Thursday, April 21, 2011

Clearances, Pt 2: Under the Microscope

Going through Security Clearances was the most enigmatic part of the whole process so far.  It's not so much for lack of transparency on the part of DSS, as they provide a lot of information in the FAQs and the Adjudicative Guidelines.  I say enigmatic because there is so much uncertainty about the interview and investigation itself. Many of us in this process are probably borderline OCD and this part of the process falls outside of our locus of control.  ;)

I had filled out the SF-86 prior to my Oral Assessment, as required, using the e-QIP system, and gathered all the recommended documents to bring to the OA.  This took quite a while to complete, and my last ten years have been relatively uneventful!  If you are gearing up for you own OA, do NOT put this off to the last minute, as it could delay your clearances if you pass.  Most of my information was still accurate from my previous OA in 2006, but still took a little while to update and verify.

I had been expecting a call from DSS any day for several weeks after my OA, and had to contact Customer Service a few times until I was notified that my case had been opened, and a target date set.  A few days later, I received a call from the local field agent who was assigned to investigate me.  We arranged a meeting at my office, and he was very interesting to talk to.  The initial interview took less than two hours, as I recall.  I had a list of references for him, and he asked to speak with some other people in my office.  According to the Yahoo Boards, some candidates have had issues with this in the past, but in my case, everyone in the office has known that I've been pursuing this for years, and were each vying for a chance to 'meet with the investigator'.  Of course they were also teasing me that they would 'come up with something bad so they don't take you away'.  :D  I work with a great group of people and will miss them if this all goes through.

He met with several current and former coworkers, and interviewed at least one neighbor.  He also indicated that he would also do a local records checks with the city and county law enforcement agencies in the places I had lived over the past ten years.  One friend from another state (that I had listed as a reference) called me up later to say that he had been interviewed as well.

I have a number of international friends, both Stateside and abroad, and I had quite a stack of informational forms to complete for all of them.  The litmus test, as I understand it, is that a 'close and ongoing relationship' with a Foreign National can be defined as 'are you comfortable with that person coming over and having dinner with little or no advance warning'.  I am not beholden to them in any way, and so they do not pose a security risk in any way, but yes, I am comfortable having them over for dinner.  Several of my friends I had not seen physically in years, but we communicate periodically through Facebook, and so fell under the reporting requirements.  Some of the information required was impossible to obtain (I don't know some current contact information other than email addresses, for example), but the Investigator seemed to shrug it off, stating that more information would be requested if it was deemed necessary.  He did ask, however for the A-numbers of my friends who were now Stateside.  This was a little awkward for me, but after explaining the situation to my friends, they were willing to provide that information.  (Thanks guys!)

Then I entered that case approval purgatory and adjudicatory limbo, but did contact DSS regularly every two weeks or so for an update on the status of my investigation.  Each time I was told that my case was 'still under review.'  The investigator called me back two or three times with clarifying questions, which I was able to easily answer over the phone.  At one point, he requested that additional documentation to be scanned and emailed to him.  No new information, just documentation supporting for what was already contained within the SF-86.

Finally, several weeks after my target date had come and gone, I was told by DSS that I had gone through adjudication and the Final Review Panel.  I was on the Register at last!

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Clearances, Pt 1: Off to the Doctor

I made appointments with our physicians almost immediately following the OA, and filled out the requisite DS-1843 and DS-1622 forms.  It had been emphasized to me that the physician should make certain that all the tests were ordered and that everything was filled out correctly.

Since my physician used to work at a government hospital, I did not think this would be much of an issue.  During my physical, I went over each section with him and he ordered all the necessary tests.  I was to return a few days later to pick up the lab results, x-rays, EKG printout, etc.  When I went back, everything was there, but he had neglected to fill out the form in it's entirety, and I had to have his nurse track him down to fill in the few remaining spaces.  I'm glad I did.

This process was painfully repeated for every family member, reminding them not to overlook this test or that test and double checking to make sure it was filled out correctly.  Even so, some things slipped through the cracks, and Medical requested that our oldest child go back in to give more blood to take care of a few tests that had not been ordered!

We finally received our clearances, but not without quite a bit of sweat.

LESSON LEARNED: If you are not having your examinations done at State, do not assume that your personal care physician will automatically do it correctly.  Familiarize yourself with the form and the required tests (for each family member) BEFORE your appointment, and verify that each test was ordered and completed and the results and observations entered correctly on the form!

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Wednesday, April 13, 2011

How I passed the FSOA (Foreign Service Oral Assessment) - part 3

The final piece of my preparations involved getting mentally tuned into the OA.  My 'new' job had helped me develop my people, negotiation, and case management skills, but I needed to channel these skills and experiences into a format that was practical for the OA.

In the Yahoo! FSOA Group, there is a collection of practice exercises for each section of the OA.  I live in a somewhat remote location and the nearest other FS candidate (that I know of) is several hours away, so becoming involved in one of the Study Groups was impractical.  For the GE portion, I felt confident in my negotiation skills, and decided to focus primarily on presentation and timing.  To do this I downloaded and printed the sample GE Exercises, and using a timer, went through the entire package, one project at a time, working up and giving a presentation for each one.  Doing this repeatedly for multiple projects enabled me to get a good feel for the timeframes involved and to quickly pick out pertinent information.

For the CM section, I likewise was comfortable with my own case management skills, but needed to concentrate on the timeframes.  Similarly, I downloaded and printed several of the CM Exercises, and worked through each one with a timer.  To establish a baseline, I reviewed previously submitted samples after writing my own memo to compare and contrast with my own, examining the strengths and weaknesses of both.  I also connected with a fellow candidate (who was testing in the same window) and we exchanged and critiqued each others memos.  By comparing my own submission with those submitted by others I was able to easily see the strengths and weaknesses of each memo, including my own.  I reviewed the sample material and thought about how I might have done better.  By doing this I was felt confident in my ability to separate the essential and important nuggets of information from the filler material.

I believe that practicing in this way for the CM and GE gave me the extra edge I needed to pass.  Without it, I might have done alright, but I would have lacked focus.

In preparing for the SI, it is difficult to set a baseline for my own experience, so I spent a fair amount of time contemplating why I wanted to get into the FS.  My initial SOI (Statement of Interest) was stilted and impersonal, and some very good friends gave me some hard advice and I ended up rewriting it from scratch and going in a completely new direction with it.  I hated this, but am glad that they encouraged me to do so.  The final iteration really 'fit' and I was glad that I had put the blood, sweat, and tears into it.

I also spent time going through the 'practice questions' on the FSOA Group board until I had a collections of answers/stories for each question.  The 13-Ds were reviewed and I felt satisfied that I could answer questions on each dimension.

Lastly, I reviewed my notes taken as I worked through The EQ Edge (which I highly recommend each candidate consider doing) and reviewed the job descriptions of the career tracks to establish a point of reference for the hypotheticals.

Although it sounds as though I invested a great deal of time into the preparatory process, it generally was less than an hour a day for 3-4 weeks before my OA--probably 20 to 25 hours overall.  As I mentioned before, I may have done alright without it, but the focus and confidence was critical to my success, and well worth the effort!

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