Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Jason Ullner: I work for Uncle Sam, and I’m proud of it

The Washington Post had a piece yesterday by Jason Ullner, a fellow Foreign Service Officer, entitled: "I work for Uncle Sam, and I’m proud of it".

In it, Jason echoes the frustrations many of us have felt (and blogged about) regarding the current climate in the states of using federal employees as the whipping boys over our budget problems.

He writes:

Like many federal workers, I have sacrificed: a high-paying job in the private sector; a year of my life (and the first six months of my daughter’s life) spent in Iraq; long hours; high stress; pay freezes. I’m not complaining; in fact, I quite enjoy my career and my life in the Foreign Service. Yet when I hear our politicians talking about “fixing” Washington, I often wonder to myself: whom would they like to “fix?” Is it the guy I see on the Metro every day, heading to work at the Food and Drug Administration to ensure that our food is safe? Is it the woman going into Commerce Department headquarters to support U.S. companies abroad? Or do they mean the thousands of people who support our troops overseas? How about my fellow Foreign Service officers, who put themselves in harm’s way in Baghdad, Kabul, Damascus and hundreds of other places around the world?


So to all our politicians, I implore you: Stop using the government workforce as a political football. Just stop. It demeans you, it demoralizes us, and it is counterproductive to drive away the best and brightest from working for the betterment of this country.

We don’t do our jobs for glory, or money or power. We do them — and do them well — because we take pride in our work and pride in representing the United States of America.

You can ready the entire piece here.

AFSA Guidance on the Personal Use of Social Media

AFSA released the following memo on the sue of social media, including blogs. Well worth a read, though it restates what we have seen before. Lots of it is common sense.


AFSA Guidance on the Personal Use of Social Media

We are fortunate to live in a world where innovative technology allows us to communicate in new and wondrous ways. Social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs now allow us to communicate instantaneously with potentially thousands of “fans” and “followers.” Just as the State Department and the other foreign affairs agencies have embraced these new communication tools, many of our members are using innovative ways to connect with audiences in their private and professional capacities.

AFSA supports the use of social media. But any form of communication – via social media, telephone, e-mail, or just old-fashioned conversations – is governed by social norms and etiquette, and requires good judgment and common sense. Anyone who has ever said something they wish they hadn’t, tried to recall an e-mail sent in haste, or deleted a comment on Facebook understands the impact that the spoken and written word can have in our personal and professional lives. Electronic media – particularly anything broadcast over the internet – presents its own unique perils and challenges. As the saying goes, “What happens on the internet, stays on the internet.”

AFSA is currently examining the evolving issue of the use of social media by Foreign Service employees. In the meantime, we offer these words of advice to any of our members who are currently or planning to use social media, particularly blogs:
Read the Existing Regulations. The current regulations regarding the use of social media can be found in 5 FAM 790 “Using Social Media (pdf).” Although we understand that some of these rules with their cross-references to other FAM cites are confusing, we strongly recommend that any AFSA member using social media – especially where the lines between professional, personal and private use may be blurred – read them and if you don’t understand something – ask.

Avoid Divulging Private and Confidential Information. Here is where many people run afoul of the regulations. Be sure not to divulge any information that includes confidential or personally identifiable information. Examples of these include but are not limited to visa cases, information about other individuals, or classified information (for example, linking to WikiLeaks.)
Remember that you are a Foreign Service USG employee. Even though you may have the required disclaimer on your blog, be aware that the public still may not differentiate between your official and private views. You should be mindful of the weight of your expressed views as a U.S. government official, particularly when your blog uses the “hook” of your Foreign Service connections to attract readers.

Review Your Privacy Settings. Make sure you are aware of the privacy settings of the social media platform you are using and how to adjust them. Platforms such as Facebook often change these settings without informing users. Periodic review of these settings is important, and we recommend having them set to the highest levels. For blogs, you may even want to consider restricting access so that only your family, friends and colleagues have access.

Use Good Judgment. We can’t emphasize this enough. As we noted above, all forms of human communication require good judgment, tact, etc. And what happens on the internet, stays on the internet. When in doubt, leave it out.

Contact Us If You Have Problems. If you are an AFSA member and are approached by management or Diplomatic Security regarding your use of social media, be sure to contact us so that we can assist you with any legal or other issues.

We hope the above information is useful. We do want to hear from our members regarding this evolving issue. If you have a concern or opinion regarding the use of social media, please let us know via www.afsa.org or call us at 202-338-4045. For assistance with issues related to social media, please contact our labor management office at 202-647-8160 or e-mail AFSA’s lead attorney on the issue, Raeka Safai, at SafaiR@state.gov.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

I Never Saw A Protest

I can't tell you how many people, including my wife's parents, questioned our sanity for going to Greece while they were having lots of protests.

But we never saw them. Luckily for us, they announce their protests so that they can get the most people possible. So we just stayed away from the areas with planned protests. We did see some people carrying a large banner once, but we were in a cab headed away from that area.

What we did see, however, were things on my bucket list. Namely, the Acropolis and the Parthanon.

But I got to see more. Like the Temple of Hephaistos.

And the Temple of Poseidon at Sounion.

It was a very cool visit!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Something Else I Love About Post...

When you come back after a trip and people say "Welcome back!," it doesn't feel like a curse.

You might have noticed I didn't post much last week, and that when I did, it was in white (don't go look now, I already fixed it!). That is because it is really hard to blog with an ipad and I didn't take my laptop with me to Greece.

Yep, I was soaking up the sun in Greece (the folks there are convinced that it is FREEZING there, but the temperature was a good 30-40 degrees warmer than it is here, so it felt awesome to me!

We met up with a friend from Jerusalem (who is now serving in Athens) at the Athens airport and headed straight to Chania, Crete. OMG the water there is the most beautiful blue! We stayed at the Casa Defino, which I highly recommend! They kindly upgraded us to the penthouse suite, so we had a private balcony with a nice view of the water.

We spent the weekend there, eating at little restaurants around Chania and wandering around the Old City.

Our friend opted to get the fishies to eat her feet, a "spa treatment" that is apparently all the rage there. I opted to watch and take pictures.

Monday, February 20, 2012

How does post make me happy? Let me count the ways!

I am unbelievably lucky.

Jill over at The Perlman Update asked us each to talk about what we liked about our CURRENT post for this week's FS Blog Roundup.

There have been times when I would have been hard pressed to come up with ANYTHING I liked about my post.

And perhaps I am, six months in, still in the honeymoon phase in Tallinn. But I love pretty much everything about post.

* I love my job. I get to do interesting work every day. And I have a great Ambassador who seems to trust my judgement. And who is great with the media. And who is just genuinely nice. You can't underestimate the importance of a good boss.

* I love that I have a fantastic team. No exaggeration, they are all rock stars. And my other coworkers are a great group of folks. While I have my favorites, there is not a single person I dislike. Definitely not the case in the past!

* I love Tallinn...so much interesting to do, places to go, restaurants to eat in...now featuring life with my wife! I love how walkable the city is. I love that I get to use my language. I love that Estonians, who everyone said were cold and too reserved, are actually warm and friendly, especially if you have studied their language. And I love that they are E-stonia!

* And I love that I am finally getting to live in and travel Europe. I remembered as I travelled through Munich the other day that the leather jacket I was wearing was the one I wore when I visited Germany for the first time nearly 20 years ago (yes, I am cheap). And it was on that trip that I told myself that Europe was a place I could enjoy living. And enjoying it I am...this weekend I enjoyed it on the island of Crete!

Saturday, February 18, 2012


The fire alarm went off again.

At 10:30 on Thursday night.

When I had to get up at 4:50.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

False Alarm

My nightmares tend to follow one of three patterns. Two have no discernible cause, but the third definitely does.

Every since a fire alarm salesman came to our house when I was about five and showed a scare-tactic film about people without smoke alarms dying in fires, I have had nightmares about fire.

I had one Sunday night. A house two houses from me was smoldering and the one next to me started burning. By the time I grabbed a water hose, it was engulfed, and I told my wife we had to get home and get the pets because I knew ours would be next.

We got home and I called the fire department. They knew about the fires but were nonchalant. They would get there eventually, they said.

I woke up with my heart just pounding. I got up and checked the house and all the pets to make sure they were okay. Everything was fine, but the only thing that enabled me to go back to sleep was making a detailed evacuation plan in my head for how to get me, my wife and all the pets out in case of fire.

The dream didn't feel like a premonition. But when at about 11:10 pm two nights later, the building fire alarm went off, it sure felt like one!

My wife and I got up and put on our clothes. She went and got the at carriers and I got the bird carrier. We calmly loaded the pets into the carrier and went down seven flights of stairs and into the snow. It took us maybe five minutes. Luckily, we seem to share a brain in crisis...neither of us panicked. We just got it done.

On my way out of the house, I grabbed my external hard drive and the garage door opener.

Once outside, I used to garage door opener to enter the garage from the outside and I ran in and got our car. We then loaded all the pets into the car to protect them from the cold.

Lucky we did...we were outside for about an hour before the security folks cleared the alarm and let us back in. The fire department never showed. Also a no show...ANY Estonians. The only other folks to evacuate were someone from Finland and someone from Lithuania. Also a no-show...the neighbor who set off the alarm with a pot on the stove...she didn't bother to let those of us standing in the snow know that there was not really a fire.

At any rate, my take-away from this is that having a plan really helps. That if something bad happens, both of us will be calm and do what we need to do to get our family to safety.

I feel better knowing that.

I suppose an hour in the snow is not too great a price to pay for that.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Global Post: State Department makes sea change on LGBT rights

There is a nice piece in the in the Global Post about all that Secretary Clinton has done for the global LGBT community.

State Department makes sea change on LGBT rights


“The State Department has gone from the world’s principal advocate for anti-gay policy to one of the great leaders for LGBT rights,” said David K. Johnson, a professor at the University of South Florida and the author of “The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government.”


Amen. And as someone who directly benefits, thank you Secretary Clinton!

You can read the whole piece here.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Dealing With The Blogroll

I see my blog as doing three primary things: telling my dad what I am up to, covering LGBT issues in the Foreign Service, and helping recruit good people to join the Foreign Service.

A big part of that last one is my blogroll.

Which blogger has now decided to screw around with.

Sometime a few weeks back, they decided to have an arbitrary limit on their links gadget. I think that limit is 166. Who came up with THAT number?? Anyway, what that means is that while my blogroll of well over 300 blogs still works, I can't edit it. At all. Which means I can't remove double listings. Can't delete some blogs that have been completely deleted. And most importantly, I can't add new blogs.

So I made a new one, just below the old one, with the oh so creative title of "More FS Blogs." New FS blogs (or old ones that I suddenly find) will go there. As will the "graduates" from the Future FS Roll.

In other news, the weather here has warmed up a bit. Never in my life did I think 18F would seem warm, but after -25F, it seems positively balmly.

M and I took advantage of the "warm" weather to head out to the Tallinn suburb of Viimsi to take some pictures. I'm glad we did...the frost of the trees was magical and had melted by later in the day. Also cool are the ice and snow covered rocks in the frozen waters of the Baltic. And at the Viimsi Open Air Market, we got to see sled dogs...because it is that cold here!

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Drawing From The Same Well

I know I sound like a broken record. But seriously, how long do federal employees have to be the country's whipping boy?

Yes, I know we have to solve the debt problem. I know we need to make cuts.

I also know that they already cut Foreign Service Officers' pay when we go overseas (by about 8%). I know that they are talking about cutting it further (by another 16%).

I know they have already frozen our pay for two years. I know they are also talking about freezing it for another one to three years. Meaning no cost of living increases for up to five years.
I know that is already cutting hard into my retirement.

And now, they want to freeze our annual step increases as well.

This isn't about the money now. I am by no means well off, but I can live on what I earn.

This is about several things.

First, this lowers the amount I will receive in retirement because retirement is based on my highest few years' salary. And they won't retroactively give me credit for what I would have earned.

Great you say, but at least you can expect a pension from your employer.

That is true. But one of the reasons I am working in this career, instead of making the approximately 25% more I could expect to earn in the private sector is because I like the security of a pension. This is a choice I made with my retirement in mind. If they are going to take that from me, I should work elsewhere.

And yes, you probably heard that federal employees are actually overpaid. This is only true among the very lowest paid federal employees. But among those federal employees who are doctors, lawyers, scientists, and yes, diplomats, we earn far less than we would in the private sector. And we do it because we want to serve the country. But we also make a conscious choice - lower pay now in exchange for job security and secure retirement.

If you take away the job security and the secure retirement, people will leave. Great you say, we need smaller government. Fine, but I bet you'd be surprised how much you need some parts of government. The Foreign Service, for example, is far from overstaffed. We are stretched thin. And we are the ones who help you out when you get robbed overseas or lose your passports. We are the ones who work with governments to forge agreements to keep our businesses competative and our military out of wars. I assure you, we are worth far more and save far more than we cost.

And when we leave, we will have to be replaced for that very reason. But it costs a lot more to recruit and train a new person, even at a lower salary if you are willing to forego experience, that we cost currently.

And here is the final point. Constantly whipping on those who are serving the country is not going to save you much. We are an easy target, but we are a miniscule part of the budget. The real areas for savings are also the untouchables. Just witness the recent wailing and gnashing of teeth over cutting the defense budget. A budget that is as large as it is because we have been at war. Wars that are now coming to a conclusion. It is a natural place to cut. But no one wants to. Because that might mean cutting jobs, and we'd rather cut federal jobs. Because we all know that an unemployed federal worker won't collect unemployment like an unemployed person elsewhere in the private sector...oh wait.

So let's make the hard choices. Let's deal with the debt. But let's recognize that punishing federal workers over and over again won't solve the problem. If you cut our salaries, we will spend less, which will hurt the economy. If you cut our jobs, we will join the unemployment lines and increase the overall unemployment numbers. If you cut our retirement, you make us one more person needed government assistance at the end of our careers.

These things you will do.

But balance the budget? That you won't do.

Because you are only cutting what is easy, what is politically expedient, what looks good to your constituents, but what does nothing substantial for fixing our budgetary problems.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Why Does Water Hate Me?

Yesterday, right as I was about to go into press brief, my phone rang.

It was my wife. I knew this because I set Foreigner's "Urgent" as her ringtone. :D

And it was. Urgent that is.

Our bedroom ceiling was leaking.

Those of you who have been reading a while know we had a ceiling "issue" back in our home in Virginia in July of 2010. And by issue, I mean it collapsed. On us. In bed at 3 am. Because of a leak.

And it took about 3 months before the condo association's insurance refused to cover it, and another 3 months or so before the work was finally done. And during that six months, we had a 10 ft by 6ft hole in our bedroom ceiling, plus another in the office, and the hall, and the downstairs living room.

So the sound of dripping, or a report of a leaky ceiling, now instantly spikes my blood pressure.

So I hung up and called GSO. He wasn't at his desk (he's a busy guy, and not only because of me!) so I told my APAO to handle press brief (because I am fortunate to have a really reliable APAO!) and ran upstairs.

We got folks to the apartment quickly. Turns out, the neighbor upstairs had a flood in her kitchen. Which is apparently above our bedroom.

The damage appears minimal. They will have to replace part of the ceiling, but luckily M was home and was able to clean up before it damaged her clothes (part of the leak was over the closet) or the floor. So at least there is that. Now it is a matter of the neighbor's insurance and the landlord and her insurance and the embassy all sorting it out. Thankfully, I can stay out of all that, but I will have to endure repairs.

This latest water incident comes on the heels of the boiler for our building, which is apparently not even in our building, dying, leaving us with NO hot water for a few days. And let me tell you, with the temps these days, you need a hot shower to thaw out!

You've seen those stories of eastern and central Europe being in a hard freeze? That's us. Today, the high is supposed to be -6. The HIGH. The low is supposed to be -24. Fahrenheit, not celsius.

And let me tell you, that is really frickin' cold.