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the runaround

“The system is broken. It clearly doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to,” lamented one of D’s instructors in one of the franker discussions during training.

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It appears from our limited experience that one of the most frequent complaints among government employees is about their own personal interactions with the government. There are many stellar examples of public servants who live up to the name, dedicating themselves to helping others with praiseworthy perseverance and public service. Unfortunately, it seems that for every one of these excellent people there are others who are either unresponsive or who stick to the letter of each regulation with such tenacity that they create problems where none should exist.

The particulars of all Foreign Service travel are determined by travel orders — a document that lays out what is authorized and how much it should cost. The travel orders for the entire cadre of 7,000 FSOs are made by about half a dozen travel technicians. Because each of them handles more than a thousand clients, they are frequently hard to reach. This time around D had the good fortune of having an incredibly responsive travel tech, who made several amendments when they were needed and never left an email unanswered longer than a couple of hours.

Judging by the experiences of D’s colleagues and our own experience the last time around, this was atypical. Before departing for our first post, for example, we wanted to ship some of our belongings from DC and others from Maine, where S’s parents live. This is a perfectly allowable arrangement according to the regulations, but it has to be spelled out in the travel orders, and the travel tech assigned to D simply refused to respond to his request. Emails went unanswered; it was impossible to reach her by phone. The only way D got this relatively straightforward amendment approved was because one of his emails bounced back with an “out of office” message that listed the phone numbers of several other travel techs. D dialed the numbers one by one until somebody answered and resolved the issue in about five minutes. One colleague recounted how the only way she managed to get her orders printed was to show up at her travel tech’s office with a box of chocolates and her 1-year-old.

Travel orders weren’t an issue this time around, but the actual travel was. The regulations allow employees to “cost construct” their itineraries — to modify the route from what is authorized on the travel orders and pay the difference, if there is any, out of pocket. In our case, because S has to pick up our dog in nearby Romania and transport her overland to Moldova, she could not stick to the authorized itinerary. While D traveled from DC to New York and on to Chisinau via Vienna, S was planning to travel from New York through Vienna to Bucharest.

On the face of it, this should have been a simple transaction. We were both flying on the same airlines and the ticket to Bucharest is cheaper than the one to Chisinau. Unfortunately, things are rarely as simple as they should be. When D called to make reservations, the travel agents used by the State Department (not to be confused with the travel techs) balked. First, because S wasn’t flying to Chisinau, even though that was going to be her final destination, one of the travel agents tried to tell D that she would be charged a commercial rate rather than the government fare, which was several thousand dollars more expensive for the same route.

D turned to a different travel agent who said this was utter nonsense and set up the itinerary we needed. However, our dog’s shipment could not be confirmed more than ten days in advance. On the off-chance that Emmie could not leave Kenya as planned — not an unreasonable fear considering the recent fire that consumed Nairobi’s international airport — we made reservations for S but asked for them not to be ticketed so as not to be locked into specific dates. This proved to be a mistake. Once Emmie was confirmed, D went back to get S’s tickets, only to find that the sensible agent was on leave and the person who was temporarily filling in was reluctant to issue the  reserved tickets.

D spent a tense half hour in the office, covering ground that had already been rehashed twice: arguing that S’s flight from New York to Vienna should not be more expensive than D’s Washington –> New York –> Vienna itinerary on the same airline, and explaining that the Vienna –> Bucharest flight was significantly cheaper than the Vienna –> Chisinau one, which again was on the same airline for both of us. The agent finally agreed to book the New York –> Vienna portion but refused to exchange the European flights without approval from somebody higher up.

We finally got S’s tickets at 5pm the day before we left DC. It’s remarkable how much energy we expended trying to get an itinerary approved that not only made more sense but was also much less expensive than what had been authorized. Sadly, we are far from the only ones we know who have had to fight the bureaucracy to attain common sense solutions to their situations. The lesson, of course, is not to despair, but to learn the regulations and advocate relentlessly for oneself.

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