Quote of the day/week/however long

"Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does."
~William James

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Whisper in My Ear Said “Give Up!”

Every consular officer has had to read or listen patiently to seemingly endless complaints about how difficult some customers find the US visa application process to be.  But Madam has never, so far in her life, seen a complaint as complex, detailed, thorough and probably even true as that of Mr. Kenneth Best, whose  journey in search of a Schengen visa appears to have encompassed nearly all of West and Central Africa and finally resulted in - a visa!  Kudos to Mr. Best for his persistence, patience, and grace under extreme aggravation.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Lucky Thirteen

Not long ago, the Department formulated a list of the qualities it looks for in FSO candidates.   No harm is done by an occasional review of this list by those who have succeeded in joining the service, and so Madam presents it here for your thoughtful consideration.

If Madam had to choose a personal favorite, it would have to be "Judgment," which  she suspects falls in mid-group simply because the list is in alphabetical order.  But no favorite you might choose can possibly be wrong.  Enjoy.  And let's always remember:  this is why they hired us; it's what they pay us for.

Composure. To stay calm, poised, and effective in stressful or difficult situations; to think on one's feet, adjusting quickly to changing situations; to maintain self-control.

Cultural Adaptability. To work and communicate effectively and harmoniously with persons of other cultures, value systems, political beliefs, and economic circumstances; to recognize and respect differences in new and different cultural environments.

Experience and Motivation. To demonstrate knowledge, skills or other attributes gained from previous experience of relevance to the Foreign Service; to articulate appropriate motivation for joining the Foreign Service.

Information Integration and Analysis. To absorb and retain complex information drawn from a variety of sources; to draw reasoned conclusions from analysis and synthesis of available information; to evaluate the importance, reliability, and usefulness of information; to remember details of a meeting or event without the benefit of notes.

Initiative and Leadership. To recognize and assume responsibility for work that needs to be done; to persist in the completion of a task; to influence significantly a group’s activity, direction, or opinion; to motivate others to participate in the activity one is leading.

Judgment. To discern what is appropriate, practical, and realistic in a given situation; to weigh relative merits of competing demands.

Objectivity and Integrity. To be fair and honest; to avoid deceit, favoritism, and discrimination; to present issues frankly and fully, without injecting subjective bias; to work without letting personal bias prejudice actions.

Oral Communication. To speak fluently in a concise, grammatically correct, organized, precise, and persuasive manner; to convey nuances of meaning accurately; to use appropriate styles of communication to fit the audience and purpose.

Planning and Organizing. To prioritize and order tasks effectively, to employ a systematic approach to achieving objectives, to make appropriate use of limited resources.

Quantitative Analysis. To identify, compile, analyze, and draw correct conclusions from pertinent data; to recognize patterns or trends in numerical data; to perform simple mathematical operations.

Resourcefulness. To formulate creative alternatives or solutions to resolve problems, to show flexibility in response to unanticipated circumstances.

Working With Others. To interact in a constructive, cooperative, and harmonious manner; to work effectively as a team player; to establish positive relationships and gain the confidence of others; to use humor as appropriate.

Written Communication. To write concise, well organized, grammatically correct, effective and persuasive English in a limited amount of time.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Come to America; Bring Money

There was a time when Madam believed that there were still depths to which the USG would not stoop.  No more.  The new ESTA fee has finally served to reach those ultimate depths.  At least this month.

In case you might have missed it, the Travel Promotion Act of 2009, signed into law earlier this year, implemented a new "public-private partnership" between the U.S. government and the nation’s travel and tourism industry.  (Since said industry is so responsible with its cash, apparently, and since similar ventures have worked so well in the past.  Please excuse Madam while she gags.)  That partnership will be financed by $10 of the $14 ESTA fee. 

Never mind, if you wish, that every visitor already spends an average of $4,000 in the US per visit.  Never mind that tourism revenues total $120 billion per year and support more than one million American jobs.  There had to be a way to get more.  And sure enough.

As Steve Lott of IATA told CNN, "It's like inviting a friend over for dinner and then charging them a fee at the door.  If the idea is to make the United States more welcoming and to increase tourism, raising the entry fee seems to be counterintuitive to what you're trying to do."

Mr Lott should be teaching at Diplomat School, he is so tastefully gentle with his wording.  Madam, on the other hand ... more than a year ago, you may recall, she complained bitterly and in detail about the proposed fee, which purported to be earmarked to 'promote travel to the US.'  She might have mentioned in the course of that complaint that it seemed extremely unlikely that any of the money would ever see the light of day as far as foreign travelers to the US might ever observe.  The US is widely considered one of the least welcoming of destinations to foreign travelers; creating a new public-private behemoth bureaucracy to spend $10 of every VWP traveler's money to make him glad he came ... what is the 47th degree of the word "counterintuitive?"

And to think that Madam remembers the days when US missions and the Department worked so hard to eliminate reciprocal visa fees.  How naive she was then.  And were we all.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Of All Places...

In the interest of complete disclosure, Madam must admit that she actually lived in Los Angeles for several years.  She also grew up with a father who used to say, "It's obvious that California is the lowest part of the US.  Loose nuts always roll downhill."  There's balance for you.

Even so, that well-known, long-time provider of non-news, the Los Angeles Times, recently carried a thoughtful and pretty complete article on the 14th amendment and immigration enforcement.  Unlike most recent immigration-related rants*, Charlotte Allen seems well aware of existing laws and acknowledges the difficulty involved in changing the Constitution as well as in determining how, then, US citizenship might be determined and adjudicated.  Of course, much more thought and planning would be required, but this is not a bad start.  Well done, Ms. Allen.

Why, a consular officer might be asking, do I need to know about all of this discussion/debate/ranting going on in the US about these issues?

Because you are a consular officer and they have to do with citizenship, nationality, and legal status in the US, three things out of many others that you should be up on and should be ready to discuss - quietly, rationally, and with a sense of history and balance - with whomever brings them up at any public or private gathering, including on the beach or at a grocery store.  You're an expert.  People look to you for valid information (not uninformed opinion and prejudice) on deceptively complex subjects.  Being able to explain all sides equally lucidly is part of your job.  You will be practicing diplomacy.

* By the way, this is one of Madam's all-time favorite public rants.  She is ashamed to admit that she would have tasered the good pastor, too, and probably far faster than the cops did.  Especially when he got to the part about "some dog."  Harumph.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Service? Who, Me?

The Town Crier, who is far more courteous and diplomatic that Madam, recently reposted an article from a local newspaper somewhere out there in the world that announced the following:

Notarial services at U.S. Embassy


The Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy has started offering a special notarial service session.

The service, which is only available by appointment for non-U.S. passport holders, is open every Tuesday and Thursday, from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.

All non-U.S. passport holders seeking routine consular services from the American Services Unit will be seen by appointment only during these hours.

Customers will need to make appointments on their website and enter through the embassy’s side or visa entrance and proceed to the third floor.

The embassy hopes that this change will make better use of consular section space and reduce crowding and wait times for all its clients.

United States citizens and those who need to accompany for the services are recommended to observe the consular department’s normal appointment-only hours from 8:45 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. Monday to Friday. Walk-in hours are from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. weekdays except Wednesdays.

 The Crier posted this with no comment except the slightly snarky title "SIT DOWN UNTIL WE CALL YOUR NAME !"  Madam, however, can think of plenty of comments and a couple of questions.
First a comment:
For example, since when is limiting time so strictly that an applicant will need a stopwatch to get there on time "special?"
Since when is limiting the time available for a service that we are responsible for providing to 1/10 of available hours "special?"
Since when can such limitation reduce crowding and wait time, especially since anyone can correctly guess that it will create an instant backlog and the accompanying worry among customers that if they aren't there early they will miss their chance and have to make a new appointment, probably for several weeks in the future?
And wait, don't tell me:  since a normal notarial takes less than three minutes total customer time to accept, process and finish, all of those "appointments" are probably for the same exact time.  Since when is it a "special service" for a customer to show up for a purported appointment and find a hundred other individuals with the same "appointment?"  And bloody since when is that going to reduce crowding?  Perhaps in some sweet ELO's dreams.
In a major ACS unit for which Madam was responsible not long ago, one LES, one cashier (who also served other units) and one ELO routinely provided more than one hundred notarials per hour, and could do that for eight hours every day if necessary, without breaking a sweat and including a regular lunch break at lunch time (a different LES and the ACS chief took over the windows for that hour).  That was their job, and they were good at it.  Total customer time from walkin to walkout was about ten minutes.  There were always seats available.  Anyone in the country who suddenly learned that he or she needed a US notarial service could zip over and get it at any time during the normal working day.
There was no need to separate American from non-American customers, and no need for those customers to use a protractor and a volume of Kierkegaard to determine when exactly they might reasonably expect to obtain the services they needed.
Exaggerating?  Madam doesn't think so.  Consider again, if you care to, what a normal American might think of the hours that the embassy is willing to provide a service he or she needs:  is it 8:45 to 11:45 Monday to Friday?  Is it 1 - 3 Monday, Tuesday, Thursday or Friday?  And what - utterly unthinkable, perhaps - if the American or non-American doesn't know what the word "notarial" means, but just knows that he needs a signature witnessed or to file an affidavit of support?    Madam has long believed that our customers should not have to learn our jargon to obtain our services...efficiently, generously, pleasantly, professionally, and at their convenience.