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


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.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Afghanistan on My Mind

Afghanistan has been in the news a lot these days. The recent elections were widely acknowledged to be successful, if not quite perfect. President Obama announced the reduced troop levels. And Sgt. Bergdahl was recovered.

I have mixed feelings about all the "withdrawal" talk. Setting an arbitrary deadline seems like a recipe for failure, but without a firm deadline the Afghan government will never learn to ride the bike without the training wheels and will always expect us to keep them from falling off the bike.

I resent any talk of the U.S. abandoning Afghanistan. You don't get to call our withdrawal from Afghanistan "abandonment" after all the American blood and money that has been spent trying to turn Afghanistan into a functioning state that no longer provides a safe haven to al Qaeda and friends. At what point is Afghanistan's success or failure on Afghan hands, not ours?

I am emotionally invested in seeing Afghanistan succeed. I met some wonderful Afghans while I was there and I want to see them accomplish their dreams. I worked hard on projects that I'm proud of (ok, and a few I'm not so proud of). I lost a friend and colleague there. It's personal.

I've been home now for almost a year and life has thrown some distractions my way. I'm more removed from Afghanistan, but I still follow what's happening there. Just like I still follow what happens in Nepal, and Iraq, and Romania. I guess you can leave the country and move on, but part of the country stays with you.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

An Introvert's Guide to Diplomacy

It's been pointed out to me on several occasions how ironic it is that a dedicated introvert such as myself is a public diplomacy officer. In truth, it's really not that ironic. First, let me clarify a few things about what it means to be an introvert.

Interacting with people - even people whose company I enjoy - is draining. What may seem like "stand-offish" is really just conserving energy and being selective about my interactions.

I'm more comfortable with silence than I am with meaningless chatter. I'll speak up when I have something to say and when I'm done, I'll stop talking.

Boring people bore me and I'm not very good at hiding it. If interacting with people is draining, feigning interest in a boring story is practically debilitating.

What does all of this mean in the context of public diplomacy, where social situations are part of the job? It's easier for me to approach an official diplomatic function as a task with clear objectives rather than a social event. Whom do I need to meet? What information do I want to learn? Who needs to be introduced to whom?

For some people, chatting up strangers is an important part of public diplomacy. Not for me. But being a bad chatty Kathy means I'm a pretty good listener, which can be a useful, if underestimated, public diplomacy skill. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Works and Plays Well With Others

Is it already that time of year? No, not taxes. EER season. The annual exercise in futility whereby Foreign Service Officers attempt to describe why their existence matters in 44 lines. Tying your activities to the responsibilities listed in your work requirements can require certain written acrobatics. Then you have to make sure that you have demonstrated a range of precepts the State Department has identified as critical to success. Reflecting on whether or not you have made a difference in the past year is a humbling experience.

It makes me almost yearn for the report cards of my youth. It was easy to see where you excelled and where you didn't. Feedback was to the point. I wonder what would my second grade teacher would say  about my performance this year. 

Monday, March 3, 2014

A Little Privacy Please

It's been a while. I've had some personal issues to deal with. Which is difficult when you work in a tiny cubicle farm. My desk space in Kabul was palatial compared to the shoebox in which I now work. It also makes having a personal phone conversation impossible. And I don't have access to my mobile phone at my desk. So arranging private phone conversations requires several steps. First, a phone call at my desk in semi-code to schedule a time to talk openly on my mobile phone in another part of the building. Or, if semi-code won't do, making an unscheduled call on my mobile phone in a discreet corner of the building to schedule a time to talk openly on my mobile phone. Finally, returning to the discreet corner of the building with my mobile phone at the designated time. My favorite spot is the State Department exhibit hall, which has good cell reception and plenty of stuff to look at while I'm on hold.

The inconvenience sometimes forces me and my office-less co-workers to throw up our hands in resignation and try to have hushed personal phone conversations in our cubicles, if the subject is not too sensitive. Occasionally one will hear a plea to a child to stop fighting with a sibling, or a birthdate whispered to a credit card customer service representative. The polite protocol in such situations is to pretend not to hear your neighbor's birthdate. It reminds me of Les Nesman's "office walls" laid out with tape on the floor around his desk; our whispers, like tape on the floor, meant to signify a privacy bubble that doesn't really exist.  (Do I get bonus points for the WKRP in Cincinnati reference?)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

What, No Welcome Kit?

Just like any assignment overseas, a Washington assignment requires time to acclimate to the new surroundings. After four months on the job, I'm still discovering niche departments and offices tucked away in the folds of their parent bureaus. I'm still learning where to go to find current information and where not to go (e.g. any intranet Sharepoint site).

A new job overseas also requires a learning curve when working in a new language. Likewise, I work closely with military colleagues and am slowly improving my militarese (I'd say I'm a 1+ / 2 on the FSI language scale). We all know the stereotypes of our brethren in uniform, but I'm still amazed when I hear one of them utter a complete sentence using nothing but acronyms and abbreviations.

My advice to FSOs who start their first DC assignment after working overseas is to recognize that just because you are in the States, that doesn't mean you won't need time to adjust. Don't expect to have everything figured out right away. However things look your first week on the job, forget it. Things always look different once you start sliding down the backside of the learning curve.