Doors Open

I’ve had this huge project hanging over my head for over a month and today was the first post-completion day.  I thought I’d finally be able to sleep late, but I was still up at 5:30 running through my mental check-list of what needed to get finished.  Today, at least, it was just some mop up items.

The project sounds pretty straight-forward:  coordinate the Embassy’s participation in Doors Open Ottawa.  Public and private buildings all over town open up to the public over one week-end for tours.  Sounds like fun.

I received the assignment in late April, right after returning from the High Arctic trip.  The Deputy Chief of Mission (aka the DCM) called out of the blue and asked if I’d be willing to jump in and run the effort.  Sure.  No problem.  Happy to help.  I’m sure it won’t be too much to add on top of my regular day job in the consular section.

It wasn’t until the next day that I realized what had just fallen on my head.  First, there were over a dozen moving parts to the project.  Second, the Embassy had never participated in such a program and we haven’t actually confirmed that any United States Embassy has opened its doors for public tours.  Third, the project was a very high priority for both the DCM and the Ambassador.  Oh, and we needed to produce an introductory video that would kick-off the tours.  In a month.

Although there was a lot of stress involved in putting all the pieces together, it was actually a great project.  It forced me to learn very quickly who does what within the Embassy.  At times it felt a lot like an elongated version of the foreign service oral examination.  Here’s a problem.  Options 1 through 3 are now off the table.  Figure out a solution.  Now.  And don’t spend much money.  But it still better work.

Thankfully, there are a lot of free resources out there if you are willing to figure out how to use them.  I was also very happy to learn that I am surrounded by a lot of very smart, dedicated folks, willing to lend a hand even though it isn’t their regular job.  There was already a team in place but lots still left to figure out and, of course, to execute.

The video was my biggest headache up front.  I just didn’t think it was realistic to put it together in a month given that we had a limited budget and no source material.  My initial effort to push back on the one item met with clear marching orders.  There will be a video.  It will look professional and will cover the history of the United States mission in Canada, the building of the current Embassy, and the importance of the United States-Canadian relationship.

We put together a sub-committee, found some source material from the Canadian archives and connections through our public diplomacy group, slashed the outside production company’s proposed budget, and pressed on.  We saw the rough cut last week and, surprise surprise, they did an amazing job.

Looking at the schedule from 10:00am to 4:00pm, we initially were aiming to get 480 people through the building.  Security always has to be one of the key concerns for such a project so we needed to keep the tours small enough to be manageable.  With 480 people over six hours, that’s 80 people per hour, or 10 tours of 8.  Each tour would thus have to get started every six minutes.  No problem.  With enough volunteers, we could do that.

OK, so now how do we decide who get’s to go on the tours?  Opening the doors and letting everyone and anyone wander in — like just about every other participant — was not going to work.  We thus put together an online pre-registration system.  If people wanted to take a tour, they would need to sign up online, providing name, nationality, birthdate, and email address.  We would then send email invitations to the first 480.  The proposal for creating such a system came in at over $5,000.  Our budget?  $0.  Uh oh.

Google to the rescue.  Our folks put together a free alternative system that collected the data just as we’d designed, using GoogleDocs.  When the City of Ottawa announced the lineup, the United States Embassy was the big story.  Television news covered it the night before the Ottawa Citizen reported it.  By the time the newspapers hit everyone’s breakfast table, we had over 3,000 registrations and the system was crashing.  I guess I need not have worried about people being interested enough to fill out a form to get in.

Once I had the master list of interested people, it was a surprisingly complex task of identifying groups, organizing them into desired time slots, and sending out customized email invitations.  I won’t bore you (more) with the details, but it was several late nights working with Outlook, Word, Excel, and Gmail.  Suffice to say, I got the email invitations out, as well as a couple thousand regret emails to those we could not accommodate.  Given the overwhelming response, we decided to include another 120 guests.  I was getting good at saying, “Sure, No Problem.”  And then panicking later.

Although putting together the tour itself was not trivial, the building really is beautiful.  As the Ambassador noted in one of the interviews, it looks a bit like a fortress on the outside, but the interior is all light wood, glass, and lots of exterior light.  We put together a four-stop tour through two floors of the building, including the Ambassador’s office.  We ended up recruiting 50 volunteers willing to dedicate all or part of their Saturday to work the event.

Yesterday, despite scattered thunderstorms all day, the event went off just about exactly as planned.  Everyone needed to be screened through security like at the airport, but our security staff was very friendly and efficient.  The line started early, but we quickly caught up such that nobody with an invitation remained outside for more than five minutes.  The video worked.  The tours departed on time all morning and all afternoon (granted, I spent the entire six hours making sure everything moved on time).  The tour guides were well-prepared and performed extremely well.  The Ambassador surprised the first dozen tours by welcoming them in person and showing them around the executive office.

Most importantly, just about everyone left impressed by the Embassy and the openness of the staff.  I put together a quick online survey and sent it to everyone who attended the event to gauge their candid impressions and to get some ideas on what we could have done better.  The survey received a huge response within hours.  Over 90% found the tour to be very good or excellent.  98% would recommend it to friends or family if we do it again next year.

After a quick clean up, I headed off to the bar for a scotch.  Tomorrow, I get to do visa adjudications without constantly following up on a million details while the applicant walks to my window.  Tuesday night I have a presentation to give.  Wednesday, I’ll start focusing on what my role will be for the G8 and POTUS visit coming in two weeks.


5 thoughts on “Doors Open

  1. Great post! Thanks for sharing.

    I wanted to let you know that I’ll be joining you at the U.S. Embassy in Ottawa in August. (Flag day was Monday) I’d love to hear your advice on things like housing and living experiences, if you’re willing to share.

    As a point of some mutual interest, I graduated from law school in ’09 with a focus in IP law, but I came pretty much directly into the FS and didn’t actually practice in the IP arena.

  2. It’s Friday, and that means that the Weekly State Department Blog Roundup is up – and you’re on it!

    Here is the link:

    (If I quoted your text or used your photo(s) and you would rather I had not, please let me know. Please also be sure to check the link(s) that I put up to you, in order to verify that they work properly. If you would rather that I had not referenced you, and/or do not want me to reference you in the future, please also contact me.)


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