Friday, June 22, 2007

Management Officers (GSOs)

See, I really am in DC!!

The first thing you're required to do when you begin the process of joining the Foreign Service is to select your 'cone'. There are five career tracks and you have to pick yours prior to taking the written test which is the first step in the road. The different career tracks, known as 'cones', are Political, Economic, Consular, Public Diplomacy and Management. I chose Management.

Management folks are the people who take care of the running of our embassies so the other cones can go about their business and not worry about procuring supplies, running the motor pool, acquiring housing, managing the local staff, etc. In short, Management Officers provide a support function at our embassies and go through extensive training to ensure that they have the skills necessary to keep the infrastructure operating smoothly.

At each of our embassies, we hire most of our staff locally. These FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals) are supervised, primarily, by the Management branch and they become, over time, the experts in most of the admin jobs. While Management Officers rotate in and out every one, two or three years, the FSNs remain in place and possess the institutional memory that is so essential in running any organization. So, wherever you go as a GSO or Management Officer, you have a cadre of local hires reporting to you who know the job and the routines much better than you do. That doesn't present an insurmountable problem because your job is to manage and supervise, not to get down and turn the wrenches.

The GSO's areas of responsibility include housing, supplies, purchasing, motorpool, warehousing, maintenance, human resources, and travel. A lot of work to be sure, with a wide range of required skills. Islamabad has a staff of GSOs and I'm still trying to find out which responsibilities they have in mind for me. I'm looking forward to being part of the team there even if it is still five months away. It will be nice to get back to work again.

From the sound of it, we Management Officers seem to have pretty interesting jobs. We get a variety of work, we are essential to the smooth operation of our embassies, we work hand in hand with host country nationals who have the expertise to make us look good and we generally bask in the warm glow of goodwill emanating from our colleagues in the other cones. Or, perhaps not...

I've spent the last week learning all about handling 'housing' complaints. From the sound of it, our diplomats abroad do nothing but complain about their housing and all of those complaints are directed at the poor GSO. I've come to the conclusion that it must be mandatory for everyone to complain about their housing as soon as they arrive at post. "Look here, John, you've been at post for nearly a week now and you haven't lodged your housing complaints. Are you having personal problems at home that might prevent you from whining? If not, get to it, Man, we have high standards of griping here in Kafiristan and we can't have you lowering the bar." From the way it's been presented to us, pretty much all we do is deal with complaints about housing that is a) too small b) too far away c) too close in or d) not as nice as... (fill in someone else's name here; who, by the way, is also complaining about his/her house). It's nice to see that no one ever complains about the housing being too expensive and that, of course, is because it is all provided to them for FREE. There are many other things that people complain about when living abroad, but housing seems to top the list. Of course, no diplomat in his/her right mind would ever bring a housing appeal forward based on the "their house is nicer than mine" argument, so they have security issues, or insoluble pest infestations, or 'official' duties that require larger quarters than their entitlement. Management Officers get management training, Consular Officers get consular training and I believe the diplomats (Econs, Politicos and Pub Dips) get a course on how to assess their status at post based on their housing.

This will surprise those of you who know me, but my plan is to try to make people happy with their housing in Islamabad if I end up with the housing responsibility. Just as long as my house is the nicest on the block and better than everyone else's under the rank of Ambassador, I'll work day and night to ensure that almost everyone has very little to complain about. Of course, some complaining will always be inevitable but people will come to see that malcontents end up in houses that barnyard animals refuse to enter.

Actually, there are very strict rules and regulations governing the assignment of housing to try to make it as equitable as possible given the variety of housing that exists at our posts worldwide. In Islamabad, for example, the housing reputation is terrific and the houses are, apparently, very nice.

I'm going camping and tubing this weekend on a river in Virginia. It'll be nice to get out of the DC area for a short break so I've signed up for this trip with about fifteen of my colleagues. The last time I went off into the wilds, I ended up climbing a mountain in Bulgaria! I'm hoping to float around in my tube with a beer in one hand and cigar in the other while telling rude jokes to my compadres. I'm leaving the Urdu books home and intend to do nothing more strenuous than walk all the way down to the river with my tube on my shoulder. There is talk of a hike on Sunday, but I'll need much more specific information on the definition of 'hike' before I strap on my boots. Some of my colleagues seem fit enough to stroll over to Kentucky and foolish enough to try!

This is the 133rd's Team Lunch Table in the cafeteria.

Would you let this man assign your housing? I intend to begin whining about my own house in the taxi on the way in from the airport!

Monday, June 11, 2007

Time Goes By

This is the VIP Entrance to the Foreign Service Institute.

This coming week will be the last week for the Acquisitions course and the final exam will be on Thursday. It turns out that along with that $5.5 million dollar credit card, I've been given a book of regulations governing its use. There are 1,983 pages of regulations so I, apparently, will not be purchasing the Ferrari right away. My own personal credit cards still have many tens of dollars in unused credit line available and the book of regulations governing their use simply says, "If you can afford it, buy it!" Still, I think I would have looked pretty good in a government financed Ferrari.

We must score at least an 80% on the final exam or face the very unpleasant prospect of repeating Acquisitions. With that in mind, I spent this weekend reviewing the material and wishing I'd paid more attention during class. The concepts involved in making purchases at post are fairly straightforward; ensure that funding has been approved, check three sources for competitive bids and go with the lowest price from a qualified supplier. Unfortunately, it appears that a few details were thrown our way during the past three weeks to elaborate on those three directives and many of those details will, undoubtedly, be on the exam. It would all be right in my notes, had I bothered to take notes. Not to worry, I have the reference material, a passing familiarity with the handouts and three days to 'refresh' my memory.

I received my "Welcome to Post" email on Friday! This is actually pretty cool because it lets me know that they are now aware that I'm coming. Over the next couple of months I can begin to get information on living conditions, which job I'll be doing and the specific date they want me to start. I finish all my scheduled training courses on the 26th of October, so anytime after that weekend will be great. A couple of my friends will be leaving for Pakistan over the next few months and I'll have plenty of firsthand information to help me plan my own departure. Several people who have returned from Islamabad have suggested that I ship my car over because having a car is a necessity there and the available used cars are pretty expensive. I asked if it made any difference that my car is lefthand drive (Pakistan goes with righthand drive) and was told, "no, no one pays much attention to any rules of the road there anyway". I'll ship the Volvo and keep the Mustang in storage.

If you plan to live in Pakistan for any extended period of time, there are a few things you need to get in advance. The recommended immunization list is as follows:

Hepatitis A
Hepatitis B
Yellow Fever
Japanese Encephalitis (Why Japanese and not Pakistani?)
Rabies (Yes, I can now bite people without infecting them with rabies!)

In addition to these precautionary immunizations, be aware that there is a high risk of contracting severe diarrhea and that tuberculosis is endemic in the area. There is a lesser probability of contracting dengue fever or leishmaniasis (both subcutaneous and visceral)...which as you may already know is transmitted by sand flies. And don't get me started on influenza! Pakistan appears to be an equal opportunity infector! So, roll up your sleeves and get your visa, I'm accepting reservations for the guest room now.

I'm putting a few pictures of the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) here. By the time I complete my training and leave for Islamabad, I'll have been here for eight months and, as you can see, it isn't a completely terrible place to work.

Outside the cafeteria.

Language Building


Old Building

Picnic Grounds

Finally, please remember that Aliph with the double diacritic zuber above it is pronounced as Noon when it comes at the end of a word. Oh, and the words for 'go straight' and 'turn right' seem to be exactly the same, 'sadhee', which apparently doesn't lead to as much confusion as you might expect, although I don't have a clue why not but it may have something to do with that 'ignoring the rules of the road' business!

How am I doing in Urdu, you ask....fair to middlin', fair to middlin'.