Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Reforming the State Department: A Look Back

Eight years ago as the new Bush administration came into office, an independent Task Force cosponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Strategic and International Studies came out with a report on State Department Reform. The bipartisan group was led by Frank C. Carlucci, who was a former Foreign Service Officer, U.S. Secretary of Defense (1987-1989) and National Security Advisor (1987).

It is striking that some of the key issues addressed in this report have not really gone away. If I did not know that this was written in 2001, I’d think that this was written for the new president who will come into office in 75 days.

In its Memo to the President, the Task Force listed six problematic areas at the State Department - from long-term mismanagement to antiquated equipment, and dilapidated and insecure facilities. (Note: Thanks to Secretary Powell, State has gotten out of the Wang wilderness. On facilities, from 1999 to the end of calendar year 2005, State completed construction of 18 embassies and consulates at a cost of approximately $1.3 billion). But in 2008, one cannot help but marvel at this prescient perspective:

“These deficits are not only a disservice to the high-caliber men and women of the Foreign Service and the Civil Service who serve their country under the Department of State. They also handicap the ability of the United States to shape and respond to the opportunities and growing challenges of the 21st century. If this deterioration continues, our ability to use statecraft to avoid, manage, and resolve crises and to deter aggression will decline, increasing the likelihood that America will have to use military force to protect our interests abroad. In short, renewal of America’s foreign policy making and implementing machinery is an urgent national security priority.”

In its Memo to the Secretary of State, the Task Force did not pull any punches. It called the Department’s HR practices dysfunctional, antiquated, inflexible, and lacking. It described how the department’s professional culture impaired not just the agency’s focus but also its effectiveness in dealing with Congress and other agencies. It pointed to the serious decline in morale at the Department of State. And it described a more complex world that we have now lived through in the last several years.

“Finally, not only has America’s foreign policy agenda become heavier, more interdisciplinary, and more complex, but it has to be exercised in an environment of growing threats. As societies abroad continue to experience radical social and economic change, they will become more unstable and at times less hospitable to Americans. And the danger posed by international terrorism is increasing. The last decade’s bombings against U.S. military and diplomatic facilities demonstrate that terrorist networks will become more global in reach, will wield greater destructive capacities, and will be more difficult to track and counter.”

“The Department of State’s human resource practices and administrative policies are dysfunctional.The department’s “up-and-out” promotion system is having the unintended effect of forcing qualified personnel out of the service. Its antiquated recruitment process is unable to meet the department’s workforce needs in both number and skills. The department’s lack of professional training opportunities for its personnel, its inattention to the family needs of its overseas personnel, and its inflexible grievance system have become major incentives for employees to seek work elsewhere.”

“The Department of State is impaired by a professional culture that emphasizes confidentiality over public diplomacy and public affairs. The department’s professional culture remains predisposed to “information policing” rather than “information providing.” The former was perhaps essential during the Cold War—and recent security lapses at the department necessitate greater vigilance over its classified materials— but in the information age public diplomacy has become an ever more central dimension of statecraft. Likewise, on the home front, the State Department’s professional culture impairs its effectiveness at public affairs and its coordination not only with Congress, but also with other U.S. government agencies.”

Appendix to this report included a bibliography on Reports on State Department Reform (see page 36) and a summary of previous Reports on State Department Reform (see page 39). Which makes one wonder how many task forces must be convened to make these suggested reforms stick. The correct response, of course, is not more task forces, but the political will to make things right once more; the will to undertake needed changes not just from the Executive Branch, the Secretary of State, from Congress but also from the people who make this organization go.

While it is true that the dilapidated state of America’s foreign policy apparatus is a national security crisis that warrants the personal attention of the new president, I am also of the mind that if the State Department cannot negotiate itself out of this current crater, then perhaps we need to rewrite our playbook on winning friends and influencing people.

We need to stop acting like victims and stop re-running the common refrains: We “don’t have a constituency,” “Congress doesn’t like us,” “the Seventh Floor doesn’t care,” and “nothing’s changed and nothing will.” We are the redheaded stepchild, with hair burning wildly; if we can’t get the folks responsible for us to fetch a bucket of water to put out the fire, why then, of course, we need to fetch our own bucket ourselves.

We need our smartest and our brightest to come forward now (not later, after retirement) and say here are the things that needs fixing and here’s how we’re going to fix them; here’s why we need your help and here’s what you will get in return, and here are the consequences for our inaction. But this is Colonel Boyd’s to be or to do moment, the proverbial fork on the road. So...who will come forward? Anybody there?

The sad part is, I can very well imagine us in 2020, looking back at this point and adding a few more dozen reports to the bibliography of reforming the State Department.

1 comment:

Digger said...

Great piece. I have quoted and linked to you here: