Friday, November 19, 2004

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The state of the State Department

Via Glenn Reynolds, I've been growing more and more interested in this anonymous group blog by State Department Foreign Service Officers who happen to be Republican. This post on what Condi should do to reform the management at Foggy Bottom rings true:

Slash and burn. At times it appears that half the FS is involved in making personnel decisions on the other half. The teeth-to-tail ratio is very poor. The assignment process must be streamlined; the seemingly endless negotiations for assignments must end; the protracted meetings and deal-makings must stop; show less sympathy for special needs, e.g., tandem couples. It can take a year or more to assign someone to a posting. Absurd. Reduce the size of the personnel (HR) operation. Put an end to the little empires that exist in HR, empires established by bureaucrats who "homestead" themselves in the HR system, spending years there accumulating power, establishing networks to reward themselves and friends and to punish "enemies." It is tempting to rely on these persons' "expertise," but resist it; rotate them out. Make them stand in a visa line in Mexico City. Get them out of Washington on a regular basis. It's the Foreign Service. They don't want to go? They can go work for the DMV.

Drastically reduce the layers of bureaucracy. Do we need so many staff assistants, special assistants, executive assistants, etc.? Flatten out the pyramid. Work on eliminating whole offices and bureaus. Have the Secretary go to Congress and argue for eliminating the annual human rights report exercise -- an enormous and wasteful enterprise that keeps hundreds of people employed to appease a handful of NGOs who don't like the reports anyhow. Kill off this requirement; eliminate the whole human rights bureau (DRL). Scrap the Undersecretary for Global Affairs (G): what the hell is that job anyhow? Cut the oceans and environment bureau (OES). Merge the three quasi- pol-mil bureaus and reduce their overall size. Beef up the INR function. Spin off USIA, again. Take a merciless look at the consular affairs (CA) bureau, and get rid of all those lawyers in that bureau! Do we need to baby long-term American expats who haven't lived in the US for years and years and often don't pay taxes? Split the CA bureau: hive off citizen services from visa issues.

Until you reform the assignment process, have the Secretary not assume that a person who is, for example, working on Arab-Israeli affairs, actually knows something about Arab-Israeli affairs or that what he knows is actually right or worth knowing. That person could have gotten the job thanks to some complex deal having nothing to do with substance.

Take a hard look at the size and number of embassies abroad. Do we really need an embassy in every African and European country? Do we need them so big?

I don't agree with all of their recommendations -- yeah, we do need embassies in all of those countries -- but their observations about the excessive levels of bureaucracy are spot-on. When I had my CFR fellowship and was choosing between going to State and Treasury, I took the Treasury option even though it was at a lower level. It took only one visit and one glance at the two organizational charts to realize that Treasury's hierarchy was much quicker and flatter -- and as a result, policy was able to be altered and implemented much more quickly.

posted by Dan on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM


Amen! There were hopes--vain as it turned out--that Powell would be able to flatten the bureaucacy at State when he came aboard. State remains the most hierarchical, CYA-based department of the government.

This met with ridiculous results after the USIA/State merger when State wanted to clear translations of administration speeches, statements, other texts, before they could be sent out over the Washington File.

That would have delayed transmission for a minimum of a week. Talk about missing a news cycle!

There were also far too many attempts at rewriting current events. A semi-senior figure would address some group or other and say something infelicitious. Once the gaff was realized, pressure would be applied to change the "official" transcript although the story had been already recorded on videotape and was being broadcast around the world.

While on bad days flattening the entire building seemed optimal, getting rid of three or four layers of professional backside-protectors would probably serve the purpose.

posted by: John Burgess on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

While I'm sure that the State Department is filled with bureaucracy, is this really much worse than most other government departments ? Reforming bureaucracy in every government department should be an action item, its just not necessarily the number one priority right now.

Incidentally, I'm not sure that the comparison between Treasury and the State Department is appropriate. Treasury proper has a much smaller department, and doesn't have the problem of branch offices in 170 nations, many led by political appointees. We know that some of Treasury's agencies (the IRS, and a few years back, the ATF) were as dynsfunctional, bureaucratic and inefficient as could be ..

posted by: erg on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Reforming the bureaucracy at State looks important enough to me. Importance and urgency are two different things, though, a lesson that is very clear from the history of State's transformation during and after World War II.

Dean Acheson devoted much space to this in his memoir, Present at the Creation. What he described is sobering: a reform process that took years despite an urgent need for change and the backing of genuinely great men, including Truman, Marshall and Acheson himself. The pressure of great events often made even the most obviously needed reforms seem like things that would have to wait.

Eventually the job got done. State became an agency rather well designed for the diplomacy and consular tasks of the 1950s and '60s. But a lot of time has passed since then. I claim no detailed knowledge of organizational science or of all the things that need to be fixed at the State Department now. I may have a pretty good guess as to what a new Secretary of State who wanted to reform the Department would have to do to make it happen.

Organizational reform by itself only affects how an organization does things, not the things it does. State is configured now in response to decades of Congressional mandates, earmarks, and restrictions on the things it can spend money on. This means that almost any change large or small can be fought on the grounds that it makes the Department less able to do something Congress has demanded.

This escape route must be cut off. A (hypothetical) new Secretary of State wishing to enact structural reform would be well advised to approach the subject in a comprehensive way. First, a program for structural reform should be discussed with the relevant members of the House and Senate well in advance of the submission of authorizing legislation. A proposal to reform the Congressionally mandated demands on State should also be prepared, for submission to Congress later -- not a piecemeal list, and not an impractical demand to remove all earmarks and mandates, but a program worked out with former Secretaries, good government types like Paul Light and Warren Rudman, and the few members of Congress deeply knowledgable about foreign affairs. In other words, the new Secretary would need to make an ally of anyone who might lend credibility to an effort to derail reform.

As soon as both reform proposals are submitted to Congress it must be made clear to everyone that they are priorities of the President, not just the Secretary of State. The President would need to be familiar enough with them to block interference from other members of his administration -- the whole point of reform here is to make the State Department a better instrument for conducting foreign policy, an objective not universally shared within the executive branch. The ultimate objective is to create a package in which everything is related to everything else, giving Congress the choice between ratifying what the Secretary wants to do and maintaining a status quo that by the end of this process should be unpopular with everyone.

Just contemplating such a process is exhausting, but I doubt more than incremental, marginal changes can be made in any other way. I don't really think Condoleeza Rice has anything like this on her agenda; message discipline, not reform, is the reason she is moving to State. All I'm saying is that genuine reform of a Department where the forces of inertia are so strong would be a major project that would take a while to get done. This doesn't mean it shouldn't be undertaken.

posted by: Zathras on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

I feel like your post highlighting the recommendations of State professionals to the incoming Secretary missed an obvious question: Doesn't this all assume that Rice's mandate is to make State a more efficient and professional organization (as opposed to simply purging State of professionals who are disloyal to the regime)? If you make that assumption, what is it about Rice's career or Bush's approach to Justice, the FDA or the CIA (I could go on) that supports it? State needs reform. What it doesn't need is a political purge in the guise of reform.

posted by: ASA on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Um, isn't the State Department supposed to be non-partisan? Is it a good thing that these State Department employees are self-identified Republicans who like to make fun of the "MSM" and "Relief Whores" and "anti-American yahoos" and "Compassion Pimps"?

posted by: nospam on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Other than the observation that they are Republicans, which of your examples are examples of partisanship?


posted by: Steve on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

The blog Diplomad provides a link to Little Green Footballs. There are plenty of well-reasoned conservative blogs and think tank websites, the insertion of this link to their blog is clear evidence that they are not professionals or serious thinkers.

posted by: roryf on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Diplomads has a tendency toward the Arab/Muslim-bashing that draws so many to LGF. But Diplomads--to give them the benefit of the doubt--is also a new-ish blog with not as many participants as I would hope it would get. They certainly run the risk of being seen (becoming?) knee-jerk reactionaries parroting the easy line. But I also think none of their principals are involved in the Middle East. Nothing they post suggests otherwise.

posted by: John Burgess on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Okay, Dan, I'll bite: WHY do we need embassies in every single friggin country in the world? No one else has them. Why we so special?

posted by: Kelli on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Kelli, you are not American, are you? Every right-thinking American knows the U.S. is special, not to say exceptional.

posted by: Oscar on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

The many layers of bureaucracy serves two purposes you might have overlooked, one for the Foreign Service and one for the incumbent administration. Both concern keeping Foreign Service officers in Washington and not overseas.

It benefits the Foreign Service officers by giving them a justification not to be overseas. Having to be overseas for most of one's career is unpleasant and reduces the FSO's effectiveness at just about anything except being captured by the governments they are posted to.

It also benefits the incumbent Administration because it keeps the FSO's out of the field where they would be better able to sabotage the Administration's foreign policy.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]


What the State Department needs, and what the rest of the government needs in terms of the State Department, and what any incumbent Administration needs in terms of the State Department, are usually three quite different things.

At the moment though, the latter two are converging and perhaps also the first.

All three seem to start with "shattering the State Department into a thousand pieces", which seems to be the single most commonly used term here.

Not a partisan purge, but a PURGE PURGE.

posted by: Tom Holsinger on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]


Having embassies is like having insurance. You pay the premium and hope you never have to use it. Most of the time, embassies are ignored. They know this. However their function is to develop local real time knowledge, relationships with locals, and to have someone on the ground to do face to face diplomacy.

When a crisis hits you have to have someone like that out there. For instance, in the runup to the Iraq UN vote, it turned out that one of the rotating countries was Ghana. In the United States people were scratching their heads, going Ghana ... Ghana where is Ghana?

However we already had contacts there. And as in Niger too. Do you want to be the one to tell the President, "Umm sir we have one guy who wrote a senior thesis in college on Niger so we're putting him on the plane to check out that oil situation and see if it's gonna remain stable, sir."?

Also when we do have to deal with countries, say WTO type stuff, failure to maintain diplomatic relations can markedly increase the political price of agreements.

State isn't supposed to be efficient, it's supposed to be available. People pay premiums all the time to maintain constant availability and access. Having embassies all around the world is the price we pay for having the ability to get access whenever we want it.

In addition State is a gateway for a lot of intelligence action. Pull the embassies and you pull a lot of the official access we can give officers. Having embassies in every little nation around the world practically is a good idea.

posted by: Oldman on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Concerning Diplomads,

These guys aren't very credible. Some of their suggestions appear good but would cause a disaster. Part of the reason why State is so top heavy is that part of State's mission is to provide a lot of institutional memory for different cultures. For instance, who the hell in early 2000 imagined that we were gonna need to invade Afghanistan or that Pakistan and Turkmenistan would be crucial players for air access and military cooperation?

If in 1999 we had cut those guys, we would have been in trouble in 2000.

Also State foreign service is not family friendly. One of the few consolations is maybe you'll fall in love with somebody else in State and get tandem deployed. If State were to stop prioritizing such considerations, its recruitment and retention would suffer terribly and once again you lose institutional memory and expertise.

Sure State officers need to be rotated more often, but to do so at the cost of family and couple considerations is counter to state's interests.

Chopping off the bureacracy - those freaking punk Diplomads probably wouldn't be able to find their memo paper without the secretaries. I'm sorry but Secretaries and Admiistrators run things. That's their job. If you want to streamline okay, but if you start slashing and burning what are you gonna do when the only secretary that knew how to fill out the extradition papers for Saudi Arabia get's cut? This is something you have to do very carefully.

A lot of people's real workplace functions aren't described on their CV or job description. Maybe you decide that the Administrator for X doesn't need a secretary. Only it turns out department X the secretary has been the one filing all the paperwork for 20 years. And now nobody knows where it all is when the time for personnel updates or reassingments comes.

A lot of this talking about purging or slash and burn ... it's amatuer.

Sure does Foggy Bottom need its act cleaned up? Yep. Are any of the suggestions above really helpful?

Gee after Abu ghraib the best thing for America is to suddenly stop issuing the Human Rights report ... so what is the message there? That it wasn't an isolated incident of a few out of control guys? Or that we don't care about Human Rights in China anymore? Oh yes and after we pissed off the entire world over Kyoto we dissolve the OES ... and send packing or scatter the OES diplomats at the very moment we want to convince other countries to sign onto our policy of carbon sinks and carbon credit market trading.

I'm not saying change isn't possible but this sort of cowboy attitude is beyond puerile. State is vastly inefficient, but if you run in there with a Machette you are going to end up cutting functions that are vital to life and death or war and peace issues that our country depends upon. It has to be done slowly, thoughtfully, systematically, and with care for the service it provides to the President.

Anything else is ... amatuer hour. Which is what those guys are.

posted by: oldman on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Okay, Dan, I'll bite: WHY do we need embassies in every single friggin country in the world? No one else has them. Why we so special?

We don't have embassies in every country. We don't have one in Iran, probably don't have one in Cuba. There are also small countries whose consular activities are handled by offices in other countries e.g. I believe Bhutan's consular affairs are handled by embassies in india.

The US is the only country with true global economic and military reach. Therefore we probably need more embassies than anyone else (and I will guess we don't have that many more than say England).

Quite apart from intelligence and foreign affairs, embassies are useful for helping American businessmen and tourists abroad, for encouraging American contracts and the like.

Also, the hunt for Al Qaeda is global ..

posted by: erg on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

Actually the question people outside the U.S. always ask about the Human Rights Report is why it omit the United States.

posted by: Oscar on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

About a decade of close observation has left me convinced that about half of the people in the Foreign Service are extremely smart, terribly quick on the uptake and almost frighteningly competent. The other half are not even close. If America could have a Foreign Service comprised of only the first half, the country would be very well served indeed.

And the authors of the Diplomad jeremiad would be looking for new work.

Singling out tandem couples for their ire is just the first of many sillinesses. The Defense Department just spent $8 million over the last five years examining the nitty gritty of how to retain good people in a stressful service. Telling tandem couples to just "suck it up," as the Diplomads appear to advocate, is a good way to lose the best people the Foreign Service has and to help increase the share of mediocrities America has to rely on around the world. Treating people well is the most elementary point of management; that the Diplomads say we should ignore it says much more about them than about State.

(And the carping about HR sounds like sour grapes. Did their closest rival get Bordeaux, while they are manning the ramparts in Akmola?)

Another recommendation -- eliminating human rights as a policy goal of the United States -- is both laughable and offensive. Yes, let's do that and let Abu Ghraib be our calling card throughout the world. Yes, let's do that and betray the heritage that Jefferson, Lincoln, FDR and innumerable others have bequeathed to us. Yes, let's do that and abandon brave dissidents who look to the United States as a beacon of hope. Yes, let us put down the torch of liberty. What fools.

The rest of this silly laundry list looks like it could have been written by Gingrichites in late 1995. Let's shut down the government! We hate it! So everyone else must, too! Bill Clinton let them hoist their own petard, but apparently almost ten years has been long enough for some people to forget.

posted by: Doug on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

It is probably superfluous to make this point, but a clear distinction needs to be made between specific issues relating to how the State Department does its job and more general policy concerns, or in other words about the kind of job the State Department does.

Whether or not State emphasizes human rights as a policy priority is not a choice that can be made by a Departmental reorganization. Whether consular affairs should be divided -- with different FSOs responsible for citizen affairs and the issuance of visas to foreign nationals -- is precisely the kind of choice that a departmental reorganization must make one way or the other.

As I've indicated, my preference would be to reorganize comprehensively, which means committing to a multi-year process in which Congress would be heavily involved. I'm not confident that the incremental changes that would be all any Secretary could impose on his/her own would have much staying power. And, there are good reasons not to have any Secretary's time consumed with organization -- important though this is in the long run -- as opposed to policy issues that need attention right now.

posted by: Zathras on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

I would agree only if they are doing exactly that. If they are vetting career diplomats for loyalty to a specific administration, that is a terrible idea and shoudl be stopped immediately. Indeed, they should vet FS workers for neutrality to administrations and politics. These people are supposed to work in America's interests, not a POTUS's interests. And I don't believe the two coincide very often.

posted by: flaime on 11.19.04 at 11:08 AM [permalink]

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