By Pamela Hamblett and Norm Galimba
It came out of nowhere, traversing the globe with alarming speed, and taking countless nations by surprise as their citizens succumbed to the disruption and panic that came to characterize the COVID-19 pandemic. In all too many locations, the period between the first breaking news stories from China and the arrival of the virus was frighteningly short. Due to health concerns and COVID-19, many diplomats returned to the United States to telework, leaving U.S. missions abroad with limited staff on the ground to respond to the pressing needs of U.S. citizens abroad.
By using two commercial off-the-shelf technical solutions, however, the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey was able to continue serving U.S. citizens in their five-state consular district as well as Mission Mexico with minimal disruption through the Monterrey Service Center (MSC).
Created in 2017 and located in ConGen Monterrey, MSC receives all American Citizen Service (ACS) calls for Mission Mexico’s embassy, nine consulates, and nine consular agencies. Under normal conditions, approximately 20 local employees and supervisors rotate between answering calls and providing a full range of passport or special citizen services. Speaking in either English or Spanish, agents are able to provide information, schedule routine consular services, or route emergency calls to the appropriate consulate or agency, freeing up time for their ACS colleagues in the Mission to attend to other core functions.
On March 16, 2020, when COVID-19 cases began to be widely transmitted in local communities, Mission Mexico announced the suspension of all routine consular services and implemented mandatory telework for all non-essential employees. Because MSC software is accessible from any browser, as soon as the Mission switched to telework, agents were able to continue answering phone inquiries from U.S. citizens throughout Mission Mexico by using a headset and their home computers. Through the use of Microsoft Teams, MSC agents were able to remain in constant contact with supervisors and each other to share vital information.
Emergency calls that cannot be addressed by an MSC agent are normally transferred to the appropriate special citizen services office at the embassy or in one of the nine consulates. While Mission employees were teleworking during the pandemic, MSC used its call center software to create a round-robin routing system to forward calls to Mission personnel working off site. Enabling the use of flexible call forwarding, MSC further ensured all incoming inquiries were promptly addressed despite the large number of Mission personnel on telework status.
By maintaining its operations without interruption, MSC provided detailed, timely, and relevant information to U.S. citizens residing in Mexico as well as tourists within the country. On the second day of remote operations, MSC answered a record 1,600 calls from panicked U.S. citizens looking for information and reassurance—call volume is ordinarily around 500 calls per day. Despite the higher volume, the purpose and outcome of every call was tracked by the call center software, allowing consular managers to provide real-time feedback on American citizens’ concerns during the crisis. This information was shared with the public affairs section to develop content for the Mission’s social media accounts, alerts to citizens, and talking points for senior officials.
Monterrey ACS also leveraged Microsoft Teams technology to continue managing its Special Citizen Services (SCS) cases in a virtual office environment with minimal disruption to operations.
Using the Teams platform, a sub-unit was created for the SCS section with separate channels for prison and arrest cases, children’s issues cases, death cases, and welfare and whereabouts cases. A Wiki tab titled “Active Cases” was created under each channel to track the status of new and existing cases in real time. All reference documents, case notes, and newly created standard operating procedures were placed within the channels so that SCS personnel working from home could access them while working on cases.
Recognizing the necessity of communication during this period of social distancing, ConGen Monterrey again used the Teams platform to hold a daily virtual meeting and then relied upon chats throughout the workday to discuss case updates and monitor assigned tasks. The screen sharing function of Teams was particularly useful because it allowed meeting participants to simultaneously view all documents under discussion. To ensure proper record keeping, notes from the Wikis were entered into the ACS software daily by the sole consular officer who was physically present in the office.
Another challenge during the COVID-19 pandemic was the suspension of prison visits by Mexican state officials. In the absence of personal visits, ConGen Monterrey used telephone calls to verify the well-being of American detainees and to monitor prison efforts to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus. All notes for each visit were recorded within Teams for sharing with consular officers and for eventual ACS record keeping.
Although nothing can replace the presence of consular staff who are familiar with the nuances of each country, Mission Mexico’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has proved that consular work is more portable than ever before. With the right tools, consular officers can still offer exceptional customer service during an emergency even if their email does say “currently out of office.”
Pamela Hamblett is chief of American Citizens Services and Norm Galimba is adjudicating officer in American Citizen Services at the U.S. Consulate General in Monterrey.