Staying connected is one of the challenges of the Foreign Service lifestyle. Not only staying in touch with friends and family around the globe, but also, unfortunately, accessing the various offices at the Department of State that we depend on.
For the spouse or partner of a Foreign Service Officer, these challenges are doubled. The FSO has direct access to many resources at work. While a partner can sometimes ask the FSO to handle certain problems, the reality is that workdays in consulates and embassies are busy, and our requests are often pushed to the back burner (if not by the FSO, then by the person actually fulfilling the request).
The resourceful Foreign Service partner knows about Yahoogroups such as Livelines, HomefrontUS, and FSPets, and websites such as aafsw.org or talesmag.com and other online resources. But it can still be quite frustrating when the only solution is to find a certain document on the intranet, in the FSI library, or in the FAM. For those who have access to these online resources, the solution is just a click away, but for those of us who do not have access, an answer to “just get it off the intranet” means our quest is not over.
My husband has been in the Foreign Service for 2-1/2 years (if we start counting from his A-100) class, and for that entire time at least one of the following obstacles has prevented me from getting information:
- I am not in D.C. and can’t get to FSI and/or don’t have a State Department ID.
- When I am in D.C., I have to be at work and the FSI hours don’t mesh with my work schedule.
- When I’m overseas, I don’t have an employee “fob” to get on the intranet (my husband is doing non-immigrant visa work right now and does not have one either, so he can’t just login for me in the evenings)
- My husband did a lot of work to get me an OpenNet login for the computers in the CLO library at post, but I still didn’t have an intranet login and password. However, I realized that even if I jumped through all the hoops to get one, I would very rarely be able to use the computers there because the consulate is closed in the evenings and I have to work during the days. (The consulate was about a 45-minute drive from our house, with traffic, so I couldn’t go on my lunch break.)
- Often, I cannot physically go to the consulate (e.g., to pick up forms).
- I am now on Separate Maintenance Allowance (as is our Community Liaison Office Coordinator), so I am cut off from all direct access and am back to asking my husband to take care of things. It sometimes seems that if I were in D.C. during SMA things would be easier, but I’m in Oklahoma! Based on anecdotal evidence from other Monterrey families on SMA and from the accounts of SMA families on the HomefrontUS Yahoo Group, it seems a lot of people on SMA are not in D.C., since they prefer being near their extended families while they separated from their partners.
Asking others post is sometimes helpful, however, at our first post in Monterrey I discovered that the majority of the families there were also new to FS life, so they knew little more than I did, or what they knew was very specific to their own situations The conflicting information was more confusing than helpful. CLOs are a great resource, if your post has one (not all posts do!), but many of them work part-time. And while sometimes they can help navigate the bureaucracy, a CLO is not a substitute for direct access to the resources we need.
As was pointed out recently on Livelines, another major obstacle for many is that their partner is not with State – OpenNet, for instance, excludes many non-State FSOs, though in theory many of the information there applies to all FSOs.
Many ideas have been suggested, from a State-run password-protected community on the web to a secure website using existing internet sites and/or platforms. From personal experience I can say that any resource at all that would be accessible to all spouses anywhere in the world would be a godsend.
Not having direct access to the information I need has been the single most frustrating aspect of Foreign Service life for me. Even when there are larger problems, this always seems to be a complicating factor. Considering that all of us as spouses/partners have already cleared a background check, it seems like something could be done to solve this problem and still keep information secure.
Heather Torrance is the wife of a State Department Foreign Service Officer who was posted to Monterrey, Mexico, when she contributed this article.