Tuesday, December 9, 2014

I'll See You at the Pre-Meeting Meeting

The epitome of bureaucratic silliness is the amount of time spent supporting the bureaucracy. I recently attended a meeting where roughly 20 State Department employees sat in a room and video conferenced (yep, I made it a verb) with 11 other USG agencies, each of which had anywhere from 1 to 10 participants (that I could see). An alarming chunk of the meeting was devoted to... preparing for other meetings. There was much discussion of briefing papers for the next meeting, which would inform the agenda for yet another meeting.

FSOs who spend too much time in DC can get sucked in to the task of feeding the Washington Beast, and doing nothnig else. The Beast can devour ungodly amounts of paper, like a hungry hungry hippo at an all-you-can-eat marble buffet. A crazy amount of the bureaucracy is spent sustaining the bureaucracy. It makes me wonder how much manpower we could put to better use if we weren't so consumed with preparing for meetings and reporting on meetings. I believe it was Socrates who pondered, "If a meeting took place and nobody wrote a summary of conclusions, did it actually take place?"

Saturday, November 1, 2014

With a Wink and a Smile

If necessity is the mother of invention, bureaucracy is the mother of workarounds. The State Department has decades worth of regulations piled up on top of each other, like trying to cram new clothes into a closet that hasn't been cleaned out in ages. This bidding season - my first in DC - has shown me how folks cleverly get around regulations regarding the assignments process.

A person currently looking for his or her next assignment had to submit all bids by October 17. Bureaus cannot officially extend a "handshake" offer to a bidder until November 10. So bidders and bureaus dance around each other like two people who just started dating, each one trying to get a sense of the other's level of interest. A bidder might be lucky enough to get a "wink" or an "air kiss" from a flirtatious bureau prior to November 10. One bureau's bold workaround for the waiting period is to alert a bidder that he or she is the "bureau leading candidate" for a position, and requires a positive or negative response to this declaration within 24 hours. Like a man telling his girlfriend, "Before I propose to you, I want you to tell me whether you would say 'yes.'"

With all of the innuendos and code words floating around, it's hard to understand the purpose of the November 10 date. Who benefits by imposing a chaste "no handshake" period? Somebody just put a ring on my finger already!

UPDATE (Nov 10): EUR has made an honest women of me. Next stop - Vilnius, Lithuania in 2016.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

FSO BFFs

Friendship in the Foreign Service is a funny thing. Unlike childhood, where opportunities for friendship are in every classroom, on every playground, or in every scout troupe, the Foreign Service is a challenging place to make and maintain meaningful friendships. A-100 is probably the best source of long-lasting friendships in the FS. You're starting something strange and life-changing with this group of people and they are the only ones in the world who understand what you're going through. That bond sticks. When you introduce someone from A-100 to a colleague, you add the "A-100" qualifier; she is not just a "friend," she is an "A-100 friend." Other FSOs know what that means.

But soon enough you scatter to all corners of the world. And that's how it is throughout the career. Make a friend in language training; off you go. Settle in to the embassy and meet someone you click with; off he goes. You don't have the luxury of developing trust and friendship over time, you better get on with it. I suppose this has made me more open with people than I have ever been before. I'm not exactly an open book and I still have a hard time reaching out to people, but I suppose I let my guard down a little more often and more quickly after meeting someone I like.

My best friend in elementary school used to tell a story that on our first day in kindergarden, I marched right up to her and asked if she wanted to be my friend. I honestly don't remember that and it doesn't sound like something I would do, but maybe my 5-year-old self was less inhibited around new people. I'm in my 40s now and without a spouse or children to provide opportunities to meet new people, it's difficult to expand my circle of associates beyond the work place. I suppose I have a certain "type" when it comes to friends, but to survive in this career, especially as a single person, it's necessary to bend your personality just enough to connect with people who don't strictly fit that "type."

Monday, June 23, 2014

Hail and Farewell

There are many rituals in the Foreign Service and many of them take place during the summer transfer season: taking your final language test, packing out, and the dreaded Hail and Farewell. The longer you're in the Foreign Service, the more annoying it becomes to say goodbye; or, rather, to endure the same ol' farewells and well-worn felicitations of your co-workers when it's time to move on. I've yet to meet an FSO who truly enjoys the Hail and Farewell ritual, and yet it persists. Like an unreligious couple who has their newborn baby baptized because to not do so seems wrong.

Saying goodbye to colleagues is one thing, saying goodbye to friends is different. I'm approaching my 9 year mark with the State Department and I'm in the middle of my 5th assignment. Along the way I've made some wonderful friends, all of whom I've had to say "goodbye" to at some point (some more than once). It doesn't get easier, per se, but after you've done the farewell party so many times, the sentimentality of the ritual fades.