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A Joke That Wasn’t, and a State Department Dialogue That Is Long Overdue

Posted: 2:41 am ET

Apparently, there was a recent Sounding Board (SB) post about how “a DS agent made a rape joke in front of a whole class (60+) without thinking anything of the joke.”

It took us a while but we finally got the SB post dug up what was said during the Security Overseas Seminar (SOS), which is designed to meet the security awareness needs of U.S. Government personnel and their families going overseas.

An employee posted on the Secretary’s Sounding Board that she first attended the SOS seminar five years ago and felt that the “Sexual Assault  & Rape” session was “both incomplete and demeaning to sexual assault victims (who the instructor largely assumed were always female).” During her most recent attendance, she writes that she was “disappointed by the same message: there are ways to prevent sexual assault/rape, no mention of what the Regional Security Officer can/will do,” and “no mention of the Health Unit’s, etc. involvement.”

The majority of the course is said to be focused on what employees and family members can do to prevent sexual assault: institute the “buddy system,” avoid isolated areas, dress like a local, etc.  The employee asks what about the 84% of all reported sexual assault/rapes being committed by someone that the victim trusted, or women who were raped in an open and crowded area in Germany or “are we saying that women from cultures where they are required to cover from head to toe never get raped because they are entirely hidden?” The SB post says that the employee asked the instructor “why were we not discussing the main cause of sexual assault/rape: gender socialization, particularly focusing on male privilege and entitlement to women’s bodies?”   The instructor reportedly responded that “we cannot change an entire culture in an hour” to which the employee agreed but urge that “we nevertheless begin a dialogue on this topic.”

That’s not, of course, the end of this story.  The following is from the same SB writer sent to us by a Foggy Bottom nightingale:

“The next day, I overheard four people (3 men and 1 woman) exchanging pejorative comments about what I had said. One of the men (a DS [Diplomatic Security] agent who as RSO [regional security officer] will be a victim’s first recourse in the event of a crisis) exclaimed that he would like to “see how I do in Port Moresby.” Allow me to break down this hurtful comment: he wants to see how I do in a country where women can still be tortured to death on charges of witchcraft when a natural death occurs in the family; a country where the Australian health attach showed up at a diplomatic reception after abandoning her car when she was randomly targeted in a mob rush while driving. Because I wanted to begin a dialogue on male privilege, its effects on rape culture, and how I found “tips” on “sexual assault/rape prevention” to be a covert form of victim-shaming, this man, this Diplomatic Security agent, commented on how he wanted to see me, a woman, fare in a country that is known for its hight incidents of rape against ex-pat women. And this gentleman is my colleague, not an obnoxious drunk man at a local dive bar. When I turned around and asked if they wanted to discuss what I had said, one said he didn’t see the point, the other told me how my comment was inappropriate in an one-hour session. No further comments made. How is this dialogue not overdue? (Note: I am not seeking to shame or put-down my colleagues for saying what they assumed was far and away from my hearing range. This is more to highlight the amount of tension surrounding this topic.”

Hey — if one cannot talk about this topic in an SOS session, where are you supposed to discuss this?

We wrote to the Office of Civil Rights under Secretary Kerry’s office (S/OCR) asking what response it made (if any) to the Sounding Board post. That was, oh, weeks ago so we figure we’re not going to hear from S/OCR.

The nightingale also said that “any time a female coworker brings up EEO, rape culture, or feminism in general,” DS agents the employee worked with allegedly make comments like “Ugh, don’t work with her, she’ll EEO you.” or “She probably has a ton of files on men”.   Our correspondent told us that she could think of a number of situations “with bullying, harrasment, and such” that were all documented by supervisors but nothing was done about them.  Our writer also alleged that “a good portion joke about rape or sexual assault on a daily basis.”

Which is why we wanted to hear from the State Department office tasked as the main contact point for questions or concerns about sexual harassment and EEO matters.

But hey, nada. Yok.

What’s even more troubling is when we see these reviews for the State Department over at InHerSight.com:

“I, and a lot of other females, are considering leaving, or have left, because of the misogyny. Diplomatic Security is the absolute worst.” – See more at: https://www.inhersight.com/company/us-department-of-state#sthash.5rVrFJHX.dpuf

“Working in a predominately male field means tacky and disrespectful jokes regardless if the two females (who are of equal or higher grade) are in earshot or not. 50% of the men who work in this office are prior military folks who have a disrespectful attitude towards females and men without military experience. Despite being the “State Department” which is usually more liberal and tolerant, the Bureau that I work in is the exact opposite. It shows through upper management all the way down to the bullpen workers.” – See more at: https://www.inhersight.com/company/us-department-of-state#sthash.5rVrFJHX.dpuf

We asked the State Department about the gender composition of DSS agents in Diplomatic Security: 90.18% male and 9.82% female.  We also asked about the attrition rate by gender at the bureau. Below is what we’re officially told:

DS reports that they do not have information related to special agent attrition rate by gender. They do not keep those statistics, but note that the overall Special Agent attrition rate for 2015 was 3.66%.

The State Department’s DGHR should be able to run these numbers. That’s a very low attrition rate but — don’t you want to know who and why these employees are leaving?  If a bureau is overwhelmingly male, and if the entire attrition rate is, for instance, composed of all female employees, aren’t you going to wonder why?

But how would you know if you’re not even looking?

The InHerSight reviews are pretty broad but are troubling nonetheless. The first step in fixing a problem is recognizing that there is a problem.  Is there?

Who’s going to volunteer to look into this if we can’t even get S/OCR to respond to a public inquiry?

 

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NEA and SPP Language Divisions Moving Out of the Foreign Service Institute?

Posted: 12:47 am EDT

 

The Foreign Service Institute is located at the George P. Shultz National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC) in Arlington, Virginia.  An expansion of facilities on FSI’s 72-acre campus in 2010 added 100 classrooms. About 2,000 students are on campus daily.

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It looks like that expansion is not enough.  There is apparently a lot of rumors circulating that the SPP and NEA language divisions will be moving out of SA-42 (FSI) to “a new space somewhere along the Orange line.”  We understand that this topic has lighted up the Secretary’s Sounding Board, never mind that JK is traveling.

This rumored move, if true, would reportedly affect 1) the Division of Near East Central, and South Asian Languages (FSI/SLS/NEA) which directs, designs and conducts proficiency-based language training for Arabic, Near Eastern, Turkic, Central and South Asian languages; and 2) the Division of Slavic, Pashto, and Persian Languages (FSI/SLS/SPP) which directs, designs, and conducts proficiency-based language training for all Slavic languages including Bosnian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Czech, Macedonian, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, and Ukrainian, Pashto and Persian languages including Dari, Tajiki, and Farsi.

People are apparently not happy about this rumored move. Some are posting questions on the Board, and hoping to find some clarity on what to expect next. Here are some of the employees’ concerns over the future of language training at FSI:

  • Looking for transparency:  “Given the massive number of employees this change will impact, both students and instructors, can we get a little transparency on what’s going on?”  One commenter writes that many find it “odd that language studies, arguably the priority purpose of FSI, would see such a huge change with little to no public discussion or outreach from FSI.”
  • Long-term vs. short-term: Why was the decision made to move long-term language studies (9-12 months in length in many cases) instead of short-term and intermittent courses (leadership, regional training, stability operations, area studies, world languages, etc.)?
  • Co-location: Will the new facilities be co-located with language division administration? This is a big deal in the event that a student has to make changes with class assignment).
  • Transportation/Commute/Parking : How will people commute to the new facilities? Is there a bus? Is there equally priced parking available nearby? Concerns that transportation issue affect not just students but also many of the language instructors and staff who live quite far from FSI and even further from Rosslyn, where there is a shuttle.
  • Language Lab/Tools: Are the language learning tools available at the new facilities? Language labs are a big part of reaching proficiency standards, will students have to go back to FSI in order to access labs?
  • Daycare: For personnel with kids, employees are interested whether they will have access to daycare. When transferring or rotating assignments, Foreign Service personnel with young kids rely heavily on the availability of reliable and accessible childcare at FSI. “The provision of childcare has always helped alleviate some of the stresses associated with the rigors of intensively learning a new language.” Depending on the new location, there is also the potential for disruption in the Oakwood housing program.
  • Town Hall: One requested a town hall meeting with the FSI administration for current and future students in the languages affected “so people can ask questions and get more information as they begin to plan for language training.”

 

We should note that both the NEA and SPP language divisions are part of FSI’s School of Language Studies (SLS). The School of Language Studies (SLS), with 684 staff members, 3 overseas schools, and 11 regional language programs, offers training and testing in more than 70 languages.   According to the OIG, SLS is the largest of FSI’s schools, with a base budget of $33.5 million in FY 2012 and a total budget of $46.7 million, which includes $5.5 million in reimbursements from other agencies.

In December 2012, SLS had 684 staff members: 374 direct-hire employees and 310 full-time equivalent contractors. SLS is managed by a dean and two associate deans and is composed of a testing division, five language divisions, a Curriculum and Staff Development division, and an administrative section. SLS trains employees of the Department, USAID, and other agencies in 70 languages ranging from Spanish to super hard languages such as Korean.

In any case, there is a slow train for consolidation humming in the State Department. One of Diplomatic Security’s arguments for building the FASTC in Virginia instead of Georgia is so all the training programs can be in one location.  Just recently, the IRM training located in Warrenton, VA had also been moved to the FSI campus. If the NEA/SPP move is true, is this SLS’ initial move at dispersing its divisions?

If true, the question then becomes “why”?

The most recent OIG inspection of FSI is dated March 2013. That report notes that “SLS needs organizational and programmatic changes to strengthen pedagogy, coordination, and strategic planning. Outside review of a portion of recorded language test samples and other steps are required to address the inherent conflict of interest of SLS instructors serving as testers.” The report made 79 recommendations and 23 informal recommendations, however, we could not locate one specifically related to NEA/SPP, or the school’s expansion or spin off location outside of FSI.

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New Sounding Board Topic: “Please don’t share the Sounding Board with Al Kamen.”

Posted: 2:53 am EDT

 

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We have it in good authority that there is now a hopeless new Sounding Board topic that says, “Please don’t share the Sounding Board with Al Kamen.”

C’mon, folks. Don’t do this. People should be able to talk freely about rodents and critters with whoever they want, even Al. Like  the song goes … ♫ let it go, let it go,  don’t hold back, it’s only about the damn rats ♬

Oh, but there’s something else, please cover your eyes if you don’t want to see this but … last year somebody unearthed a Mike Causey column from the Washington Post that talks about … you guess it, rats.  The Ghost of DC says this was published on October 7th, 1968.

1968! That was before all of you were born.

But there’s good news.  An average rat’s life span is 2-3 years. The bad news? Apparently, according to Discover Magazine, a female rat can mate as many as 500 times with various males during a six-hour period of receptivity—a state she experiences about 15 times per year. Thus a pair of brown rats can produce as many as 2,000 descendants in a year if left to breed unchecked.  See  20 Things You Didn’t Know About… Rats

Ugh! So, clearly, the old plan from 1968 still works: the rats must be stopped now before the Government gets bogged down in another unwanted ground war. Sign-up sheets over there.

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US Embassy Bangui: 15% Danger Post With Terrifically Bad Trimmings, It’s Not Alone –Wassup Cairo?

State/OIG recently posted its inspection report of the US Embassy in Bangui, a 15% danger pay post, as well as a 35% COLA and 35% hardship differential pay assignment.  The inspection took place in Washington, DC, between September 10 and 28, 2012, and in Bangui, the Central African Republic, between November 5 and 12, 2012.

The diplomatic mission is headed by Ambassador Laurence D. Wohlers, a career diplomat.  The deputy chief of mission is Brennan M. Gilmore. The embassy temporarily suspended operations on December 28, 2012, as a result of the security situation in the country.  We’ve blogged about it here.

Here are the key findings from the OIG report:

  • The Department of State’s (Department) inability to staff Embassy Bangui adequately has prevented it from functioning as an effective mission.
  • Embassy Bangui, a 15-percent danger pay post, faces numerous threats
  • If the Department cannot adequately staff and protect the embassy, it needs to consider whether the risks to personnel in Bangui are justified or find another way to maintain diplomatic representation in the Central African Republic, such as regional accreditation from a nearby embassy.
  • Post leadership has not developed a sense of team and unity of purpose.
  • Embassy reporting is excellent and appreciated by Washington consumers.
  • Embassy Bangui is unable to provide sufficient administrative support in house and would benefit from more support from larger embassies in the region.
  • Information systems security and management is inadequate. There is no U.S. direct-hire information management employee at the embassy, and temporary support does not provide sufficient oversight.

Quick background of US Embassy Bangui via the OIG report:

The United States has had diplomatic relations with the Central African Republic since its independence from France in 1960. The U.S. embassy in Bangui was closed in 1997 and again in 2002 in response to political and physical insecurity. The embassy reopened in 2005, and a resident U.S. Ambassador was appointed in 2007.

Embassy Bangui is staffed by 7 U.S. direct hires, 2 local-hire Americans, and 35 locally employed (LE) staff members. One temporary liaison officer from the U.S. Army’s Africa Command represents the only other agency at the mission. The embassy’s total funding is $3.6 million. OIG conducted a management assessment review in 2004. At that time the American staff had been evacuated and only the LE staff was present.

Front Office Report Card:

The OIG report also details some of the Front Office shortcomings, primarily on leadership, morale and communication issues. No mention on how well or how badly the senior leadership did in their OIG questionnaires. Excerpt below from the IG report:

  • The Ambassador arrived in September 2010 and the deputy chief of mission (DCM) in July 2011. They constitute a team that is particularly strong in outreach and reporting and have successfully weathered a series of management challenges. They are not as successful when it comes to leadership and morale.
  • Despite the embassy’s small size, executive direction is more hierarchical than collegial. A weekly country team meeting provides the Ambassador an opportunity to inform the team on his recent contacts with senior government officials. The communication from the country team to the Ambassador is not as effective. Notwithstanding weekly, topical staff meetings and monthly town hall gatherings with LE staff, some of the American and LE staff members feel distanced from the front office.
  • The DCM has broad executive responsibilities. He supervises the reporting agenda assigned to the first-tour political/economic/consular officer. The officer meets weekly with the DCM and usually the Ambassador as well. The DCM is responsible primarily for military affairs, which include the U.S. Special Forces deployment to the eastern Central African Republic and a rotational U.S. Africa Command liaison officer position.
  • The Ambassador has been effective in his dealings outside the chancery but less so in leading and inspiring his team. In addition, the DCM is overextended. At a mission where security-imposed restrictions on mobility, a tropical climate, daunting health challenges, and a dearth of entertainment test morale in the best of circumstances, the front office has attempted to build better morale. Despite the planning activities discussed earlier, the staff has a poor sense of Embassy Bangui’s place in the larger U.S. diplomatic agenda in Africa and asserts that it is inadequately supported. The OIG team counseled post management to look for more ways to better connect with their employees.

16 TDYs in 20 Months and Other Management Challenges, Holy Smokes!

  • The embassy’s management challenges, however, are not being fully met. The embassy struggled to overhaul its operations after reopening, including doubling its U.S. direct-hire staff, and a major restructuring of LE staffing—all in the absence of a permanent management officer. Excessive dependence on temporary duty support (about 10 temporary duty personnel a month in the past year) has compromised effective use of embassy resources and increased the cost of operating the embassy. Another issue is the Department’s increasing dependence on automated management systems that impose a bureaucratic overhead on small posts with inexperienced staff.
  • Embassy Bangui is too small to have functional depth or to benefit from economies of scale. There are too few people trying to do too much. The U.S. direct-hire staff consists of one management officer and one entry-level general services officer. Because the embassy has been chronically unable to recruit an at-grade, in-cone management officer, there is no permanent U.S. direct-hire management experience at the embassy. The current entry-level general services officer worked under 16 temporary duty management officers in 20 months.

Post was shuttered  in 1997, again in 2002 and once more in 2012. Not sure how many times it had been evacuated, but presumably at least three times as the evacuations typically precedes post closure.  If history is a predictor, the embassy will potentially reopen in 1-3 years and after a brief interval, closes again. We agree with the IG that if the State Dept cannot adequately staff and protect the embassy, it needs to consider whether the risks to personnel in Bangui are justified.  And if it decides that the risks are justified despite post’s many shortcomings, then you want that in writing from the accountable officials.  So if something bad happens, we’d know that a lowly deputy assistant secretary did not go rogue and we won’t need to pick up the flattened DASes thrown under the buses after multiple congressional hearings.

In any case, we noticed that the IG inspectors seem to massaged its  report with phrases such as ” not as successful” or “less [effective] … in leading and inspiring his team” or  is “more hierarchical than collegial.”   That’s sorta like giving you a tall glass of juice to take with an almost bitter pill.

Look, this is a tiny mission with 7 direct hire American employees (an ideal team composition by the way), and a total staff of no more than 50.  Sometimes working at a small post can really pull people together. At other times,  it can make it seem like a 24/7, 365 days a year root canal – you just want to be numb with Novacaine and get out of there.  For now, they’re all out of there except for the local employees. But — can you imagine if you were an entry level officer working for 16 management officers on TDY in a span of 20 months?

While this OIG report highlighted US Embassy Bangui’s Front Office’s less than ideal leadership, morale and communication at post, we should note that the embassy is not alone.

We’ve been hearing for a while now that US Embassy Cairo is suffering from “abysmal morale.” A recent posting on the Secretary’s Sounding Board regarding its 15% hardship diffential is just one part of it. (Apparently it has been at 15% for 15 years  and State sat on Cairo’s differential update request for six months.  Despite  changing conditions in Egypt, State reportedly refused the request with no explanation).  But see – folks normally do not refer to their morale as “abysmal” also known as “appalling” or “extremely bad” if it only has to do with the differential.  Don’t forget the human. Plenty of unhappy people there, the differential is one reason; there are reportedly many more. 

The thing that should give State’s Seventh Floors some pause is — Embassy Bangui has 7 U.S.direct hire. Embassy Cairo’s staffing is 68X that of Bangui’s, with 476 U.S. direct hire and a total staff of 1,874 (at least according to the 2009 OIG staffing numbers).

Perhaps it’s time for the OIG to pay another visit to the land of pharaohs?  The last OIG inspection was in 2009. With upheaval in the host country in the last two years and significantly changing conditions at post, we think Cairo deserves a visit, don’t you?  Oh, and please do keep a close eye on USCG Alexandria.
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Breaking News: State Dept Does Not/Not Like Nipples Nor Damn ACLU Letter

The Foreign Service blog community lit up today with the State Department’s brainless judgement and censorship in action.

A community manager or two running the blog roll at careers.state.gov (managed by the Bureau of Human Resources) has removed the blog of EFM, Jen Dinoia from the list (see The Dinoia Family).

Brainless.  Not only is Jen a spouse of a Diplomatic Security Officer whose family have been in the Service for 14 years, she was diagnosed with breast cancer while her FS husband was in Iraq. She blogged about about her brave fight in her blog, about having a spouse on an unaccompanied tour, and more. Oh, and her husband will soon be on his second unaccompanied tour.

When she asked about the removal of her blog from the list, she received the following response:

Hopefully, you can understand that some topics covered in your blog are very personal in nature, e.g. nipple cozies, and wouldn’t necessarily resonate with the majority of potential candidates who are interested in learning about the FS life overseas. Through our years of recruitment experience, we found that FS prospects want to learn more about the work that’s conducted, the people and cultures with whom they will interact, the travel experiences, and the individual stories our employees* have to share.  

Hopefully, you can see the bureaucratic idiocy on display here. These community managers excuse me, recruitment experts, do not/not know what massive beehive they’ve wandered into.

Nipples (album)

Nipples (album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the State Department folks do no like talk about nipples on the FS blogs it puts in its blog roll. Dammit, who’s giving these folks guidance over there?

If there’s one blog that shows how the State Department has taken care of an employee and his family in a medical emergency, or how the FS community rallied and supported one of its own during one of the most challenging times in a woman’s life, or how a diplomatic spouse juggles life when the employee is off on a year-long assignment in a war zone,  that’s Jen’s blog.  So if these recruitment experts with blog roll pruning scissors actually got beyond the N-word, they wouldn’t have ditched this excellent recruitment material. But they did, which calls into question their expertness.

Dear State Department, if you need to ditch a blog due to offending words like “nipple”, don’t do it the day after you get an ACLU letter talking about first amendment rights.

Because there’s that item about the ACLU writing a letter to the State Department on behalf of FSO, Peter Van Buren, who posted it in the Secretary’s Sounding Board, where it was reportedly flagged with the following:

The State Department has classified the ACLU letter and issued a warning to its busy workers in the hive not to read the letter: “federal employees and contractors who believe they may have inadvertently accessed or downloaded this letter without prior authorization, should contact their information security offices for assistance.”

Here’s what the moderator said:

“The Sounding Board wasn’t designed to handle individually-specific cases, or cases that are under formal review of any sort. Our publishing guidelines state this, but more honestly, there are issues that are much bigger than our two moderators can handle. And yours is one of them. We have to let the procedures set in place, that you’re exercising, run their course.”

This is what happens when you take that slippery slope, it’s like a humongous snowball with no brakes implanted.  If nipples and the ACLU are no good, what’s next, toucans?

One of our blog readers sent this piece with her gotcha quiz:

I see little evidence that this is anything but a cultural difference anchored time. Whereas Defense moved forward, State has remained in the past. Look at the advanced relationship Defense has with social media and even empowerment of its people to engage directly. Compare that with State’s increasing attempts to centralize control of social media and overall public engagement.

In Defense, authorities and lanes are clear. In State, they are fuzzy and mostly dependent on personalities and relationships. Which agency is more effective?

Which agency is more effective?

Why, that’s a no brainer, of course. The one that scrubbed nipples and damn nosy ACLU with its eye-opening letter to bureaucrats from the Internets!

Domani Spero

Updated @14:38 corrections on apparent grammar, spelling bo-bos added.

Updated @22:27 with additional material