Saturday, October 26, 2013

Winning American Spaces Style

Rathaus (City Hall) in Vienna, Austria
Thanks to the government reopening, training we had already paid for didn't have to be cancelled.

And so I was able to go to Vienna, Austria last week for an American Spaces workshop.

There are some 700 American Spaces worldwide (the link above says 820, but those include our Information Resource Centers (IRCs) that are for the most part no longer open to the public for security reasons).

American Spaces are often located in libraries and universities and are free and publicly accessible places where people can go to learn more about the United States. In a time when security concerns continue to increase, these spaces become more and more important as a means to reach foreign audiences.

In fact, during the shutdown, American Spaces were about our only form of outreach.

The folks who run these centers are usually not paid by us. They are librarians and library directors who do this because it provides a service to their patrons. And we do provide resources for the corners that those libraries might not have been able to afford otherwise, including lots of books and other materials. This year, I got a grant to buy web cams and projectors so that we could bring American speakers into the American Spaces virtually when it was not feasible time-wise or monetarily to bring them to the actual location. So it is a win-win.

All of this is to say I was really happy that this workshop went on, because we were able to send these folks who bear our message to their respective publics without financial compensation to Vienna to learn about more resources they can use and to share ideas. It was a fruitful few days and a nice treat on top. Again, win-win.

The workshop was actually cancelled one day before the government re-opened, fortunate timing because we were able to turn it back on quickly. And it was particularly useful for me as Public Affairs Officer because it gave me an opportunity to have the directors of all four of our American Spaces in Estonia in one place. I got to know them better, they got to know each other better, and we got to plan some future events. Lots of winning all around (and no Charlie Sheen in sight!).

Not related to the post other than that it is in Vienna and Halloween is coming...

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Fix

I was nearly in tears yesterday morning when I read that the House had passed the Senate's bill reopening the government and raising the debt ceiling.

Tears of relief.

I shouldn't feel that way about a job with the government. It is crazy that I, that we, have to worry about our government defaulting on the bills it has already agreed to. We aren't talking about budget cuts. Clearly there is some room there. We are talking about paying the money that the government has already borrowed and spent.

There should be security in loaning money to the federal government, just as there should be security in being a federal employee.

But there isn't anymore. That debt the U.S. has? That everyone says China holds? Well only just under a third of it is owned by foreign entities. More than a third is held in U.S. Government accounts. Most of the rest is held by a variety of investors, like mutual funds, pension funds, even the federal reserve. Oh wait, did I say mutual funds? Did you say you have one? Then yes, you too are a creditor of the federal government.

As am I. I hold government bonds in my portfolio, though not many because they are so secure, they aren't much risk. So they don't pay as much in return.

I considered selling my government stocks and bonds last week...because they no longer felt secure.

How crazy is that? How crazy is it that the U.S. government could no longer be considered the safe bet?

But it just isn't any more. Thanks for that, Congress.

So the shutdown is over, but the damage is done. One Senator speculated on what this has done to the "Republican Brand." I worry about what it has done to the American brand. Are people going to be less trusting that we are a safe investment? Probably. Are those affected by the shut down, those who were laid off or expected to be laid off, going to be willing to spend as freely even now that they are getting paid again? Probably not. And all of this is bad for the economy. Bad for America. That same Senator said it was time to put America before the Republican party. He is right and wrong. It is ALWAYS time to put our country ahead of our party. Always.

And they didn't do that even in the fix, because the fix is only temporary. We could go through this again in January, again in February.

I am sure I am not the only federal employee wondering whether it is worth it. Wondering whether service to a country that doesn't appreciate those who serve it is worth the risk. We love serving our country, but in choosing to do so, we traded the possible financial reward of the private sector for the job security of government work, and received neither.

So as I look around for my next assignment during bidding season, maybe I should look a little further afield, to jobs outside of government service. Because I am no longer sure I serve a trust-worthy employer.

And I am not sure what the fix is for that.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Crushing the Federal Workforce

I was thinking today about an article I saw in August on Federal News Radio. It was called "How long does it take to crush a federal employee?"

The article was written by Jeff Neal, who also runs

He makes some really good points in the article, written well before the shutdown, including:

"The fed-bashing has risen to unprecedented levels in recent years. Let's take an inventory. It has been 43 months (January 2010) since federal employees have received a general pay raise. Just this week the House voted to allow senior executives to be suspended without pay when accused of wrongdoing. Not found guilty of wrongdoing — just accused. They voted to allow anyone to record any conversation with a federal employee without the employee's consent. It isn't just one party either. A bipartisan majority voted to pass the "Stop Playing on Citizen's Cash Act" to restrict conference spending. Other bills are pending to cripple federal unions, deny feds' bonuses for outstanding performance, cut federal retirement benefits and more.

While that kind of rhetoric may be useful in politics, it is destructive for governance and the people who make up our government. These are not nameless, faceless bureaucrats. They are people. They have names. They have faces. They have families, feelings, hopes and dreams. They also have vital skills the government needs to operate effectively. More important for the government as an employer — they have choices and are free to leave. How long will it take before we crush the federal workforce? What happens if we do?

The damage has started already. Federal retirements are up and continuing to rise. Employee responses to the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey are showing increasing unhappiness. Virtually every question related to morale and engagement showed a decline from 2011 to 2012. Every chief human capital officer I've spoken with believes the numbers will be lower — much lower — in the next round of the survey."

I would bet he is right, especially with the shutdown.

He goes on to say:

"When I was HR director for the Defense Logistics Agency, we did extensive in-depth analysis of our employee survey data. One finding that stuck with me was how long it took new hires in a bad environment to become disillusioned with their jobs. One field office that had particularly bad ratings had great feedback from employees for the first two years. After that, the ratings dropped like a rock. Based on that admittedly limited data point, it appears it takes two years to crush an employee. After that, the damage becomes more difficult to repair. As the attitudes become more ingrained, they are harder to change. We cannot simply start giving pay raises again and stop bashing the workforce and expect everything to be right with the world again.

Study after study shows the corrosive effects of poor morale in the workplace. Productivity goes down, leave use goes up, discretionary effort goes down, and attention to detail is often non-existent. In her book "Good Company," author Laurie Bassi says, "The trademark of a worthy employer is the ability to masterfully manage the tension between employees as costs and employees as assets." I think that is a great standard — one that the federal government is failing to meet. The political battles today completely disregard the employees as assets and go beyond treating them as costs to the point where they are pawns in a political chess game. If we truly want to have a government that functions efficiently and effectively, it is time for the fed bashing to stop. Have the debates regarding the power and reach of government, but stop treating the federal workforce as though they are the problem. They are not, and they can only take so much before their spirit, dedication and willingness to serve are crushed beyond repair."

I am beginning to wonder whether we are there, or rapidly getting there, to that point where we are crushed beyond repair.

I feel it. My colleagues feel it.

None of us want to back to work, and the feeling is the same whether we are getting paid or not. Because you can only take so much of being told you are the problem before you say screw it and walk away. A lot of us are near that point. We are demoralized.

My wife and I were talking about that today at lunch. We both did well in school and came away thinking the world was our oyster. We could do anything we wanted. And we both ended up serving the country because we believed there was no higher calling. Our friends and families took higher paying jobs in the private sector and laughed at those who went the government service route. But we thought we were doing what was best for the country.

Now we are among the "excepted" employees (for a good explanation of exempt, excepted and furloughed employees situations, check out Jeff Neal's post Shutdown: It Could Get Worse Before It Gets Better.) We are getting paid, for the moment, but we know that will run out soon.

And it isn't just the money. Truthfully, my wife and I are squirrels. We have money in savings to last us some months before we would start being unable to pay our bills. It is just the constant battering from Congress and the public. We are excepted because our work can't stop during a shutdown for national security reasons. And during that time, we have to work, without pay, without being able to work for other companies, without being able to borrow from our retirement accounts. We are important enough to be prohibited from striking, but not important enough to be appreciated or paid for our efforts.

I kind of think that if this goes on further, we should strike. Yes, President Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers, but I don't think they could fire all of us.

Maybe if we actually stopped working, instead of continuing this farce that allows the people who genuinely believe they don't need government to continue in that belief, they would stop playing around with people's lives. If we actually stopped working, they would see what a real government shutdown felt like and how much the government does for each and every citizen. OMG, what do you mean we can't fly because there are no TSA folks to screen us or air traffic controllers to keep the skies safe? What do you mean people are flooding across our borders because there is no one guarding them? What do you mean FEMA can't help us with this storm damage. What do you mean I can't get my social security check, my food stamps, my tax refund, etc. Etc. Etc. Yes, you paid for those services, but no one is paying those bills now. You may have paid your cable bill, but if the cable company doesn't pay its employees to come in and run things
, you aren't going to still get to watch Showtime.

Maybe people would realize that if we actually stopped working.

But of course we can't do that. Because we are took important to be allowed to.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

The Waiting Game

So now the waiting begins.

Those who know me know waiting patiently is my special talent.

I'll give you a minute to stop laughing.

It seems like I am waiting for just about everything at the moment.

Waiting to see how much longer we will get paid.

Waiting to see if Congress will reopen the government (side note: the media needs to stop calling it a partial shutdown. The reason it is "partial" is because lots of folks are working without pay).

Waiting to see if they will drive our country's economy over the cliff by not raising the debt ceiling.

And, of course, waiting for our onward assignment.

All bids were due yesterday. I had mine in early, but of course, I did a bit of last minute lobbying yesterday and will do an interview on Wednesday for a job that was just added to the list this past week and jumped immediately to my core bids.

I have been talking with friends who are in the same position, hoping for some clarity. Hoping for an "air kiss" until announcements can be made, begrudging those who practically got french kissed ("Don't accept a handshake from anyone else without talking to us first).

I want some of that.

Our top choice isn't looking good. We got a "you're on our radar" but that they really don't want to bring in a stretch candidate (you can bid on a job that is one grade above your rank if it is a hardship post, and for bidding purposes, you are considered to be that higher rank. But the truth is that they will likely go through all the others at that actual rank before really considering you.

Our second choice looks better, and really, it was never second by much. I hear great things about the incoming Ambassador, and he sounds like someone I would love to work for. But there, I got a "you are a very strong candidate," which isn't even an air kiss. In fact, it isn't even telling us we are on the short list. But again, we aren't supposed to be told we are short listed until Tuesday.

So we wait.

Many of my friends are in the same boat, and clearly feeling the same way. 

On Facebook last night I wrote: "Bidding reminds me of when I was a kid in gym class, waiting to be picked for some team, and fearing I'd be picked last."

And my friends were quick to respond:

Friend 1: And the game is dodge ball.

Friend 2: Even worse, because you don't know what the game will really be, who will be on your team when you get there, or even who, exactly, is making the decision.

Friend 3: it's worse cause you don't even know if they've secretly given away all the slots on the team!

And all that was in addition to responses of "Word," "Exactly," and a plea to just put us back on directed assignments. 

So we all wait.

There are some DC jobs that look good too, but ideally we would like to go back to DC just for a year of language and then come back overseas. The work here is more fun.

Plus, overseas, the political noise is a little quieter. You don't hear the constant news about the constant fighting between the political parties and the two sides of our ideologically divided country.

You have to wait to hear it. And mostly, I am okay with waiting for that.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

We Interrupt This Shutdown For....


Apparently it is never going to end. Or at least not before we drive the world economy over a cliff.

Sorry, this whole issue is getting the better of my normally cheery disposition. (I'll wait for you to stop laughing).

You know what doesn't get interrupted by the shutdown?

Apparently, a "right-sizing team."

That should be fun. Sigh. Do they ever right-size you up? Because really, our embassy needs more people, not fewer. Illness, pregnancy, curtailments all affect us profoundly because we are so small and so understaffed. We have regularly been told (and not by ourselves) we need another pol/econ officer and another PD FSN. But I don't expect that to come from this.

You know what else doesn't stop for the shutdown?

BIDDING! (I picture you reading that with a Charlie Sheen imitation in your head, and like him, it doesn't sound like winning even if you say it enthusiastically enough.)

Bids are still due on Friday.

I suppose they might as well be, since there isn't a lot else in PD land that we can do at the moment. NO outreach. None. It is depressing...especially since I really like outreach. I also can't plan for the future because we have no idea what the future will hold.

But I am caught up on all the references I had to give for other people who have asked me to do one for their bidding. I hope they are all caught up on mine.

A lot of people in the Department are beginning to do the dance we do at bidding. I like you. Do you like me? Do you like like me or just like me?

But we use difference words. Where does our post rank for you? You are on our short list. You are definitely in contention.

God I hate this (but if you have been reading this blog for more than five minutes, you knew that already. If you are interested, you can always read this post or any of the 21 other posts I have written with the "bidding" label on them. And probably more I forgot to label.). And making it bad this time is that the bureau I am in and hope to stay in for another tour (EUR, or the European Affairs Bureau) is apparently playing by the book. No air kisses until after the bids are in. No telling people even so much as that they are on post's short list. And EUR posts are three of my six core bids (not western Europe mind you...we were looking for hardship so my bids are on places further east).

As a mid-level officer, you are required to bid on six "core" positions, that is, six jobs that are "at grade" (at your rank, or, if the post is a hardship post, up to one rank higher than your current rank) and "in cone" (in your career track. For me, obviously, that is Public Diplomacy. But "interfunctional" jobs also count as "in cone" for everyone). Now just because you bid on those core doesn't mean you can't bid on other jobs too. You can bid on jobs higher than your rank at non-hardship posts (or posts that aren't quite hard enough, like Tallinn) but you will have to wait an extra two months to learn your assignment because they have to give preference to those at grade/in cone folks. You can also bid on jobs that are not in your career track, but again, in cone folks get preference. So when I was bidding to come here, I had my six core bids, but I didn't reach out to any of the folks making the decisions for those jobs (a process called lobbying) because I wanted this one. It was frankly terrifying. Because it is a will end up with a job eventually (which is the ONLY thing that sets bidding apart from a regular job hunt, otherwise, the resumes, the interviews, the nail biting, all the same), but it could be a crappy job working for a monster in Ickystan.

This time, I am actually trying for the jobs that I have listed as my core bids. So theoretically, I will know my next assignment come November. But that is if I get one of those core jobs, or one of the other jobs I put on my list because they would also be fine with me. Since three of my core bids (and one non-core) are all in EUR, I have lobbied the bureau and told them what my priorities are. The main one being, I want to be assigned to the same post as my wife. Then all things being equal, there are two posts in eastern Europe we are interested in and two jobs in DC (tandems often go back and forth between DC and overseas because it is easier to find jobs in DC and easier to lobby for overseas jobs from there).

At this point, I don't even know what I want. My head says I want one of those two overseas jobs (or even the third overseas job, one which is not in EUR but is in a place where people know me and I could visit the beach every day) because the work overseas is just more fun (except when it isn't, like when the government is shut down) and because living overseas is fun. But my heart wants to go home, because when things are crappy at work you can always go back to a house you chose and walk on your neighborhood trails or pick up takeout at your favorite restaurant and it is all in your native language, your native culture, and is just easy.

But that could be the shutdown talking.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

But They Closed Our Monuments!

People are really getting annoyed by the shutdown. Good. Wanna know some other things about this shutdown that really annoy me? Some of the stuff people are saying about the shutdown.

1. Why Did They Have To Close the Monuments?

People complaining about closing the national parks and monuments. Especially the monuments.

They are just statues, open memorials, they say. They don't even need anyone to run them. We have kept World War II vets from visiting the World War II memorial. Kept families from going to museums on vacation. One House member had the gall to make a park police officer apologize for the shutdown he voted for.

If you think having the monuments open doesn't require federal employees, you are wrong. Just because you don't see us (and there is part of the problem...we are all just nameless, faceless bureaucrats), doesn't mean we aren't there. We are there, and you want to know why? Because more go to those monuments than just vacationers and veterans. Know who else goes? People who leave their trash behind. People who like to vandalize. Kids (or kids in grown up bodies) who like to climb all over the monuments, fall down, break something, and then sue the government. So yeah, extra work had to be done to cordon off the monuments to protect the monuments and to protect visitors, just like extra work had to be done everywhere in the federal government in order to implement the shutdown. But that work meant that only one unpaid park ranger could monitor the monument instead of several unpaid park rangers and cleanup crews. It is the fiscally responsible thing to do.

In the same vein, why did they shut down all the websites? It isn't just to inconvenience you. It is that the websites, if left up, are vulnerable to hackers. Taking it down means not having to go through every piece of information on the site once this is all over to make sure it hasn't been altered. That, my friends, is also the fiscally responsible thing to do.

2. Isn't it great that all those House members offering to donate their salaries?

Yeah, it is awesome. They are getting their salaries and getting to donate them to the charity of their choice in exchange for looking like they are suffering along with the federal employees who are not getting paid. Two things: they have a choice to donate or not, whereas the laid off employees are just not getting paid. And two, I don't hear any of them saying that they will forego the nice tax deduction for those donations. So they will get their money back eventually.

And speaking of eventually...

3. Isn't is great that the House has passed a bill promising to give all of the laid off employees back pay when this is over?

Yeah, awesome. But here is the thing. Is your mortgage due eventually? Because mine isn't. Mine has a regular due date. As do my other bills. So great, federal employees will get their back money, hopefully in time not to destroy their credit and lose their homes. Oh, and I am sure their families can wait until eventually to eat.

Oh and here is the final one.

4. You wouldn't run your family budget the way the government runs their budget.

True, because they aren't the same. I can't print money or raise taxes. But here is the other thing. Raising the debt ceiling is not about cutting your family budget. It is much more like deciding not to pay the mortgage you already agreed to. And then not just losing your house, but being the straw that broke the bank's back so that they have to close, and everyone who they hold a mortgage on losing their homes too.

There are people who are cheering on those who pushed us to this point (even among my family and friends, who don't seem to get that they are cheering for me to be out of work. Something I would never do to them). But here is the thing. If they succeed, the country will be ungovernable. Because you have a minority group in the majority party in the House calling the shots over a law that was compromised on, approved by both houses, signed by the president, found constitutional by the Supreme Court and then vetted in a national election where the people chose not to give a majority in the Senate or the presidency to the party fighting against that law. Frankly, I don't care whether you like the law or not. If you don't like it, get it repealed the right way. Get like-minding people elected to the majority and have that majority repeal the law. But to do it this way, so that a minority can hold the country hostage and can lay off 800,000 people and stop the government from functioning and threaten the world's economy because they couldn't get the law repealed any other way, means that any time a minority group doesn't like a law, they can do the same thing. There will be no real laws. And the country will be completely ungovernable.

And then more than museums and monuments will be closed.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Stop Saying We Are Furloughed

The use of the word furlough has been bugging me, and last night I figured out why.

I was watching a tv show, and a guy told his girlfriend he would come visit her once he got furlough.

You see, furlough can be used to describe someone, especially someone in the service, being granted leave.

It is a much nicer word than what is happening, which is that people are being laid off. Temporarily probably, but laid off none the less.

The shutdown has caused more than 800,000 people to be laid off, and there are probably more lay offs to come.

This is not "leave." They are not on vacation. And chances are good they will not get paid for the time they were laid off.

I know that in the past, even those who are not "excepted" got paid eventually, but that was under a different climate.

Now we live in a political climate that despises federal employees. That thinks it is okay to freeze our pay for three years and counting. That thinks it is okay to cut people's pay by 20% thanks to the sequester. That thinks we are parasites living off the goverment.

Consider what Fox's Stuart Varney just said about federal employees when asked if we deserved back pay. He said that we are "living on our backs, and taking money out of us, a lot more money than most of us earn in the private sector, then getting a furlough, and then getting their money back at the end of it. Sorry, I'm not for that. I want to punish these people. Sorry to say that, but that's what I want to do."

That's right. He wants to "punish" us. For serving you. For keeping you safe overseas. For fighting wars for you. For keeping the museums and parks open for you. For finding cures for your diseases. For keeping your food safe and your environment clean. For serving you.

And let's discuss the whole "making more than most of us do in the private sector." Actually not true. The GOI found that while some at the lower end of the government pay scale do earn more than their private sector counterparts, this is actually not true for the majority of federal employees. Most of us earn in the neighborhood of 25% LESS than we could in the private sector, and that was before our pay was frozen for three years (and counting). But we make that sacrifice in order to serve the country. And we make it expecting job security in return.

We certainly don't have that now.

I am one of the lucky ones. I am "excepted," so I am still working, and still getting paid. (Much of my work continues to involve cancelling long-planned programs, and so is really demoralizing). There is no guarantee on how long that will last. Given my position, I will probably continue to be excepted even as this drags on, but the being paid and paid on time will become more questionable.

And while all of this is happening, our country is becoming less safe. Seventy percent of intel employees have been laid off. Gee, I hope there are no terrorist threats while there is no one to listen. Wonder who will be blamed if there are. And training for embassy security has been cancelled even as the Department continues to be blamed for not doing enough to protect our missions and consulates.

And while all of this is going on, members of Congress are still getting paid. Oh some are donating their checks to charity (you won't be claiming that on your taxes now, will you Mister Representative?). Others, like Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-NC) said they would not be deferring her pay during the government shutdown.

"I need my paycheck. That's the bottom line," Ellmers told WTVD in Raleigh, N.C. "I understand that there may be some other members who are deferring their paychecks, and I think that's admirable. I'm not in that position."

Neither am I, Rep. Ellmers. Neither are any of the laid off federal employees who made considerably less than your $174,000 a year.

But we aren't given a choice.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

A Letter from The President to Federal Employees

I especially like this part:

"Today, I wanted to take a moment to tell you what you mean to me — and to our country.

That begins by saying thank you for the work you do every day — work that is vitally important to our national security and to American families’ economic security. You defend our country overseas and ensure that our troops receive the benefits they deserve when they come home. You guard our borders and protect our civil rights. You help small businesses expand and gain new footholds in overseas markets. You guide hundreds of thousands of people each day through the glory of America’s national parks and monuments, from Yosemite to the Statue of Liberty. And much more.

You do all this in a political climate that, too often in recent years, has treated you like a punching bag. You have endured three years of a Federal pay freeze, harmful sequester cuts, and now, a shutdown of our Government. And yet, you persevere, continuing to serve the American people with passion, professionalism, and skill.

None of this is fair to you. And should it continue, it will make it more difficult to keep attracting the kind of driven, patriotic, idealistic Americans to public service that our citizens deserve and that our system of self-government demands."

Wednesday, October 02, 2013


We are now on Day 2 of the shutdown of the U.S. government.

Day 2 of me trying to reassure my staff.

Day 2 of spending hours turning off things it took months to plan, knowing that if the government reopens, we will have to scramble to turn them back on.

Day 2 of worrying about getting paid, of rechecking our savings, reassuring myself we can get by for a time because we have squirrelled away a bit into savings. Day 2 of wishing I still had the downpayment we made on the house in the savings account, just in case.

Day 2 of worrying about my friends who aren't "excepted," ("excepted," if you are wondering, means everyone gets sent home without pay "except" you. You get to keep working, "except" without the guarantee of getting paid), who are unlikely to get paid during this shutdown.

I would like to go on a political rant about what brought us to this point but I won't.

I will say it is demoralizing. It is no way to treat people who have devoted their lives to the service of the country.

And I will say that it is infuriating that Congress continues to get paid while the federal workforce is furloughed. Aren't they federal employees too? And I will say that it infuriates me further when they talk of "needing their salaries" when they make so much more than the overwhelmingly middle class federal employees who are not getting paid. Or when they say they will donate their salaries to charity during the shutdown. Because unless they are planning not to claim that as a deduction on their taxes, we all know they will get that money back.

I think it is time that we change the 27th Amendment, which doesn't allow Congress to change its own pay, to require that Congress not be paid during periods of government shutdown.

And I would suggest that maybe all of us federal employees should send our monthly bills to Congress, with a note saying "We could pay our bills if you would pay yours."

Or as a friend put it: #mylivelihoodisnotabargainingchip.