FSJ: MED’s Focus on Clearances and Restricting Access to SNEA #NotSupportForFamilies

We’ve blogged previously about the problems encountered by Foreign Service families with the State Department’s Bureau of Medical Services (see StateDept’s MED Services Drive Employees with Special Needs #FSKids Nuts; Also @StateDept’s Blackhole of Pain Inside the Bureau of Medical Services (MED). The latest issue of the Foreign Service Journal features a piece by James Brush who previously worked as a child psychologist at the State Department.

Via FSJ: James Brush, Ph.D., is a child and adolescent psychologist in private practice in Washington, D.C. He worked at the State Department as a child psychologist with the Child and Family Program division of MED Mental Health from January 2013 through March 2016. Prior to his work at State, he had a private practice in Cincinnati, Ohio, for 26 years. A past president of the Ohio Psychological Association, he continues to be involved as a committee chair. 

Below is an excerpt from The Demise of MED’s Child and Family Program (FSJ)

The Child and Family Program within the Bureau of Medical Services’ Mental Health program was constituted in 2013, when the full team was finally in place after years of planning. I was brought onto the team as one of two child psychologists. By March, we had on board a child psychiatrist director, two child psychologists and three clinical social workers who had experience in treating and managing the needs of children and adolescents.

I was on the ground floor of this program, and our mission was both exciting and challenging. This was the first extensive effort within the State Department to support the specific mental health and developmental needs of children, adolescents and their families living abroad.
[…]
By 2015, three of the psychiatrists who were opposed to the CFP functioning as a comprehensive support program ended up having leadership roles in MED. Dr. Stephen Young took over as the director of mental health. Dr. Kathy Gallardo took over as deputy director of mental health, and Dr. Aleen Grabow was brought in as a child psychiatric consultant. Together, they worked toward limiting the scope of the CFP, limiting the SNEA program and reducing the opportunities for families with disabled children through more restrictive use of child mental health clearances.

Within a year of their tenure in leadership, we lost our child psychiatrist director, the two child psychologists and one clinical social worker. I and the other providers left because Drs. Young and Gallardo changed the mission and scope of the CFP. It became an unpleasant place in which to work, with the emphasis being on clearances and restricting access to SNEA. Support for families was no longer the focus. Rather, support services were being cut and the clearance process was being used to restrict the opportunities of those with disabled children.

The program is now a skeleton of what it was previously, with only one social worker, one child psychologist and one retired Foreign Service psychiatrist. Telemedicine is forbidden. The program now basically performs an administrative function, processing clearances and SNEA requests.

Read the entire piece here.

We understand that State/OIG is aware of some allegations related to the special needs education allowance (SNEA) and is doing “exploratory work”. Well, Dr. Brush’s account should be instructive.  This is not one of the employees battling the bureaucracy on behalf of their children, this is one of the people who used to work at MED.

While we might be tempted to think that the troubling response could be some form of retaliation for blowing this issue up in the media, it is hard to imagine that MED’s policy and focus on restricting access to SNEA and the medical clearance do not have the full blessings of the State Department leadership all the way to the 7th Floor. After all, if State really wanted to resolve these cases, it would have worked with these FS families to accommodate their needs, avoid forcing people into taking loans to pay/repay for special ed needs expenses, and it would have afforded families an appeals process (IT. DOESN’T).

And they certainly would not/not have threatened people who pursue this issue, right? RIGHT?

Perhaps, this is what they mean when they talk about the new Department of Swagger? Take it or leave?

(Thought bubble: How long before the proponents of this policy get promotions, Superior Honor Awards or Presidential Rank Awards?)

While the State Department has lifted the hiring freeze, and the A-100 classes are no longer on a hit and miss schedule, it is not clear to us what the new secretary of state’s position on the previously planned 8% shrinkage of the agency workforce. If that was a WH imperative as opposed to Tillerson’s, it would be hard to imagine Secretary Pompeo going against it.

The CRS report on the Department of State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs: FY2019 Budget and Appropriations dated April 18, 2018 and updated on August 9, 2018 notes the following:

The Department of State released guidance in May 2018 lifting the hiring freeze and allowing the department to increase staffing to December 31, 2017, levels. Subsequent press reports indicate that the department intends to hire 454 new employees beyond end of year 2017 levels but also suggest that hiring must be circumscribed by previous commitments former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made to reduce its workforce by 8%.

So this brings us to the “take it or leave” scenario for FS employees with special needs children. Since these kids are given limited medical clearances with no appeals (which precludes most if not all overseas assignments), Foreign Service families will be forced to serve either in domestic assignments in order to stay together; serve separately with employees going overseas, while their families stay in the United States, or employees may opt to pay everything out of pocket and not ask for SNEA to avoid getting snared in MED’s clutches.

Begs the questions: 1) How many career employees would stay on when their employer talk the talk about supporting FS families but know it’s just a gum chewing exercise? And 2)  Is this what a slow walk to 8% looks like??

By the way, if there’s an alternate reasonable explanation for all this that does not require our relocation to the parallel universe, Earth, Too, send us an email, we’d love a good chat.

 

Related items:

 

 

Advertisements

The State Dept’s 360 Degree Feedback as Placement Tool, and Probably, a Lawsuit Waiting to Happen

Posted: 2:05 am EDT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

We have originally written about the 360 degree feedback in 2008 as it started gaining popularity within the State Department. (see Sexing up the 360-Degree Feedback, Revisited). We thought then, and we still think now, that using the 360° feedback for evaluative purposes, (instead of using it primarily for development), especially when a candidate’s next job is on the line can easily transform this useful learning tool into an inflated, useless material with real consequences for operational effectiveness. We understand from comments received this past July, that this is being used as a developmental tool by Consular Affairs and the Leadership and Management School at FSI (see a couple of feedback), but those are, in all likelihood, the two exceptions. The 360 degree feedback is primarily used as an assignments or placement tool.

In 2013, the Marine Corps Times reported that the Pentagon was expanding its use of “360-degree” reviews for senior officers, but legal concerns may limit their inclusion in any formal promotion or command screening process:

Even if there is interest among the brass to formalize the process, there may be big legal hurdles to expanding the 360-review process beyond a strictly confidential tool for self-awareness.

Officers have valid concerns about anonymous and unverified criticisms seeping into the official process for doling out promotions, command assignments or seats at prestigious schools.

If officers feel their career was damaged by a harsh 360-degree review, they might insist on knowing precisely who lodged the criticisms in order to rebut them. And if the confidentiality is questioned, then the whole endeavor ceases to have much value.
[…]
From a legal standpoint, that officer might have a right to file a Freedom of Information Act request to find out who submitted that confidential review.

“The more that’s at stake … the more difficult it will be to maintain the anonymity,” the senior official said. “And, of course, if you don’t maintain the confidentiality, then you have a very different product,” because peers and subordinates will be far less likely to offer candid criticism.

In April 2015, an official Pentagon study concludes that the “360-degree reviews” probably should not be used as a part of the formal military evaluation and promotion process. Below via the Military Times:

[T]he new report cites a long list of legal, cultural and practical concerns that would prevent this type of review’s widespread use in determining who gets selected for promotions, command assignments or slots at prestigious schools.

In 2013, Congress ordered the Defense Department to do a thorough assessment of whether and how 360-degree reviews should be used in the military personnel system.

Rand researchers concluded that the tools should be limited to personnel development programs, which means some troops are subject to 360-degree reviews but the results are provided only to the individual for his or her own benefit, and are not included in any official personnel file.

In the September issue of the Foreign Service Journal, consular-coned officer, William Bent, currently serving at the US Embassy in Barbados pens a Speaking Out piece on the need for the State Department to reevaluate its use of the 360-degree reviews.

Mr. Bent spells out the following concerns as the 360 feedback continue to be used as a placement tool by “assignment decision-makers”:

♨︎ || The reviews are seldom transparent. In current practice, the assessed employee usually has no idea what feedback the deciding official has received, and an employee receiving any negative feedback is rarely, if ever, contacted to discuss the issues raised. This creates the potential for unsubstantiated criticism that can unfairly undermine an employee’s chance for advancement. One does not have to assume deliberate career sabotage here: as a manager, one sometimes has to make unpopular decisions that years later still rankle former subordinates who, because of inexperience, may not have had the full picture.

The Bureau of Consular Affair’s recent development of the Consular Bidder Assessment Tool addresses the issue of transparency by allowing the assessed employee to see the anonymous feedback statements. But the employee is denied the opportunity for a timely discussion of the results (bidders are instructed not to attempt to discuss results until after bidding season is over). This is a surprising approach from the bureau that brought us the innovative CLI.

The DCM/principal officer 360-degree reviews are neither transparent, nor do they provide any opportunity for assessed employees to obtain feedback.

♨︎ || The reviews have little value because the assessed employee chooses the assessor. On the whole, most peers and subordinates resist being frank and candid in their reviews. Having the assessed employee pick his or her own assessors emphasizes this tendency, skewing the results.

It also replicates the EER problem: when everyone walks on water, the decision-makers try to read between the lines, looking for any chinks in an individual’s armor. Paradoxically, this feeds into the concerns discussed above, since any negative review raises bells and whistles and is given extra weight.

♨︎ || Use of 360-degree reviews for purposes other than development remains controversial among human resource experts. Using them to determine assignments is akin to using them as performance appraisals, which some human resource experts see as detrimental to an organization because of its negative effect on personal growth. When the results are not shared in a transparent way, trust is undermined.
[…]
♨︎ || The State Department’s use of 360s in determining assignments was not adequately studied prior to implementation. This practice appears to have been implemented on an ad hoc basis several years ago, with a few bureaus using email as a platform to receive input. The use of 360s has now proliferated, with all bureaus involved in the assignment process utilizing them to make decisions.

Yet there seems to have been no prior centralized review of the ramifications of broad use of the tool on the Foreign Service workforce. The use of SharePoint and other technologies to gather the results also raises confidentiality questions (some 360s have been posted—I assume accidentally—on the State Department’s intranet site).

♨︎ || Some recipients of the results may lack the training and expertise to interpret them effectively. There is a reason there are books and articles written by human resource academics and specialists on how to effectively implement and utilize the 360-degree review process. Has the State Department trained officials using the results in human resource management or the 360-degree review process? Do these officials have goals beyond filling the position in question (e.g., the further career development of an employee)?

Moreover, what role has the Bureau of Human Resources—the one bureau theoretically best placed to manage this process—played in implementing the 360 review requirements? Are career development officers discussing the results of 360s with clients to improve the employee’s chances of strengthening skills?

♨︎ || The annual deluge of 360s creates significant time and resource issues. Let’s face it, the 360 process has become a major time suck for everyone involved, with email inboxes inundated each summer with requests for 360-degree reviews. Although we all have a responsibility to assist our colleagues and the organization as a whole by diligently filling out the reviews, the sheer volume of requests can be overwhelming. This could result in less comprehensive responses that don’t give a full portrait of the assessed employee.

Mr. Bent provides four recommendations including, the immediate suspension of “the use of 360s in the Foreign Service assignment process pending the completion of a study, conducted by an outside consultant, on the effectiveness of their use.”

If the Pentagon’s decision not to jump into the 360 degree bandwagon is not enough to give the State Department pause in its use of the 360 as part of the employes’ assignment process, then perhaps what should give them pause is the potential for privacy and FOIA litigation.  360 results posted online, hello?

We’ve located the Pentagon 360 study conducted by the Rand Corporation. In one part, it quotes a participant of its study saying, “Conventional wisdom in regards to 360-degree assessments from experts and researchers is that the most effective use of 360 assessments is to enhance professional, individual development. Once you change the purpose or intent of a 360 from development to evaluation, you affect the willingness of raters to provide candid or unfettered feedback.” That’s probably the most apt comment when it comes to the 360 degree feedback.

Read Rand’s 360-Degree Assessments: Are They the Right Tool for the U.S. Military? (pdf).

#

 

Related posts:

Insider Quote: “If there were more of us willing to speak up about issues that matter …”

Posted: 12:02 am EDT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

 

Amelia Shaw joined the Foreign Service (public diplomacy cone) in 2014 after careers in journalism and public health. She is currently doing consular work in Tijuana, her first post. She is the 2015 recipient of the W. Averell Harriman Award for Constructive Dissent. Below is an excerpt from Deconstructing Dissent, FSJ | September 2015:

“I am proud that I found a constructive way to take a stand on an issue that matters to me. But I can’t help wondering what the department would look like if there were more of us willing to speak up about issues that matter, large and small, regardless of whether or not we think we can actually change anything. Or as one senior officer pointed out to me, we dissent every day—but the difference is whom we dissent to and how far we are willing to go with it. At heart, it’s a question of integrity. Sometimes just adding your voice is enough.”

— Amelia Shaw
Foreign Service Officer

 #

 

Amb. Charles Ray: America Needs a Professional Foreign Service (via FSJ)

Posted: 12:18 am EDT
[twitter-follow screen_name=’Diplopundit’ ]

Charles A. Ray retired from the Foreign Service in 2012 after a 30-year career that included ambassadorships to Cambodia and Zimbabwe. Ambassador Ray also served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for prisoners of war/missing personnel affairs, deputy chief of mission in Freetown and consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, among many other assignments. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, Amb. Ray spent 20 years in the U.S. Army. He was the first chair of AFSA’s Committee on the Foreign Service Profession and Ethics, and does freelance writing and speaking. He blogs at http://charlesaray.blogspot.com; his Amazon author page is here. Below is an excerpt from FSJ:

Via Speaking Out, Foreign Service Journal, July/August 2015:

If the Foreign Service is to adequately serve the American people now and in the future, it is imperative that it become the professional service intended by legislation over the past 91 years. This is not an easy task. It requires political will from elected leadership to provide the necessary direction and resources. It also requires action on the part of every member of the Foreign Service.

Here are some of the actions I believe are necessary.

Establish a system of professional education for the Foreign Service. Develop a long-term academic training program in diplomacy—either at the Foreign Service Institute or through a cooperative agreement with a university or universities in the Washington, D.C., area—designed to prepare members of the Foreign Service for senior diplomatic responsibilities.

There should be training opportunities post-tenuring and at the mid-level designed to increase individual skills in primary career tracks, while also offering education in diplomacy and leadership.

Every member of the Foreign Service should be required to complete a year of academic study relevant to his or her career track before being eligible for promotion to the Senior Foreign Service.

The department should create a true “training float” of 10 to 15 percent above the level required to staff all authorized positions, to allow Foreign Service personnel to take long-term training without posts and bureaus having to suffer long gaps. This will require a commitment by the department’s leadership not to use these positions to meet future manpower requirements—a practice that consumed the two previous authorizations.

Ensure opportunities for professional development through assignments. In coordination with the White House, the department should ensure that an adequate number of senior positions (assistant secretary, ambassador, deputy assistant secretary, etc.) are designated to be filled by Foreign Service personnel.

Priority should also be given to assignment of Foreign Service personnel to lower-level positions, such as regional office directors and desk officers, as much as possible.

Reconcile the differences between Foreign Service and Civil Service personnel systems. The department must recognize that while both are essential to the success of our mission, the Foreign Service and Civil Service personnel systems are inherently different.

Attempts to obliterate the differences benefit neither, and do not contribute to national security in any meaningful way. Action needs to be taken to improve career prospects within both systems.

Consideration should be given to creating a position of Director of Human Resources responsible for Civil Service personnel, and having the Director General of the Foreign Service responsible only for Foreign Service personnel, as envisioned by the 1946 Act that created the position.

In addition, the Director General should be given more authority over discipline and career development of Foreign Service personnel.

Establish a formal code of ethics for the Foreign Service. An essential element of any career personnel system is a mechanism to provide basic standards and rules and to protect it from political abuse.

The American Foreign Service Association established a Committee on the Foreign Service Profession and Ethics in 2012 with the primary mission to develop such a code. I had the honor of being the first chair of the PEC and am happy to report that significant progress has been made on this during the past three years.

Working with the Institute of Global Ethics, the PEC conducted a worldwide survey of Foreign Service personnel and then began creating a draft code. Information on the PEC’s work can be found on AFSA’s website at www.afsa.org/ethics. Details on the results of the survey on professionalism and ethics can be found at www.bit.ly/1L1LoJq.

Read in full here.

#