Tuesday, June 16, 2009

H.R. 2410: Lessons Learned Center, Coming Soon?

TITLE III-- Subtitle A of H.R. 2410 provides for the establishment of a Lessons Learned Center for the State Department and USAID under “M’ but makes no specific provision as to staff composition of the Center or its funding:


(a) Establishment- The Secretary of State, in consultation with the Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), is authorized to establish in the Department of State and under the authority of the Undersecretary for Management a Lessons Learned Center (referred to in this section as the ‘LLC’) which will serve as a central organization for collection, analysis, archiving, and dissemination of observations, best practices, and lessons learned by, from, and to Foreign Service officers and support personnel in the Department of State and USAID.

(b) Purpose- The purpose of the LLC is to increase, enhance, and sustain the ability of the Department of State and USAID to effectively carry out their missions by devising a system for the collection, analysis, archiving, and dissemination of lessons learned, improving information sharing and learning capacity, and enabling, encouraging, and rewarding critical, innovative analysis.

(c) Report- Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State shall submit to the appropriate congressional committees a report on the status of efforts to establish the LLC. The report shall include recommendations--

(1) concerning the regulation and structure of the LLC, including-- (A) how to encourage service in the LLC; (B) how to provide for the necessary academic freedom to provide innovative, critical analysis; (C) how to ensure that the staffing of the LLC is a mix of senior and junior staff of the Foreign Service and civil service in the Department of State and USAID; (D) the anticipated expenditures associated with the establishment of the LLC under subsection (a); and (E) physical structure of the LLC; and

(2) for any legislation necessary to establish the LLC.

(d) Definitions- In this section:

(1) ACADEMIC FREEDOM- The term ‘academic freedom’ means the capability, capacity, and authorization to produce analysis and evaluation without concern for retaliation or other negative impact on the observer’s career.

(2) LESSONS LEARNED- The term ‘lessons learned’ means information resulting from evaluation or observation of negotiations, operations, exercises, training events, or other processes and experiences, particularly any corrective measures or innovative techniques, that produced an improved performance or increased capability.

If this passes, I think it would be the first time that after action reviews would be institutionalized at the State Department and where lessons learned would be purposely derived from each significant event -- whether it be on evacuations, hostage taking, bombings, mass casualty (as in tsunami and earthquake incidents) and other not so nice stuff that happens. This would not be easy in an institution known for its risk aversion. But with a significant number of employees retiring in the next 5-10 years, it is prudent to capture all these lessons learned and share the knowledge with the next generation of employees. We need to harvest lessons learned from PRT operations in both Iraq and Afghanistan so missteps and mistakes can be mitigated next time; we need to understand what work and what did not work in standing up a regional embassy operation in a war zone; what can be done to prepare for the next mass casualty? I’m sure the embassy folks in Thailand who worked tirelessly during the tsunami have a few things to teach when it comes to updating mission preparedness; the embassy folks in Nicosia who did one of the largest civilian evacuation in recent history must have a thing or two to add when evacuating a large group of people. I would not be surprised if there were cables that went out addressing lessons learned after these significant events, but I am hoping that the LLC (with an online presence) would serve as a depository for these lessons as well as encouraged the participation of people to share and contribute their experience. Knowledge sharing is the future; it is everybody’s business because you never know when you might be put in a position of swimming in a deluge, or being in a post-bomb scenario, or dealing with the aftermath of a mass casualty. I really hope this makes it through the final version of this bill. And I hope they put some teeth into this with accompanying provisions for funding and staffing.

Click here to read the details in H.R. 2410

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Matt Keene said...

To be fair, Consular Affairs has been doing this for years. Events like the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia and the 2006 Lebanon evacuation have been mined extensively for best practices and used to develop our current crisis managment software. To the extent this practice is adopted by other bureaus, so much the better. No sense reinventing the wheel everytime staff turns over or a generation of experienced officers retires.

Anonymous said...

Thanks NDS - that is true with CA, (the GAO also did one on the Lebanon evac) but as a practice across DOS, the concept of lessons learned is not something that is institutionalized. Even the very basic transition process for officers is not readily shared; as a consequence, a good number have to reinvent the wheel every time they incumber a new position. As far as I know, State also does not conduct "post-mortems" on programs that did not work, which makes it difficult to learn from missteps and whatnot (example, the Charlotte Beers PD gig). If this goes through and depending on the level of 7th floor importance attached to this, the LLC could potentially change how State folks learn and share knowledge and information. At least, I'd like to think so...

Blog Author said...

This is a great point. I just did a week of "hot washes" and "after action reviews" with the military doing PRT training on the way out to Afghanistan. While it could of used better informed subject matter experts and less emphasis on the security force element, I countinue to be amazed at the military dedication to continuous learning. As one of my colleagues from UNAMA commented, it's really impressive and respectible how the military is willing to be transparent in order to improve... On possible pitfall is the didactic between the planner vs. seacher (http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/62849/michael-a-clemens/smart-samaritans) and confronting puzzles vs. mysteries (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/01/08/070108fa_fact). Creating a process of trying to find what went wrong is ok, but its also ok to say we took an informed, calculated risk with bad consequences.

Anonymous said...

David - I think in the military the search for lessons learned has almost become second nature. It is something they do as part of the routine, it is something they see there bosses model themselves and give their full attention to. Perhaps that's just part of warfighting, because not learning from one mistake can have deadly consequences.

"Creating a process of trying to find what went wrong is ok, but its also ok to say we took an informed, calculated risk with bad consequences." I think this is a very grown up way of doing things. One always plans for the best but also not shy away from owning up to what did not work. The buck stops here kind of thing -- not the often heard excuses of "mistakes were made."

In some places in the bureaucracy, we're just afraid to look in case we find out what did not work. Which,of course, is the surest way of repeating what did not work. Of course, in some places making mistakes, is also penalized that trying new things has become a scary journey. Unless we change that paradigm that learning is perfection, instead of learning as a process of becoming ... it will be a hard hoe... but I want to be optimistic. I think the idea of the LLC is just fantastic and hope it flies!

Serious Dogood said...

If you are interested in a PRT lessons learned archive, visit the United States Institute of Peace
Oral Histories on Iraq, http://www.usip.org/resources/oral-histories-iraq-provincial-reconstruction-teams
Sudan, http://www.usip.org/resources/oral-histories-the-sudan-experience-project

Anonymous said...

SD - Thanks for the links. I have not read all of the interviews but the ones I've read are very interesting. As far as I know, the pre-departure training is still one week, and there is apparently a 3.5 hour Arabic. Some of the interviewees were in Baghdad 2-3 years ago, which to me means that whatever lessons learned they have come up with have not been integrated into the training process at State/FSI. I'm sure part of that is money but my golly! Thanks very much for the links; much appreciated!