador and deputy chief of mission (DCM), Embassy Bandar Seri Begawan’s small and relatively inexperienced staff is a productive and cohesive team. In areas such as trade, military-to-military relationships, and educational exchanges, the embassy is materially advancing the bilateral relationship.
  • The front office effectively manages interagency coordination and communication, bringing together resident and nonresident staff in common pursuit of mission goals.
  • American employees do multiple jobs and necessarily serve as backups to other colleagues, often with little training. Any absences and gaps strain the remaining American staff. The information management staff may need an additional position, and the political/economic/consular officer position should be made permanent.
  • Brunei will chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2013, placing additional stress on the staff as the embassy supports several high-level visitors.
  • The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) completed construction of a new small embassy in Bandar Seri Begawan in 2010 and considers this a model for future small embassies. The Office of Inspector General (OIG) team identified issues (some of which are discussed in the classified annex) that should be considered in designing and building future standard secure mini-compounds.

New embassy building in Brunei opened in November 2010 and is the first standard secure mini-compound built by OBO
(Photo from US Embassy Brunei)

The IG inspectors also have very nice things to say about the ambassador and his second in command:

Led by the Ambassador, excellent communication and collaboration among the embassy, regional centers, the Washington interagency community, and U.S. firms and universities produced notable advances in trade, security cooperation, and educational exchanges with Brunei. In the embassy’s most outstanding success, Sikorsky representatives commented that the 2011 sale of 12 Blackhawk helicopters to the Bruneian military, a $325 million deal that will support 1,100 U.S. jobs, would not have been possible without the embassy’s leadership.

The Ambassador encourages frequent, lively, inclusive, and dissent-friendly debates on mission objectives and strategy. This approach ensures staff buy-in and keeps the mission’s assessment of its objectives and tactics fresh and current. Embassy personnel understand the Ambassador’s priorities: a more robust security relationship with Brunei; successful commercial and trade advocacy; increased educational exchanges; and a greater Bruneian contribution to regional and international stability. Members of the country team commented approvingly to the OIG team that mission goals are realistic, practical, and achievable. Employees understand and are comfortable with their particular roles in meeting overall objectives.

Mission employees see the Ambassador and DCM as excellent leaders unified in outlook and practice and complementary in their skills. American staff members particularly appreciate the Ambassador’s accessibility and affability, his well-defined vision and lucid instructions, and his obvious interest in their professional and personal welfare. Embassy personnel described the front office team as experts on substance, fair, open-minded, good listeners, responsive, and generous with accolades. The willingness of the Ambassador and DCM to give section heads considerable freedom to manage their portfolios and staffs is welcomed as an empowering vote of trust and confidence. The Ambassador’s weekly one-on-one meetings with each American staff member, combined with the weekly encounter as the country team, provide regular opportunities for give-and-take and emphasize to employees the Ambassador’s interest and availability.

Morale among the eight U.S. direct-hire staff is high; they are collegial and support each other well. Given the small staffing and backup requirements, the degree of cooperation is worth noting. There is no recreation association and no need for one. Food in the local markets is plentiful and internationally sourced.

As to how many hats can one person wear … obviously as many as necessary in a small post like Bandar:

The initiative and activity of the embassy produces significant achievements but at a cost of wear and tear on its limited staff. The OIG team heard several versions of the question: “How many hats can one person wear?” The requirement to do multiple jobs and to serve as backup to one or more colleagues—whether trained for that particular task or not—is a given for American staff. The OIG team found officers and specialists genuinely enthusiastic about their work and wanting to do their best, but stress is common. The prospect of the additional demands in 2013, when Brunei will host the annual ASEAN summit and ancillary high-level international meetings, is creating anxiety among some staff.

Not unheard of in small missions.  Hopefully, they will get some help before the VIPs descend on them next year.  Nice to read a report of a well-run mission for a change where the staff did not run off to the war zone or complain to the press about adjustments to the height of all the tables in the embassy.

Domani Spero