Quote of the day/week/however long

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

Monday, March 30, 2015

My Card

A consular manager of Madam's acquaintance, who is otherwise strongly averse to personal publicity in public, actually clipped, saved and even considered framing an article from The New York Times that mentioned her by name in the woeful tale of a well-justified NIV refusal. "They summarized the details of the case accurately," she has said admiringly, "and, being the Times, they repeated the lawyer's complaint without stepping, themselves, into the trap of making an incorrect judgement. And they spelled my name right!"
Bravo Times!
 That an NIV case could make a major American newspaper is remarkable. That the newspaper could get the issues right is surprising. That the article's author, who never spoke directly with the officer, could spell a strangely-spelled (although single-syllable) name correctly is no less than eyebrow-raising.

And how did this miracle happen?

This officer, like nearly all FSOs, orders business cards on arrival at every new post. Unlike nearly all FSOs - and especially consular FSOs - she passes those cards out generously to:
local authorities she meets on her official rounds; more important, she says, the staff members of those local authorities, who - flattered and delighted that she notices and respects them - will sometimes call and give her a heads-up about something ugly that's going to happen; local Americans who blithely swear that they'll never have a problem because "these people all love me;" visiting Americans who seem headed for the ditch; disgruntled friends, relatives and lawyers of 214(b)s; and anyone else who asks - either gently or threateningly - for her name, believing that she will back off and refuse, and so lose both face and credibility. Especially to that last category, she accompanies the card with a kind but firm, "When you write your congressperson, please spell my name correctly."

Does the generous dispersal of her name, job title and phone number sometimes result in cut-and-paste forgeries, as local folks try to intimidate other local folks by pretending that they're her friend or confidant, or that she's on their payroll? Yes, of course. But, as she says, "We're US consular officers. We expect and are prepared for this sort of silliness. We are not paid to hide in safe dark places and pass out decisions through the bung hole. And besides, the power of freely giving your name to someone who wants to threaten you can seriously deflate those threats."

How sure is she that this is the right thing to do? Sure enough that when she received a call from a man who told her simply but very firmly, "If you don't (XXX) we're going to kill you," she responded, "Fair enough. Just make sure that you send your bomb or your hired murderer after the right person. My name is spelled (XXXXX)." She never heard from him again, and is still alive.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

How Can I Make That Easy For You?

A consular manager whom Madam respects very much once told her, "The first thing I do when I get to a new assignment is watch. I watch how everything is done: how forms are handed out, how they're taken back in, how the customers line up and where and when, how data is entered, how interviews are performed and notes taken, how printing and handing back and filing and everything is done. Then, once I'm sure I understand the entire process, I take out of it every step that I won't be arrested for not doing. What's left, with only minor tweaking, is sudden efficiency. And effectiveness."

A somewhat old-school manager, this person also believes unwaveringly that  efficiency is not necessarily effectiveness. That is, you can do a lot of stuff very quickly and skillfully, but if it didn't actually need to be done, you just gave up a lot of time, effort and brain cells for nothing.
 And then what?

This manager freely admits that she had to learn this lesson several times before it stuck. "The time I remember most clearly," she told Madam, "was in XX. Our passport applicants queued up to get an application form, then queued up again to turn it in. That meant the not only did the customer use a lot of time standing in queues, but our FSNs had to deal with every one of them twice.

"My deputy CG asked, very reasonably, why we did it that way. After consulting with the senior FSNs, I told him it was because the forms disappeared so quickly: applicants would sometimes take a handful instead of just one. He gave me the long, patient gaze that such an answer deserved. Then he said, 'So then you put out more.'

"I sputtered, 'But they'll be wasted!' And he answered, with far more calm than this idiotic exchange deserved, 'So what?'"

The truth is that nearly every job benefits from exactly the culling that this officer now uses ruthlessly:
 Yeah sure. Bring it on.

!. Remove every step that you won't be arrested - okay, or transferred to Elephant Island - for not doing. 'Order' and 'chaos' are not automatically opposites. They can be Siamese twins. Just because it's orderly doesn't mean it's effective.
2. Rearrange the remaining steps into the most logical order, both physically and process-ly.
3. Perform every step only once. This means, as the most obvious example, that if someone checks the documents, they have been checked and they will not be checked again.
4. Make every decision only once.
5. Don't send two people to do a one-person job. One investigator, one passer-back, one waiting room monitor.
6. Whoever starts the job, finishes the job. Cases don't pass from hand to hand; each belongs to a specific individual who becomes the expert on it. This is essential for IV, citizenship and L cases.
7. Always ask yourself, "What if we don't do this at all?" If the answer is, "Nobody will notice or care," then don't do it. If someone complains, then do it only if you can't talk them out of wanting it done.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Outrunning The Tiger

Two men are walking through a forest.  Suddenly they see a tiger in the distance, walking towards them with an intent look on its face. One of the men takes some running shoes from his bag, and starts putting them on.
“What are you doing?” asks the other man. “Do you think you will run fast than the tiger with those?”
"I don’t have to run faster than the tiger,” he says. “I just have to run faster than you.”

This joke is told all over the world, with the hunting animal variously a lion, a bear or, as here, a tiger. There is a reason it is so widespread. It's funny and it's also true.

It's the reason that US homeowners, even in low crime areas, are often advised to get a big, serious dog, and that apartment dwellers are advised to get a teeny, yappy dog.

It's the reason that seasoned American travelers do not walk around the world wearing gunboat-white athletic shoes, elastic-waist yoga pants, and T shirts or sweatshirts with any logo at all emblazoned on the chest. It's the reason that they talk and behave quietly in public.

It's the reason that a wealthy European might own an extremely fancy car for weekend touring, but will commute in a banged-up, ten-year-old VW or bottom-of-the line Fiat.

Quick. Which of these two cars is most likely to be driven by someone worth kidnapping?
It's the reason that AID's Laurence Foley - rather than someone else - was murdered in Amman. He had personally harmed or offended no one, but men like him, in his neighborhood, had been targeted before; he parked on the street; his movements were highly predictable; he was American.

It's the reason that experienced consular officers, whose faces may be especially well-known in some cities, don't mind in the least being quietly, distantly and discreetly followed by plain-clothed cops. Madam has been followed by such gentlemen in many countries on several continents, and always welcomed the additional safety and freedom of movement they provided.

 It's the reason that US embassies all over the world, not just in very hot spots, warn their American and local employees and American expat populations to stay alert, stay wary, and not call attention to themselves, their homes, or their families.

There will always be exceptions and outliers, but the numbers are on the side of the possible prey who moves quietly and warily, or who makes it inconvenient to bother with him when there are slower, less alert, or less well guarded targets nearby. We will never stop crime nor criminals, but we can certainly make them work harder to get to us and ours, so they will look for easier victims.

To offer a slight adjustment to Ecclesiastes: The race isn't always to the swift nor the battle to the strong nor survival to the careful, but it's sensible to bet that way.

The tiger will eat. There is far more than luck, fate or bravado involved in avoiding being that next meal.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Circling The Prey? The Wagons? The Drain?

 Madam doesn't often concern herself in these messages with ongoing news items. But the secret merriness surrounding the issue of what the FAM really is, is really irresistible.

According to Diplopundit, AFSA just woke up from its usual moribund state to write, with great subtlety, courtesy, and apparently straight faces, to DirGen Arnold Chacon, "We would be grateful if you could help us understand if there is, in practice or by law, any difference in how these standards apply to and are enforced for non-career appointees as opposed to career employees, both Foreign Service and Civil Service."

This approach has clearly required a bit of thought and planning on AFSA's part. Rather than giving Mr Chacon a choice between The Fam Is God and "The FAM is Nice to Know if You Have Nothing Better to Do", AFSA instead has narrowed the issue in order to seem to offer an escape route. "Does the FAM," AFSA seems to be asking, "apply to the SecState too, or can that person (plus, of course, any old run-of-the-mill renegade, sexist, racist, lazy, arrogant, idiotic appointed ambassador) do as he/she pleases?" 

A positive response to this question could finally explain why, only a few years ago, FSOs were actually punished, in real life, for daring to write blogs of any sort - even blogs having very little to do with their professional lives and work - while COMs were free (and still are) to blog or tweet or YouTube any ludicrous, unprofessional nonsense they chose and were even praised for doing so in the name of 'outreach' and/or 'approachability.'  It might even explain what happened to the very short but wonderful life of a certain extremely welcome and useful Reddit poster, far more recently.

 The small but select membership of the State Blogging/Tweeting/Redditing Graveyard are no doubt very interested in how (or if) Mr Chacon will respond. It would be lovely to see a few careers rise from the dead.
The career graveyard always has room for more

 We will now return to our regularly scheduled consular commentary and nagging. Thank you for your time.

Monday, March 16, 2015

After All, What's The Worst That Could Happen?

 Unfunny comedies aside, this is a serious question that might have serious implications for just about any post in the world, however safe, secure, healthy and first-world it might seem. Not only does the list of hazardous posts seem to grow daily, even more and more of those that once could be depended on to be staid and stolid, year after year, are turning iffy. In the most respectable, stable countries, terrible things happen. Volcanoes in Italy. Terrorist attacks in France. Hurricanes in the South Pacific.

And who is responsible for helping American citizens in those places, in those unexpected and terrible events? Who is responsible for being ready at every moment to handle the worst ACS problem imaginable?
Me! I am!
 Yes dear, it's you.

And are you ready?

More and more, OIG inspection teams are forced to report "The consular staff has a limited understanding of the role the U.S military in ... would play in a crisis or how the consular section could assist the military. The consular staff does not conduct liaison activities with DOD personnel. According to 7 FAM 1813.2-4, consular crisis planning should include liaising with DOD officials in country."


"In the event of a crisis, consular staff is unprepared to operate emergency
communications equipment, including laptops and portable satellite telephone systems. Current laptops are old and use an antiquated operating system that the Department no longer supports."


"...the consular staff uses portable satellite telephones in the field to communicate with the embassy, the Department, local government authorities, and private U.S. citizens. The portable satellite telephones enable communication via Internet and telephone and are of primary importance during a crisis. The consular section is not conducting periodic drills to ensure that consular staff is proficient in the use of these telephones."


"According to 7 FAM 071 (Introduction), the consular section chief is responsible for managing post’s warden system, including periodic testing, and 12 FAH-1 H-711 (Crisis Preparedness – Purpose) notes that effective emergency planning requires training, drills, and exercises."


"In the event of a crisis, consular staff is unfamiliar with the range of support it could
expect to receive from, or provide to, other U.S. embassies in the region."


"Department regulation 12 FAH-1 H-332 (Post Profile) recommends that consular managers be aware of employees at U.S. embassies in neighboring countries who possess relevant skills and who could assist in a crisis. The consular section provided no documentation that it met this requirement."


"During past crises in ... consular staff coordinated the evacuation of private U.S. citizens to neighboring countries. The consular sections in U.S. embassies in those receiving countries have played central roles in coordinating (those) evacuations. ... Embassy ... should establish working agreements with U.S. embassies in neighboring countries that identify the types of consular support that it could receive from and provide to those embassies in the event of a crisis"


"Consular crisis plans do not reflect awareness of the crisis preparedness of groups that include substantial numbers of U.S. citizens. The embassy reports that 40 percent of the estimated 300 U.S. citizens in ...are attached to missionary organizations and an additional 40 percent work for nongovernmental organizations. Such organizations typically have their own crisis management plans. To prepare adequately for a crisis, the consular chief would benefit from familiarizing herself with the planning of those organizations, briefing leadership on the embassy’s crisis plans, and exploring areas for collaboration."


"To prepare adequately for possible crises, the Bureau of Consular Affairs relies on embassies’ crisis management plans, including periodic updated risk assessments that identify likely crises, describe the consular services to be provided, and detail the challenges the embassy faces in providing these services."

"The Office of Consular Crisis Management recommends that an embassy coordinate its crisis plan with consular sections of U.S. embassies in nearby countries. Embassy ... has not done so, however. Such coordination prepares embassies in the region to assist evacuated private U.S. citizens and to provide temporary duty officers, if needed."


"The consular section chief estimates that approximately 75 percent of the 5,500 U.S. citizens present...are attached to missionary organizations and a large proportion of the remaining 25 percent of U.S. citizens in ... are attached to nongovernmental organizations. Both missionary and nongovernmental organizations often have their own in-house crisis management plans that take advantage of the groups’ long-term experience in the areas in which their personnel live and work. Consular personnel need to be familiar with these organizations’ plans, to learn from them, and to identify how consular section’s crisis plans can complement them."


"The embassy has not informed the Bureau of Consular Affairs about its crisis plans. As a result, the bureau’s Office of Crisis Management is not aware of the types of support the embassy would need in the event of a crisis. The Bureau of Consular affairs underscores the importance of consular managers providing regular risk assessments that identify likely crises, needed consular services, and associated challenges."

Enfants, these go on and on. But when the ground is rolling, the bullets are pinging, the coconut palms are flying past your window, is not the time to wonder where your Amcits are and what you might have to do for them.
Maybe we need a meeting about how to handle this...

If, at the moment that the ground rolls, the bullets ping, the palms begin soaring, you, the consular officer, can rise from your desk and shout "Let's do it!" and every single consular employee will sprint for his or her emergency duty station to handle this crisis without a further single word, you will have done your job.

Until then, you've got some work to do.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Five Rules of Supervision

Madam is rarely struck silent by anything less than far too much tequila on a warm, dark night. But she has to admit that this item succeeded in not only sealing her lips but making her forget to blink for quite a long time.

Now that she has regained control of the most vital bodily functions, she feels this might be an appropriate time to turn away from blatant WTF stupidity and look at how the competent do - and should do - their jobs.

There are as many lists of such laws/rules/regulations/suggestions as there are people willing to write them, and this one is in no way definitive. But it is far shorter than most. It is clear, broad and simple and, while not getting into details, has been known, all on its own, to provide a reliable highway along which to drive a successful career - and pick up good karma along the way.
Control the controllable.  Life is a balance between what we can and cannot control. If you can fix the inefficient, the impolite, the repetitive, and the time-gobbling, absolutely do so. If it's hard, so what? What better things do you have to do? And what will give you the most satisfaction when you look back on your career?

Eliminate the uncontrollable. The true price of anything is the amount of time you exchange for it. If something you’re doing or thinking isn’t fixing or improving the situation, then it’s wasting your time. If you can, stop doing it. If you're certain that you can't, then explain, apologize, and get on with things.

Give away all the credit. You will be right to do so. Your employees will see what you're doing, and will love, support, and defend you when it counts. They will be emboldened to present long-suppressed great ideas that will truly improve the process. And you might make up for many years of credit-sucking officers who came before you.
Take all the blame. Protect your employees even at your own cost, always. That's your job. And if you had done your job properly, they wouldn't have made that mistake, right? They will see what you're doing, and will love, support, and defend you. And you might make up for a few of the many FSNs casually tossed under the bus by selfish, callow, shallow officers who came before you.

Bring the cookies. Madam is continually dismayed to watch officers chow down on the FSNs' contributions to the snack table (and don't even try to tell her that you don't have such a thing. She has seen it.) while providing nothing of their own.

Think this is trivial? It absolutely is not. It's a behavior that does not go unnoticed, and it implies all sorts of unflattering things about those who practice it: hierarchy-snobbery, selfishness, self-importance, cheapness, stinginess (not the same thing), untrustworthiness, disrespect.

 Can't (or won't) make complex local dishes? Nobody expects you to. Frequent bags of Oreos will serve. They will feed far, far more than tummies.
Yes. In your conscience.

Monday, March 9, 2015

And What About The Rest of That Story?

Here are a few simple rules of speedy, productive interviews, gathered over many years from mentors, co-consuls, subordinates, and experience. More suggestions for this list are warmly welcomed.

 1. Be Nice
     The good applicants will appreciate civility and good manners; the
     'bad' applicants will be disarmed by them. In any case, never forget
     that you are the only American these people might see today.
     Impress them with your calm, courtesy and professionalism,
      even in a refusal. Especially in a refusal.

2. Ask, Don't Tell
    "Where will you stay?" not "So you'll stay in a hotel in New York City?"
    "What is the purpose of your trip?" not "So it's a business trip."
    Why? To assure that the applicant actually knows what the application says.

3. If it Doesn't Matter, Don't Ask
    Don't waste time on questions whose answers are irrelevant.

4. Always Ask the Next Question
    If the story seems shaky or overly generalized, ask for pertinent details: "With
    whom will you conduct these business meetings?" "What will you see on the
    tour?" "What is your schedule of appointments?" "When did your niece meet
    her fiance?" People don't lie all that well; they run out of answers and end up
    at the end of the twig with nowhere further to go.
 EEK! I'm out of answers!
 5. Don't Ask a Question if You're Not Sure You Want to Hear the Answer.
     Most pertinent to ACS cases, often taking the form of "Why on earth...?" or
     "Honey, what were you thinking?"

6. Look It Up
    The internet is everywhere in the consular section. Applicant is going to a
    symposium or conference? A few seconds will assure you whether or not
    such a meetup will actually take place. If so, there will usually be a schedule
    of events or presentations that you can ask about if necessary.

7. If There's One Fib, It's All Untrue
    If the conference is not happening, the hotel doesn't exist, the dead guy didn't
    die and so is not having a funeral, the interview is over. You don't need the
    preponderance of evidence, just a single pertinent untruth and you're done.

8. If the Story Seems Unlikely But Hangs Together, It's True
    Again, people don't lie all that well. You will quickly get to know the specific lies
    that your applicants are likely to tell - and yes, they vary from post to post. If
    the applicant never runs out of answers to increasingly detailed questions,
    he's telling the truth.

9. Don't Agonize
    This revolutionary, nearly insidious, idea has long been perpetuated by the most
    realistic and professional consular managers: one shouldn't let the perfect be the
    enemy of the good. Grab a solution that seems reasonable and get on with life.

    Issuing a visa to a person who does not return is not the end of the world - only,
    sometimes, the source of some teasing. As a friend and colleague puts it, "Most
    officers I knew considered ... denying a case with weak visible ties but genuine
    intent to be preferable to (issuing an intending immigrant). The rationale was that
    the genuine would-be tourist with few visible ties suffered no major harm and
   could vacation somewhere else, but the sneak who got in somehow 'damaged'
   the USA."

   He probably doesn't, probably won't, and the world will not explode if you decide

    Just make up your mind and get on with it.

10. He Paid for the Visa, Not for the Interview
      Madam has watched officers drag out interviews with totally qualified
      applicants. When asked why, the officer would reply, "I feel like I owe
      them my time."

      No, you don't. All you owe them is a clear, prompt decision. A perfectly
      adequate NIV interview might consist solely of "Good morning. Your visa
      will be ready for pickup tomorrow. Have a good day." And a smile.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Iatrogenesis At Work

This title is understood, in the outside world, to refer to the creation of illnesses or complications by well-intentioned medical treatment. Here in our little consular universe, it refers to the type of NIV fraud that is practiced by applicants who are perfectly qualified under the law but who believe that telling the truth will not be good enough. And, as the world knows, the majority of applicants only get, at most, one fair chance. After that it's nearly all, always, routine re-refusals. So they doctor the application and only turn a good one bad. Or they get the visa anyway, but attribute that 'win' to the doctoring process and are encouraged to advise others to do the same.

 The lawyer is right - but is also wrong. Most interviews are less than 5 minutes.

Remember our dear friend Ali? This entrepreneur was able to send all his children to the colleges of their choice because of iatrogenesis; because visa applicants paid him to produce fraudulent documents to bolster their applications, even if there were no grounds under which, if telling the truth, they would or should have been refused. Because even the best qualified among them were sure that the truth would not work.

(Let Madam be clear here: she does not refer to those applicants for whom, no matter what documents they bought, there was no possibility in this world or the next that they would qualify for visas. They are a whole different group of - admittedly wonderful and highly entertaining - applicants. Who here doesn't remember favorite refusals far more clearly and fondly than favorite issuances? Madam thought so.)

Here is a brand-new-very-old news flurry about 'baby hotels' and about women paying huge amounts of money to 'fixers' who help them apply for NIVs, prepare for consular and CBP interviews, and travel to the US to give birth. The news footage on TV was dramatic. And yet, as we all know, having a baby in the US is not illegal. Traveling to the US to have a baby is not illegal. According to the story, "Zoning laws have generally been the primary legal tool against maternity hotels, since it is not illegal for pregnant foreigners to visit the United States or to give birth while visiting. And while lying to get a tourist visa is illegal, it is not easy to prove."

Zoning laws, the terror of the 214(b).

And the part about 'lying to get a tourist visa is illegal?' Does that mean the ladies should be permanently ineligible in the future because of fraud? 212(a)(6)(c) please? No. If the lie is not material - that is, if she would have qualified for the visa has she told the truth - the lie is not fraud. CA has reminded us of this, oh, maybe a jillion times. Maybe more than a jillion.

Imagine how pleasant life would have been for these ladies - all of whom, apparently, were wealthy and were fully intending to go home - had they been able to simply tell the truth. Instead they felt they had no choice but to be led through a maze of shady dealings and pay a huge amount to fixers. But had they told the truth, and had consular officers issued the visas to which they were entitled, they might have worried far less. They might have stayed in the Hilton San Gabriel, with room service, instead of a shabby boarding house surrounded by suspicious neighbors. They might have saved the money they paid the fixers to more easily pay the doctors and hospitals who delivered their babies. They might have made generous down payments on the babies' eventual US educations.

A highly experienced and highly pragmatic officer of Madam's acquaintance once observed "Every bona fide applicant given a 214(b) is living PROOF that other NIV applicants should not just tell the truth. They should buy fraudulent docs that puff up their income. They should lie about relatives in the USA, and civil status. They should say they plan to stay 2 weeks and not 2 months. Soon everyone is giving us fraudulent docs and telling us lies." And soon every consular officer believes he has reason to disbelieve every applicant, so refuses nearly everyone, proving that the applicants' original suspicions were true. So next time, if there is a next time, they'll lie even harder.

 Iatrogenesis Ourobouros, and so it goes

Monday, March 2, 2015

Aim For The Crash

Watching NASCAR races on TV puts Madam in mind of an instructor at the Crash and Bang Course (which was sometimes more sternly called the DSAC and which she strongly recommends that consular officers take as often as possible). The man said, "In auto racing we learn that, if there's a crash on the road ahead, don't try to stop because you'll get rear-ended and don't try to dodge around it because it's still moving. Instead, aim directly for it; by the time you get there, it will be somewhere else."
(Everybody survived)

And yes, Madam mostly watches the races for the crashes. Make something of it. She dares you.

She also reads inspection reports for the crashes. And has been known, when asked, to recommend troubled posts for ongoing assignments for the many consular officers who want something gristly to chew into submission; a Gordion knot to untangle; a wild horse to bend to the bit. Not to mention work worth doing, a great EER, a good reputation, and a promotion.

If the NASCAR model works, though, shouldn't it be true that by the time an officer gets to a badly-reviewed post it will be all better and there will no longer be anything to gnaw/untangle/bridle? No, because it seems to take much, much, much longer for bad posts to clear up than for cars to slide into the infield. She remembers the years - year after year after year - that a certain North African post carried a terrible reputation through inspection after inspection, change after change of officers, for decades.

So the same problems will be there? Some of them. And maybe some new ones. But, like so many NASCAR crashes (and most magic), such crashing and burning always/always looks, sounds and smells a lot more terrifying and complicated than it actually is.

Here is a great example. Keep in mind as you read the consular portion of this report that  inspectors are masters of understatement.

The head of this consular section didn't suffer for his genuinely awful management, since he was strolling into retirement anyway.* And careful reading reveals a large section populated with  smart, honest, competent employees - both FS and local - eager to do a better job than they were allowed to do. Once you've read that report, read a few others and you'll see the same pattern: worker already in place, most of whom are desperate to do a good job and all they need is a sane, serious, fearless, trusting and trustworthy hand to help them. Let such a hand it be yours. And, of course, give all the credit to them, which will reflect onto you and everybody wins. Without the noise and flying auto parts.

So, thinking about job hunting? Read inspection reports. Unlike NASCAR crashes, those targets move very, very slowly. Choose the one you find most enticing (smelly, tangled, inexplicably awful), would love to tackle, and go for it. With cleverness, imagination, application of laws and regs, cheering from CA, and confidence, you can fix it. Then, unlike #21 and #33 above, everybody will win.

And if you ever hear that that Crash and Bang Course is on, beg, borrow, steal, horsetrade or fib your way into it. It is extremely valuable: Madam credits what she learned there with three misses of what could have been very close calls. And it's terrific fun.

*This phenomenon, in which what used to be a highly-regarded, highly competent officer simply quits working, is referred to as RIP - Retired In Place.