Specialists Reflect on Their Work

The Journal invited AFSA members who are specialists to share stories and thoughts on their own experience in a particular specialty or the career track generally. Here is a selection of the responses we received. We thank all those who responded.

—Shawn Dorman, Editor

Best. Job. Ever.

By William Middleton
Information Resource Officer for
Bangladesh, India, Nepal & Sri Lanka

As with some of the other specialties, IROs often have shorter Foreign Service careers because prior work experience is a prerequisite. As a result, retirements come fast and turnover is brisk, so there’s a steady stream of new, although not necessarily young, IROs. With such a small corps—there are only about 30 of us—staffing gaps can open up if the roster isn’t refreshed regularly.

As for the work, if public diplomacy is about the creation of political space, and about influencing public opinion so that a country’s leadership has room to move in a new direction, then IROs’ role in public diplomacy involves developing and supporting the platforms—in particular the physical spaces—where that political space can be created.

IROs perform this alchemy by working with American Spaces—the generic term for Information Resource Centers, American Corners, American Centers and Binational Centers. Of the more than 700 American Spaces around the world, more than 460 are American Corners. American Corners—partnerships with host-country institutions in which we provide the books and computers and the partner provides the staff and space—are only a decade old, and their rapid growth has had a huge impact on IRO work.

AFSA / Jeff Lau

One gets used to cycles in this business. Twenty years ago, our marching orders were to convert all our walk-in public facilities—that is, libraries—to limited access Information Resource Centers, on the assumption that we could do everything we needed to do virtually, influencing public opinion by pushing information out to hand-picked audiences via the Internet. Some of the more clever IROs noticed that the Internet had not yet arrived in their regions, at least not in any meaningful way, and they discretely deferred closing the library doors.

Their foot-dragging seemed prescient when, about 10 years later, the pendulum swung back, and elites were no longer our target audience. The IRC, a surgical tool, was a poor match for the younger, wider, deeper audiences that U.S. public diplomacy now focused on.

Around that same time, an enterprising and visionary IRO serving in a huge country was tasked with creating programming platforms outside of the capital city. His solution, the American Corner, was perfect for reaching this new audience, and the model proved incredibly popular with posts around the world.

IRO jobs have been shaped by our tools. When IRCs were our primary tool, our work leaned toward the press side of an embassy’s public affairs section. With the rise of American Corners, which are cultural programming platforms offering educational advising services, English-language teaching and exchange program alumni activities, the balance has shifted. IROs now seem more closely aligned with the cultural side of the house.

One day, I’m sitting at a table in Ashgabat with 20 American Center regulars. They borrow books, search the Internet, ask reference questions. One young student tells me he used the IRC to learn enough English to get into the Future Leaders high school exchange program (known as FLEX). Another studied here to pass her GRE exams.

One author tells us about the book he wrote using resources he found in the Resource Center. The room we’re in not only has Wi-Fi; it has Turkmenistan’s fastest and cleanest Internet connection. Somebody mentions, cautiously, news sources here that can’t be accessed anyplace else in the country. And it’s all free.

When asked what we might do to improve services, they have only one suggestion: keep it open seven days a week instead of the current six.

Another day, I’m on a panel of judges at the side of the stage in the Kulob American Corner. A Tajik kid—14 years old, with huge ears and a voice so strong and pure and surprising we immediately nickname him Michael, after the King of Pop—is singing Sinatra in the first round of Tajikistan’s American Song Competition.

Making these moments possible is what we do.

We were somewhere around Balkanabat, on the edge of the desert, when the realization began to take hold: Best. Job. Ever.

William Middleton has been an Information Resource OThcer since 1993, at which time the specialty belonged to the U.S. Information Agency and IROs were called Regional Library OThcers. Currently serving in New Delhi, his previous postings include Lagos, Buenos Aires, Dakar, Vienna, Almaty and Washington, D.C.

King for a Day

By W. Paul Margulies Jr.
Diplomatic Security

I’m not sure what Saul Wahl, the so-called King of Poland for a day, did with his time, but my time at the helm (two days) was well-spent. A double absence of the ambassador and the deputy chief of mission in Valletta, Malta, in December 2013, gave me new perspective—coping with a security detail from the principal’s point of view as opposed to the DS vantage point.

In September, we had inaugurated a new protective detail for the ambassador. Team Valletta adapted to the addition of a detail sourced by host-nation and locally employed staff, schedule changes and the normal day-to-day operations that affect a chief of mission and her detail. The ambassador and I had many conversations at the start of operations to cover the basics.

We still touch base to make sure her protection needs are as balanced as possible with her need for privacy. On the rare occasion that she leaves Malta, the detail protects the chargé d’affaires, in most cases the deputy chief of mission. He, too, is familiar with the requirements of having a protective detail in place and is good-natured about having them around.

AFSA / Jeff Lau

My stint as chargé was a real eye-opener. Over the past 12-plus years with Diplomatic Security, I have worked on a protection detail or two, but I had never been the principal. I often tried to visualize the impact of a security-related rule or regulation on a post or an individual. In most cases, since I live by these same rules, it was pretty easy for me to understand other people’s perspectives. But, I have to admit, I never gave too much thought to protection; it comes with the job—mine as the occasional practitioner and the principal as someone who needs to be protected.

When the Front Office announced that I would be the chargé in December 2013, the Assistant Regional Security Officer said, somewhat tongue in cheek, “Are you going to keep the detail?” I have to admit my initial thought was to ditch the protection, but it was only a fleeting thought. A leadership conversation ensued in my head: Malta’s chief of mission, and the chargé d’affaires in her absence, has a dedicated Ambassador’s Protective Detail. I am a rule-follower. If the deputy chief of mission asked not to use the detail, my response would be a simple “no.”

So I embraced the idea in spite of a little ribbing from my colleagues in the process. I announced, a bit sheepishly at first, that the detail would carry out their normal duties.

A few things stand out from the experience. My schedule was no longer my own. I was used to sharing my calendar with my staff, the front office and a few others, but knowing I needed to be mindful about last-minute changes was new to me. I adapted.

I liked being picked up for work. I got to sit in the back of the limo and read through emails unencumbered and unconcerned about the traffic gridlock around me.

I did not, however, like having the detail shadow (sometimes literally!) me during my not-so-daily afternoon run. The thing I really like about running is the solitude—no emails, just me and the road for 30 minutes. This time I had two runners, the limo and the follow, and a little claustrophobia! We live on a small island, about 19 miles long by 7 miles wide at its widest; but it was the detail that made me feel penned in.

Spontaneity was out the door. That quick run to the pharmacy looked very different when four minders and two cars became part of the equation. That controversial movie I was thinking about going to? Not this week. There were many more pros—and cons—of being in that position.

My biggest takeaway from the experience was just that—the experience. My two days at the helm won’t go down in history like it did for Saul Wahl, but the experience will stay with me. And the new insights will no doubt improve my management of the Ambassador’s Protective Detail, ensuring it functions as smoothly as possible.

W. Paul Margulies Jr. departed Embassy Valletta as Acting Deputy Chief of Mission in August. He is the new Regional Security Officer for Embassy Bishkek. He joined the Foreign Service in 2002 and is also a Lieutenant Commander with the U.S. Coast Guard reserve. In addition to Valletta and Bishkek, his Foreign Service assignments include Kabul, Belgrade, Bucharest and Washington, D.C.

A To-Do List from a Financial Management Officer

By an FMO at an Asia Post

I am happy to see the State Department return to the care and development of the Foreign Service Specialist corps. What can I say after 15 years of service? I’ve been fortunate to serve in fascinating places, and the trajectory of my career leaves nothing to complain about. As my time with the State Department is nearing its natural end, I offer some suggestions for consideration—in the form of “A To-Do List for Management”—in the hope that things will continue to improve for future employees.

• Increase the number of Senior Foreign Service positions. When one gets to the FS-1 level, especially while serving out of cone, the employee is typically firing on all cylinders, doing some of his or her best work across a range of issues and utilizing greater depth of skill/knowledge.

• Survey the 17 Financial Management Officer specialists currently serving out of cone to find out why they are serving out of cone. Ask them why many FMOs leave their specialty and do not return. As someone who served out of cone, I confess it was an exceptional experience; but I was told that I should either return to my specialty or try to convert, because promotion opportunities would be nonexistent from there.

• Develop a specialist designation cone, which allows FMOs (and other specialists) to serve out of cone without being disadvantaged for promotion purposes. Consider something similar to classwide promotions on the generalist side.

• Increase opportunities for specialists to convert to generalist if they so desire.

AFSA / Jeff Lau

• Develop a senior leadership seminar for specialists during years of service between FS-1 and, potentially, FS-OC. While many do not cross the threshold or perhaps choose not to open their window at all, serving at the 01 level can be a long stretch in a career. Once you have taken the current 01 leadership course, it could be years before you return to FSI for training, if at all. Consider developing an experiential seminar focusing on real-life events that participants can dissect and share among peers.

• Provide mandatory (fast) language training for all specialists! FSI language training is humbling (to put it nicely); but in the end the challenge of learning a language always serves us well. A basic foundation of everyday survival words and phrases from FSI would be useful. All department personnel must be able to function in the countries they serve. Language has grudgingly been authorized for specialists (less grudgingly than when I started), but it is still unnecessarily difficult to obtain.

After so many years in the department, I realize that gaps can and are managed at post, and there are very few world-ending situations that arise if the employee shows up in October as opposed to August. Language ability will make the years of service more positive and productive.

Fortunately I served under several top leaders and was always treated as a respected partner and contributor to the team. However the “Us” (specialists) vs. “Them” (generalists) divide still remains, with disdain flowing from generalists more so than the other way around. It seems to notch up or down depending on the front office attitude and how post leadership develops the entire team.

As I prepared this note, several colleagues revealed long-standing resentment about treatment received at the hands of generalist colleagues who acted as if they were superior—as if, in the middle of incoming fire, a bullet would know to swerve and hit the specialist instead of the generalist.

We’re a team, each providing valuable contributions.

Despite Challenges and Change, We Make a Difference

By Henry Mendelsohn
Regional Information Resource Officer, Public Affairs Section
Embassy Nairobi

I’ve been a Foreign Service Specialist and Regional Information Resource Officer for 20 years. I started with the United States Information Agency in 1994 and have been overseas since 1995 serving in mostly hardship and greater hardship postings.

One of the best pieces of advice I received during my first assignment is that I could easily do the job of a generalist, but a generalist could never do my job. I’ve found this to be consistently true. The specialized information science skills I’ve brought to my work complement and support the work of the State Department and, in my opinion, add to our abilities to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals and objectives.

I’ve served as both as a regional consultant and a manager of American Spaces. My work has become more complex over the years as we introduce new information technologies, applications and services—especially Web-based technologies and applications—to how we provide accurate and authoritative information about the United States to local audiences, who often lack access to such information or the skills to access it.

Security concerns have also made public diplomacy work more complicated. The introduction and dramatic expansion of the American Corners program after 9/11 has tripled my workload, but it’s also allowed me to travel to many locations outside the capital cities where our embassies are located. While initially responsible for working with and training locally employed staff in our embassy Information Resources Centers, I now have in my portfolio numerous American Corners staffed by non–U.S. government staff, often poorly educated and trained, and located in remote cities that can be difficult to reach. Needless to say, this is challenging.

AFSA / Jeff Lau

Nonetheless, I believe Information Resource Officers and our American Spaces fill a critical role in promoting U.S. foreign policy, society and values, and in many parts of the world they offer positive alternatives to youth at risk of falling under the influence of actors hostile to the United States.

Although I initially underestimated the challenges and sacrifices involved in living and working overseas—my family has been through three evacuations, we’ve survived terrorist attacks, and we’ve had friends killed in attacks—I also know I’ve touched lives, changed some attitudes about the U.S. for the better and, by doing so, helped make the world a little safer for American citizens.

Henry Mendelsohn is the Regional Information Resource Officer at Embassy Nairobi, where his responsibilities include direct supervision of the embassy’s American Reference Center and he serves as a regional consultant for U.S. Embassy and Consulate Information Resource Centers and American Corner libraries in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Somalia, Tanzania, and North Sudan. Mr. Mendelsohn’s previous postings include Cairo, Abuja, Abu Dhabi, Islamabad and New Delhi.