Family Member Access to Online Resources at State

See also this commentary: It’s Reasonable To Expect EFM Access.

If you are a Foreign Service family member, then you probably know the answer to this question: what is the single most important activity we engage in to support our partners’ careers?

No, it’s not packing, unpacking, or even entertaining kids on transcontinental flights. It’s research.

For most Foreign Service family members, especially those with children, every bidding season involves hours and hours of research on schools, medical care, employment, housing, and more, all to ensure a successful assignment for the officer and his or her family.

The Department of State does offer some resources to help family members perform this task, though access is largely indirect at this point. Meanwhile, some improvements do seem to be in the works.

The first stop for most of us is the Overseas Briefing Center.  The OBC’s Open Net (or Intranet) site, accessible only to those with a Department of State login, offers quite a bit of information. The most important of these is a section called “Post Info to Go.”  For every overseas mission, this section includes post reports; “personal post insights” (questionnaires with responses from those living at individual posts); housing, medical and other handbooks; employment reports; Community Liaison Office information; and lists of contacts.

While the OBC gathers and organizes all this material, most of it does not actually originate with the OBC. For example, the official post reports have always been produced by Management sections at each post.  Recently, the reports were migrated to the Diplopedia “wiki” platform.  This means that posts are able to instantaneously access and update the reports, making them even more useful to bidders and their families.  Other items offered in Post Info to Go are produced by the Family Liaison Office (FLO), Community Liaison Office Coordinators (CLOs), Health Units, and General Services Offices of our embassies and consulates overseas.

All these materials are reviewed by OBC, which works closely with overseas embassies and offices within the Department to ensure that information is correct and current. It is available to family members, but only indirectly. If the officer has regular access to the Intranet, he or she can email items to the spouse. Or, spouses can request materials via email from the OBC.  Many people do take advantage of this service: the OBC issues over 500 packets of information per month (including post reports) to members of the Foreign Service community who are researching posts. FLO will also send information via email upon request, and of course family members can always email the CLO at any post and ask for the most updated information available.

Family members are also allowed to access the Intranet by physically traveling to the OBC in Arlington, VA, or to an embassy or consulate to use a dedicated computer kiosk.  Posts are strongly encouraged by FLO to make these kiosks available. While approximately 75 percent of posts have done so, they are not actually required by regulation to implement the policy and provide the kiosks. This has been a stumbling block to access in some cases.

A family member can always just use the employee’s login to research posts at an Embassy or at home, right?  Not so fast.  According to the Foreign Affairs Manual (and confirmed by Diplomatic Security) this is strictly against the rules.  Employees may not share their login with anyone, period. Such sharing is a security violation and could potentially result in disciplinary action and consequences to the employee’s career.

Where kiosks exist, spouses  can technically receive their own logins in order to use them. But, because there is no separate section of the Intranet just for post research, and the spouse will therefore obtain access to the entire Open Net with the login, he or she is required to both attend a security briefing and obtain “sponsorship” from an employee (who is then responsible for that user’s actions). Furthermore, this level of access does not include the ability to research posts at home, because it does not include the fob computer key or the electronic “token” that employees can use for that purpose.

The staffs at both the Family Liaison Office (FLO) and OBC are well aware of the difficulties that family members face in obtaining post research information, and efforts are now underway to make more of it available online.

While the majority of FLO’s standard publications are already publicly available, as of this writing, FLO is developing and testing a new password protected social networking website called eFLO.  According to FLO, this will be an “online dashboard for navigating Foreign Service life,” and include FLO’s Family Member Employment Reports (FAMERs) and eventually, the Overseas Childcare Reports, which up to this point, have only been available on the Department’s Intranet. “Our goal is for eFLO to link to key resources and offer Foreign Service family members and employees a place to exchange ideas with each other as well as subject matter experts,” says FLO Director Leslie Teixeira.

Eligible Family Members would receive their own eFLO logins to access the site from any internet-ready computer. They would then be able to participate in discussion groups and post questions to forums. “We will invite CLO coordinators to set up their own groups where they can post information of interest to their communities such as post newsletters, community information, welcome guides, etc., and members would be able to communicate with both the CLO and each other,” says Teixeira.

Family members will receive their own logins to the site and then be able to directly access FLO resources such as the Family Member Employment Report (FAMER). They will also be able to participate in discussion groups and post questions to forums.  Future goals include the addition of Overseas Childcare Reports and setting up post-specific groups operated by CLO coordinators so that communities can share the most current information possible in a relatively secure environment.

Unfortunately, in the case of both FLO and OBC resources such as Post Info To Go, the fact that these materials are “owned” by so many different entities seems to be an obstacle to more general access to them for family members. Each post or Department office produces material independently and is subject to a different approval process.  Security regulations present a hurdle to broader access in some cases.  However, OBC is working on this as well. Sarah Genton, Division Director at the OBC, says that “The Overseas Briefing Center recently launched an effort to revise Post Info To Go and hopes to make information more directly available to family members in the future.”

FLO/OBC Resources Currently Available Online to Family Members

Use the following email addresses for information on any of the topics listed or FLO@state.gov for general questions.

To receive post information by email, contact FSIOBCInfoCenter@state.gov with your request.

 

5 FAM 784: PROVIDING OPENNET PLUS AND INTERNET ACCESS TO ELIGIBLE FAMILY MEMBERS AT POSTS ABROAD.
This regulation outlines the policy for providing both Intranet kiosks and logins for family members at post.

 

Kelly Bembry Midura is a Foreign Service spouse and AAFSW ‘s Content Manager.

 

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