Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Notes From A Sunny Island

Diplomacy at the Tufi Dive Resort is a serious business!

An advantage of working in a small embassy is that the entire team can pick up and get away together for a teambuilding long weekend. Team Port Moresby flew across the island to the Tufi Dive Resort for a three day weekend of reef diving and diplomacy around the pool. Good cigars and single malt whiskeys sharpened our focus and much was accomplished. Although we never actually sang "Kum ba ya", we did come perilously close to having a group hug at one point. Lit cigars and a certain degree of whiskey induced unsteadiness, however, rendered such a manuver inadvisable, so we settled for a group fist bump instead. We sent the above photo to the Cigar Aficianado magazine and have been told it will appear in their publication in approximately 18 months. In my opinion, that makes the Tufi weekend an unqualified success!

As post's Management Officer, I have seven different areas of responsibility: Finance (FMO), Facilities (FM), Human Resources (HR), Information Technology (IT), the Health Unit (HU), the Community Liaison Office (CLO) and the General Services Office (GSO). The GSO in turn covers six areas: housing, procurement, shipping, travel, warehouse and motor pool. In short, everything that has to do with the functional operation of the embassy comes under the Management section. The Consular section adjudicates visas and provides American citizens' services. The Public Diplomacy, Econ and Political sections each interact with the local government, NGOs, communities and populace then feed the results of those interactions back to their counterparts in the Harry S. Truman Department of State headquarters in Washington, D.C. They write cables, give grants to worthy causes and advocate for our foreign policy. The Management section does everything else. Oh, and we're all for our foreign policy too, team players that's what we are.

When my two year tour in Rome ended, I took an eight week Financial Management Overseas training course at FSI and, armed with that newly minted certificate of achievement and a year's experience as a GSO, flew to Port Moresby and assumed the seat of power as the alpha dog in the Management section. As far as the other five areas were concerned, I knew that FM basically kept the building running, HR dealt with various 'people' issues, IT did the same but with computers instead of people, the HU shop was a "turn your head and cough" dispenser of band-aids and aspirin and the CLO more or less looked after post's small lending library. I was pretty sure I could wing it until I got settled in and, besides, the locally employed staff would help me find my way.

Larger posts have a trained American officer in each of the seven areas of responsibility reporting to the Management Officer. Port Moresby has a first tour GSO and, thankfully, a very experienced Information Management Officer. That made me the American officer in charge of finance, facilities, human resources, health and the community liaison's office. I'd just had the financial management course and how tough could the other areas be, really? I considered myself armed and ready. Overconfidence in one's abilities in the stone cold face of the reality that there is a complete lack of the existence of those abilities is the mark of a weak or failing mind. My locally employed staff quickly made me aware of that reality.

HR/OE is responsible for determining the policies that govern our locally employed staff in our embassies around the world. Our local staff in PNG have been hit particularly hard by the wage freeze that's been in effect for the past two years. As has been noted, this is a ridiculously expensive country in which to live. As diplomats, we enjoy pay differentials and cost of living adjustments to help augment our salaries and ease the financial pain caused by local economic conditions. Our local staff receive no such assistance.

Their salaries and benefits are determined by surveying a set of 'local comparators' and ensuring that our total compensation package falls into some vague and undefined acceptable range. Our local comparators are selected and chosen by HR/OE and, interestingly enough, they do not include Exxon in our comparators group. Exxon, of course, is the 800 lb gorilla in the employment market in PNG. Who you include in and who you exclude from your comparators group is hugely important because your comparators group determines every aspect of the salary and benefits package that your local staff can be offered.

Our very best local staff will leave us for an extra 100 Kina a month, which at today's exchange rate is about $12.50 a week! I've spent my first year at post trying to improve the compensation package we offer our local staff so that we might have a fighting chance to retain the best of them. If you have ever dealt with HR/OE, you won't be surprised to hear that my efforts have been completely unsuccessful. We have two problems here, 1) unemployment runs about 60% in Port Moresby and we receive hundreds of applications for every job vacancy, many of them from people who are actually qualified and 2) our total compensation package is roughly equivalent to most of our comparators. Therefore, as an employer there is, on the surface, no real incentive for us to raise either wages or benefits. The reality is, of course, that people we hire can use the fact that they are employed by the American embassy on their resumes after a year or so to command that extra 100 Kina a month elsewhere. We are the most prestigious farm team in town!

Locally employed staff who have worked at an American embassy for twenty years or more and have good service records are eligible for Special Immigrant Visas or SIVs. In many countries these are highly prized and people will endure all manner of hardships to put in their time to qualify for an SIV. It's an incentive to stay on the job that none of our local comparators in any country can offer and gives us a distinct advantage. Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of Papua New Guineans who are interested in acquiring an SIV and most of our local staff don't perceive it as a reason to remain if they can get more money elsewhere.

Recently, I was back in DC to take the Human Resource Officer's training course, one day of which included a field trip to the hallowed halls of HR/OE. "Aha," I thought, "Here's my chance to convince them face to face of our need to improve our benefits package in PNG!" Reasonable people would surely find a way to achieve a mutually beneficial goal.

During our question and answer session with a senior representative from HR/OE, I described my attempts to implement a salary advance plan for our local staff. Any plan of this nature requires their approval and I was pretty certain that I could convince them to give it in this meeting. In order to make ends meet, our staff currently borrow money with interest rates of 30% or higher. With very strict controls, we could allow them to take an advance on their salaries without interest and repay it through payroll deductions. There would be virtually no cost or any risk to the government to put this into effect. I modeled our proposed plan on those that already exist in posts as diverse as Astana and Canberra. It would be a small improvement to our compensation package that our local staff would recognize and appreciate. In my explanation during the class I was earnest, I was serious, in truth, I was pleading. I channeled my inner puppy dog hoping to sway her to the reasonableness of my proposal.

The HR/OE representative then looked at me quite sadly, as if I was depriving a village somewhere of its only idiot, and said slowly and distinctly so that I might understand, "If our comparators don't offer it, we won't consider offering it. We do not/not want to be a market leader."

Ahhh, that goes a long ways towards explaining how Exxon is able to skim the cream of the employment pool.

We then moved into a conversation about the rules and regulations governing hiring practices. Several members of the class seemed troubled by the rigidity of the qualifications and the way they could, inadvertently, rule out the best candidate. Questions were asked. Eyebrows were raised. Heads were shaken.

Several villages, now lacking idiots, were in serious peril, but I was glad for the company.

The HR/OE representative patiently, slowly and distinctly explained that, "We don't want to hire the 'best' candidate, we want to hire the best 'qualified' candidate." 

From the back of the room came the faint rumblings of rebellion. Those of us charged with keeping our embassies running smoothly held onto the somewhat seditious belief that we did, indeed, want to hire the best possible candidate every single time. That to intentionally hire less than the very best candidate was somehow a disservice to the position, the post and the government. Another of my colleagues blurted out, "That just doesn't make any sense!"

Her patience wearing manifestly thin, the good champion of HR/OE drew herself up to the full height of her authority and delivered what is surely HR/OE's mission statement, "Just because something makes sense, doesn't mean that we'll do it."

Since none of us had, until that time, ever heard anyone so defiantly claim mediocrity as their stated goal we made a poster of her statement and displayed it on our classroom wall for the duration of the course.

Unfortunately, for our staff in PNG, when we surveyed our comparators (excluding Exxon, of course, because, apparently, they don't matter), they stated that they did not offer a salary advance plan to their employees. In retrospect, it turns out that they do offer very similar plans but they don't call their plans salary advance plans so they responded negatively to our very specific question..."Do you offer a salary advance plan?" You can probably imagine the reception this explanation received in HR/OE when I renewed my attempt to have them reconsider their refusal to implement the benefit here. Therefore, I will be submitting a new proposal to implement an entirely different plan whereby staff can take a small advance on their salaries (under strictly controlled circumstances) and repay it through payroll deductions. This plan is offered by every single one of our comparators and is called a Salary Sacrifice plan. I have great hopes for it. Our head cashier and our facilities supervisor are the two most recent staff to resign. The parade continues. 

The Sogeri SingSing was held just outside of Port Moresby.

SingSings are gatherings of different tribal groups at celebrations throughout the country. The largest and most famous of these are the ones held in the Highlands, in Goroka and Mt. Hagen but virtually any community can and does sponsor a singsing. Recently, a school in the Sogeri District of Port Moresby held a singsing and attracted half a dozen or so groups to perform. It was scheduled to begin at 9:00am on a Sunday and a bunch of us from the embassy drove out to watch. Several of us had another commitment that afternoon and had to leave by 12:00 but that would give us three hours to see the show and take some photos. We had forgotten that the 9:00am start time was PNG time. We managed to take some pictures of the groups milling around, practicing and warming up and then, right at 12:00, as we were leaving, we saw the first group head down towards the stands to begin their performance. I understand from the reviews in the local press that it was an exceptionally moving singsing. 

Home internet here can cost up to $1,000 a month depending on your level of usage. Most of us keep it in the $200 to $300 range by doing little more than checking our email. In spite of the astronomical fees, it still tends to crash every weekend. When you call Hitron's number to see if they can get it back up and working, you get a recording that says, "Hitron's normal hours of business are from 8:00am until 5:00pm Monday through Friday. If you require assistance outside of our normal working hours, please contact us using our 'Nights and Weekends' number." And, thoughtfully, the recording goes on to give you the 'Nights and Weekends' number.

Well, sure enough, on the Saturday of a three-day weekend, the internet crashed at my place so I dialed the 'Nights and Weekends' number to see if they could manage to get me back online. I listened attentively to the recording that said, "Thank you for calling Hitron's 'Nights and Weekends' line for assistance. Please leave your account number, phone number and a brief description of your problem and we will return your call sometime after we open for business." Then it disconnected. Oh well, for approximately $1,000 a month, you can't really expect much more.

I am fascinated by the content of local television in the various countries in which I've lived. In Bulgaria I could watch sumo wrestling broadcast live from Japan almost any hour of the day. I slowly became a fan and I find myself sometimes wondering how Harumafuji and Jokoryu are faring in the ring. In Pakistan the local television broadcasts were packed full of shows and movies from Bollywood. Considering the longstanding animosity between India and Pakistan, I always found this quite interesting and personally enjoyed the wildly colorful entertainment. In Rome I watched the Italian version of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?" and used it to improve my language skills.

Our cable television in PNG comes from Australia and contains syndicated shows from the US and England as well as original productions from Down Under. HBO, CNN and the BBC are all staples of the daily fare. However, if you watch any of the Australian channels, it's the commercials that offer a different perspective from that with which you are familiar. In addition to the usual attempts to sell cars, laundry soap and fast food, we have been inundated lately with bull commercials.

It is a common belief that many commercials are, indeed, bull but what we're talking about here are commercials to sell bulls. Real, honest-to-goodness bulls. From the commercials I've seen, they are incredibly large actual bulls and are probably not suitable as household pets although many of them have endearing features, smooth multicolored coats and an undeniably bovine calmness. At any rate, the Edge (my apartment building) does not allow pets so it would be difficult for me to acquire one. However, I am now becoming quite a connoisseur of bulls, which will surely help me in some aspect of my career. 

I was fortunate enough to have been invited to accompany the ambassador on a trip to the Solomon Islands in August to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the marines landing at the Battle of Guadalcanal. I toured the battle grounds, saw Alligator Creek and the Bloody Ridge and stood on the spot where Douglas Munro, the only Coastguardsman to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, laid down his life in defense of marines trapped on Honiara's beach. I watched sunsets over Ironbottom Sound where approximately 26 U.S. Navy warships were sunk in sea battles with the Tokyo Express coming down the Slot. The Marine Band played at ceremonies honoring the fallen, at the inauguration of a memorial to the under appreciated Coastwatchers and at the memorial to Douglas Munro.

This plaque marks the spot where Douglas Munro was killed.

Their most moving concert, however, was the one they volunteered to give at a school on their only scheduled day off. Several hundred school children cheered and applauded each and every piece played by the marines. The band began the concert by playing the Solomon Islands national anthem and the student body stood and sang like a choir. Later, several of the marines told me that it had been one of the most rewarding experiences they'd ever had as musicians.

The gentleman seated in front of me, wearing an orange shirt, is the last remaining survivor of the Solomon Islanders who rescued John F. Kennedy when his boat, the PT109, was sunk during WWII.

As there were no direct flights back to PNG from the Solomons, we were forced to overnight in Brisbane. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that we'd packed our golf clubs in our luggage. A weekend of golf in Australia is now considered an integral part of any diplomatic mission! I played enthusiastically albeit not well. In PNG we play on the only golf course in town as frequently as possible. Our regular foursome consists of me, the Ambassador, the RSO and a local American businessman. Because the Ambassador is in the group, we have to have a security detail accompany us around the course. Because caddies are mandatory at this club, our entourage thus becomes the four of us, our four caddies, one or two fore caddies (to find the occasional stray shot) and a couple of local security guards. It is a great comfort to us all to see the security guards well armed with bows and arrows. The French ambassador was held up on the golf course not too long ago by two men armed with bush knives so bows and arrows are the local equivalent of an arms race. 

That's about it for now. I run around the embassy addressing issues and challenges like a man playing whack-a-mole. If we make it through a day without losing power, water or airconditioning I give myself a small gold star and a discreet pat on the back. We're expecting several new additions to our post community as new agencies and new State Dept. positions join us. The chancery isn't getting any larger so folks are being asked to shift their offices around to help accommodate the new arrivals. This, as you can imagine, isn't always met with sunshine and smiles, but one of the benefits of working in a very small post is that, eventually, everyone pitches in and does what's required. None of the challenges we face here are insurmountable and we're making progress on all fronts.

I firmly believe that we will even sway HR/OE around to our way of thinking sooner or later. Although I do poke some fun at them, they help us manage what is surely the world's most diverse and multi-national workforce and our local employment practices would be chaotic without them. They work hard at ensuring that our workplace practices are as uniform as possible across hugely varied cultures, legal systems and environments. Without this level of uniformity, no international organization could function effectively. My responsibility is to draft my proposals so that they meet all the requirements that govern our human resources policies and I'm working my way up that learning curve now. 

By the way, I just noticed that one of the more prominent bull sellers is willing to take a credit card payment on line. It's really just a question now of what to name the big lug and whether or not I can have it delivered in the pouch!

1 comment:

Alexandra Chappell said...

I just found your blog on the AFSA page. Very informative and most importantly: entertaining! My husband and I are taking our FSOT in June (can't wait) and I'm leaning towards the Management cone...a hard decision because I have an interest in the Consular cone, too :)..but nice to see I can experience in both. I look forward to future posts!