Five Wishes for the Foreign Service

Like this, except slightly overweight and in an off-the-rack suit.
Like this, except a slightly overweight guy in an off-the-rack suit.

With less than a year to go at our final overseas post, I’ve been reflecting a bit on the past 25+ years of this difficult complicated relationship we have with the State Department. And I wonder: what very simple changes would have made those years easier for my family? What I would ask for if I were granted five wishes by the State Department fairy?

Speaking strictly from my perspective as a family member, and in no particular order, this is what I came up with. I’m leaving out overseas schools and special needs kids, because I’ve already written enough about that, and anyway, that problem is too complicated for one fairy to solve!  I think it might require a Fairy Task Force!

Thankfully, (oh, so thankfully!) none of this matters to me personally anymore. But I still loves my Eligible Family Member peeps, and if I could grant them five wishes, I certainly would. Now close your eyes and tap your heels three times…

1.) I would give everyone one free trip home every year.

Talk to any private sector expatriate, and you will find that this is a basic part of their contract. Many of them get multiple tickets home every year. Some even get business class—OK, we all know that’s not going to happen. But one trip home per year? Would that really be so crazy?

Of course, Foreign Service families do get that R&R ticket at a small number of hardship posts. But the need to get away from a hardship post, and the need to travel back to the U.S. are two entirely different things. We need to go home because we have family and friends there. We need to attend weddings, funerals, and college graduations. Our kids need to see their grandparents and vice-versa. We need to re-acquaint ourselves with our own culture.

And no, we can’t all afford to do this on our own dime, and no, our relatives can’t all afford to come see us overseas. (Not to mention those who are too old and infirm to make those journeys.) We just need to go home at regular intervals regardless of where we are posted. This should be a basic part of our “contract.”

And on that note…I would make the Fly America Act disappear. Poof!

Of course, the State Department doesn’t have control over this impossibly stupid and inconvenient act which subsidizes mediocre American air carriers in order to keep certain Congressmen happy. But if I had a magic wand, I would certainly kill it dead, dead, dead. Every time we pay our own way home we come up with a better itinerary and better service than we do when the State Department pays for it. Every single time. (And we never fly United Airlines on our own dime. Ever.)

If American air carriers want our business, I think they should earn it on the free market. With, you know, customer service and stuff. Isn’t that the American way?

2.) I would stop exploiting family members with crappy EFM jobs.

Here’s what I mean: only in the Foreign Service would a floating secretary job be combined with “security escort” duties. Why is this the case? Because the only way the State Department can get anyone to stand around watching paint dry is to combine it with a job that some people might actually want! Sure, from a purely economic point of view this makes sense, but then so does indentured servitude.

Of course, there is so, so much more that can be said about family member employment. This just seems like a good place to start. Hire floating secretaries to be floating secretaries. Hire security escorts to be security escorts. If you can’t find anyone willing to be a security escort, one free market solution could be to offer more pay for that job!

Taking advantage of a captive workforce in this way just stinks. We EFMs are the people who hold embassy communities and Foreign Service officers together. Treat us with a bit of respect. (A girl can dream…)

3.) I would offer more flexible language training options for family members.

Again, talk to any private sector expatriate spouse. Most, if not all, get a budget to attend a language school or hire a tutor so that they can learn the language that they will need to function at post at a time and place that works for them.

Foreign Service spouses, on the other hand, can only ask for language lessons at a restricted time and place (the Foreign Service Institute) that may not be at all practical for them to attend. To top that off, they are only eligible to attend these classes on a “space available” basis. And classes can be cancelled if no officers sign up for them. This is simply insulting. Who does the State Department think is actually going to be using the local language as soon as they hit the ground at post? The officer, in his/her English-speaking office, or the partner, who will be on his/her own trying to function in a foreign-language environment?

Essentially, spouses are only allowed language training before arrival at post if it doesn’t cost the State Department anything to provide it. After arrival, some posts have excellent language programs in which spouses can participate, however, these only take place at the embassy during business hours. For spouses who are living on far-flung residence compounds or caring for small children, this inflexibility can render those classes impossible to attend.

Just budget some modest amount for family members to learn languages, and let us submit receipts for language schools or tutors. We can easily handle the rest. How difficult could this possibly be to implement?

4.) I would rethink the concept of Community Liaison Office Coordinators (CLOs).

Yes, I know many CLOs works their behinds off. But we have all known a few who don’t, or who have figured out that pleasing the ambassador or management counselor does them more good in the long run than actually serving the community. Finding and keeping really good CLOs seems to be a worldwide challenge.

One problem is that the CLO job description has gotten out of control. It covers a multitude of tasks and expects skills that are not usually all found in the same individual. Even the post newsletter editor job has now been rolled into the CLO job at many posts. The person who can produce a great newsletter or mission website is not usually the same person who is willing to “sit in” on meetings (ask me how I know this!) The person who is an awesome organizer of welcome kit information is not necessarily the same person who enjoys organizing children’s Easter parties. The person who can efficiently run an office may not be the same person who is good at hand-holding people in distress. You see what I am getting at here. In no normal universe would one employee be expected to do all these things, and to do them well.

If I could wave my magic wand, I would both allocate more funding to Community Liaison Offices, and break the CLO job down into two or three separate positions employing appropriate skill sets. I would even consider hiring local employees or local expatriates who are more familiar with the host country and language to do some of these jobs. (Especially being a contact point for local school information—hardly any CLOs seem to have complete information about schools at post, in my experience and in that of many others.)

The primary consideration in resourcing and staffing the CLO office should be providing quality service to the community, especially during the summer transfer season, when many CLO offices are completely (and paradoxically) unstaffed. Above all, the CLO job should not be a sinecure for whatever spouse doesn’t fit in anywhere else, is the most “senior,” or has made the biggest fuss about getting a job at post. Who has not seen this happen?

The CLO position should be treated with the seriousness that it deserves because it is so important to every embassy community overseas. Getting all CLO offices up to that standard would be a major quality of life improvement for family members. It might take more than one fairy, though!

5.) I would give all family members full access to bidding and employment resources on the State Department Intranet.

It’s 2016. We still don’t have this. Are you f***ing kidding me??

Dear State Department fairy, those are my five wishes. PS: if it’s not asking too much, while you are it, could you please make all the Drexel disappear and replace it with Pottery Barn? Thanks!

XOXOXO.

Me.

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8 comments

  1. How about we immediately suspend all senior performance pay until all MSI’s from 2014 and 2015 promotion panels have been granted? The simple fact that they have stopped sending out the ALDAC announcing them calls the morality of this practice into question. It is disgraceful that the seniors are still getting this while the folks at the rank and file levels are being screwed.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, I know that’s an issue. I wrote about matters affecting family members because I am an EFM, but I am completely sympathetic to all the very different stuff that FSOs have to put up with.

      Like

  2. You nailed it on all five! We were in Europe therefore no trip to the U.S. in 3 years for all the reasons you said. And I definitely agree about the CLO part having been there twice and seeing it from inside and outside.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. We get one home leave every 2 years!! It sucks. So basically most of our vacation time and $$ is spent traveling home. I’m not complaining (much), but sometimes when you hear what everyone else gets, you do get a bit of expat envy..

    Like

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