In Which I Unexpectedly Win an Award and Predictably Have Something to Say About It

I just won the Eleanor Dodson Tragen Award for volunteer service to the Foreign Service community!

Me (middle) with the winners of the Dorman and CCE-EFM awards in a super-fancy room at the Department of State.

Honestly? I was slightly stunned when I heard about it. But very appreciative. It’s been kind of a long 29 years, you know? It’s nice to receive a little recognition at the finish line.

The AAFSW Awards ceremony was yesterday. It was lovely. I was supposed to give a short speech. I had some ideas (ha!) but decided at the last minute that, hey, I have a blog for that. Also, I’m a writer, not a public speaker. Slightly awkward introvert here. So, I just said a very sincere “thank you” and called it a day.

(Also, I was in awe of the SOSA Award winners, who do incredibly worthy stuff for people who need it a heck of a lot more than Foreign Service family members do. Check out these awesome individuals and their projects here.)

But if I were giving a speech on the subject of family member volunteerism in the Foreign Service I’d say something like this:

Recently, there was a debate on a Foreign Service Facebook group about volunteering to do things that State ought to be doing.  Some feel that this is “enabling” the State Department. There is a valid point to be made there, and I probably would have taken the same position many years ago.

In fact, I still think some things are enabling: for example, volunteering at official events. Eligible Family Members are not the Foreign Service Free Catering and Cleanup Corps, after all.

However, when it comes to projects that directly benefit our own community—especially anything that involves the internet—long experience has taught me that if we want it done, we have to do it ourselves.

The State Department is way behind the curve in information technology. It has always been behind the curve. It will always be behind the curve. Some blame security issues, but in my opinion, that’s just the tip of the iceberg (and often a handy excuse). It is the nature of the bureaucratic culture at State which is the real problem.

That culture could politely be described as “risk-averse.” Again, particularly when it comes to information technology. Everyone who has ever used a Department computer or Blackberry will know what I mean by that.

This “CYA” culture is compounded by a lack of guidance, and a lack of knowledge. Senior management officers who have been living in the State tech bubble for several decades often have a pretty basic grasp of how social media works. So, for example, when asked to take a risk (in their view) by authorizing a post Facebook group, their first impulse is to say “no way.”

And let’s be honest here: another reason for this attitude can be that family members are  not considered to be worth the risk.

Let me qualify that greatly by saying “it depends.” Of course there are some great management officers who understand that family members need both decent internet access (which is another, related subject) and the ability to communicate and build community online. There are many, many advocates for family members within the State Department who totally get it. But there are also many others who don’t—and therein lies the problem.

There are even Community Liaison Office coordinators, who just don’t get it. I’ve had some experience with this myself a few years ago. Recently, I asked some friends in an informal survey if their posts had social networks yet. Many did, but one person who is at the one of the largest posts in the world, said that they had just gotten one because previous CLOs weren’t “technologically ready.” So, in 2017, how is a CLO being hired that isn’t “ready” to run a Facebook group? And why hasn’t someone simply handed that CLO the manual that I co-wrote and said, “OK, time to learn”? Answer: see management, above.

It’s not rocket science, people, but this manual will help.

It’s always been this way. At least these days post newsletters are sent out to family members by email. I remember when I edited a PDF post newsletter in 2002-2004 (which went mostly unread at the bottom of officers’ briefcases) the management officer at post said that newsletters would never be emailed “on my watch.” Of course, I made up on my own email list of friends and sent it out to them, but really?

One of my volunteer gigs is editing Real Post Reports a Foreign Service institution. These were put online by volunteer family members about twenty years ago. We still have no official version of the same from State. That’s right, Foreign Service family members are two decades ahead of State in getting basic bidding information onto the internet. I’m just going to leave that right there.

This is crowdsourcing on steroids.

A much more recent innovation is the Foreign Service Hub, a website that attempts to organize the clunky, PDF-ridden State Department employee/family resources section into a user-friendly format, and includes both official and unofficial resources. This project was entirely developed by Foreign Service family members with the support of AAFSW.

How cool is this?

Over the last decade, especially, Foreign Service family members have been quietly constructing an amazing online community both locally and globally. Sometimes, when new people enter the diplomatic corps, they assume that online resources have always been there, or that they exist thanks to State. Alas, the first is never true, and the second is only occasionally the case.

The bottom line is, when it comes to information in the age of the internet, Foreign Service family members lead and the State Department follows. Hopefully. Eventually. In the fullness of time. But it’s not looking good at the moment, is it?

I believe that the best people to solve problems are the ones who are actually experiencing them. So, I’ve stepped aside from Foreign Service projects with the exception of editing Real Post Reports and moderating a retiree spouse Facebook group I started, So Long and Thanks for All the Fish! But I’ll always be an interested observer.

I couldn’t have imagined Real Post Reports or joining an embassy Facebook group when we first went overseas in 1989. I’m really looking forward to seeing the creative solutions that Foreign Service family members come up with in the future!


  1. I love this, and just by reading this blog, we see how deserved this award really is. And thanks for all of your help with Real Post Reports/Tales from a Small Planet when we first started out!


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