Opinion: It’s Reasonable to Expect EFM Access

It’s close to midnight and I should be asleep, but I just received an email. It’s the message I’ve been waiting to receive for months: a beacon of light, rays of hope shining in my direction: Yes, my husband just emailed me the bid list!

So, I perk up. I brew myself a cup of half-caff and slowly start perusing the offerings. I knock the posts I know won’t work off the official list and start compiling my own list. No post is safe from me. At this point in our career as a Foreign Service family, I am ready to consider anything.

Well, almost anything. We do need a good high school for Cait, our teenager, a good middle school program for Kelsey, our preteen, and hopefully some extracurricular sports for Nick, our preschooler. What is the housing like? Will we have DPO at post or be stuck with diplomatic pouch mail, with its heavy restrictions on, oh, everything? Clearly, I need to research all of my options. There’s just one problem: it’s midnight and I have no access to any official information since I am not an employee. I can’t run into the office to pull up reports, nor can I utilize a fob to peruse Personal Post Insights (PPIs).

Eligible Family Members (EFMs) such as myself are still mired in the same backwards technology that existed when our family joined the State Department 15 years ago. Despite advances such as the development of fobs, a device many employees use to generate passwords for intranet access from off-site computers, EFMs have not been granted access to such tools. While we tend to do most of the post research, we are still reliant upon non-State resources in order to retrieve bidding information when we need it the most.

The State Department used to have a section dedicated to post reports online, on the public Internet, however in 2005 these reports were deemed to be a cyber-security issue. Rather than come up with a way for everyone in the FS community to access the post reports, State put them behind the “iron curtain” of the Department intranet.

Many posts do allow EFMs to have intranet log-ons, however, that still requires us to physically get to the embassy and hope that a secure computer is available. We can email the Overseas Briefing Center and request that they forward packets of post reports and personal post insights, but of course, no one would do that for 10 different posts at 3 a.m. (Washington time) and expect to get a prompt reply.

If we are in the States, we can travel to the National Foreign Affairs Training Center (NFATC) during business hours to access Post Info To Go and other bidding tools. Middle of the night questions about schools and pets? Nope, sorry, out of luck unless you are an employee AND have a fob.

So, what can we do? How can research be completed when there is so much work to be done and so few actual resources that we can access 24/7? Thankfully, there are some resources, mostly produced by FS family members, that are readily available, anytime, anywhere.

Tales from a Small Planet
http://www.talesmag.com/

This expat spouse-created website has listings for hundreds of cities around the world. There is also a growing list of international school reports. And, the reports are not given the gloss-over by post as the official post reports often are. Talesmag was started by a group of FS spouses who felt the State post reports were often inadequate. Francesca Kelly, one of the founders, notes, “The official reports often discussed issues like the cuts of meat available at post (accompanied by grainy photos) instead of more crucial issues, such as morale.”

Livelines
http://www.aafsw.org/about/global-activities/livelines-discussion-group/

Brought to you by AAFSW, Livelines is a Yahoo! Group with over 4,000 (FS only) members. It is one of the first places an EFM might look for information. Livelines members generally sign their emailed posts to the group with a list of cities they in which they have served. If you are looking for information on Reykjavik, you need only do an archive search on the city and you will likely find someone who has been there recently (or is currently there) and is willing to answer questions. Liveliners tend to be extraordinarily helpful with the sharing of post information, as many understand all too well the pain of bidding research with limited resources.

Facebook
https://www.facebook.com/

There are FS groups on Facebook that allow bidders to connect across the continents. Ed Dyer, an FS spouse, created a group called Trailing Houses in order to keep in touch with his friends. Within weeks it expanded to close to 1,000 members and was being used for bidding and post research purposes.

The above resources notwithstanding, we EFMs want to access the intranet. We are tired of dragging ourselves into Embassies and fighting for a computer in the Community Liaison Office (CLO). In Washington, DC, many of us are working or caring for children full-time and simply cannot get to the OBC. Why not simply assign fobs to those EFMs who request them so that these resources can be accessed from home?

Impossible you say? No, not really. It could be done. Anyone who has used a fob can tell you that the technology exists for EFMs to utilize them. EFM access could be restricted and limited only to bidding tools. One has to wonder with the technological advances these days, how can it be reasonable that we do not have this access already?

It is not reasonable. It is ironic that the resources that I use the most because I have ready access to them were created by EFMs desperate for post information. With little to no funding or technological training, FS spouses have managed to come up with better online bidding tools than State offers. Working around the system with fobs doesn’t solve the problem entirely, but it would serve as a stopgap until State comes up with a fully functional and reasonable solution to EFM intranet access outside of State Department offices.

Jen Dinoia blogs at dinoiafamily.typepad.com.

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