By Joan Wadelton, Guest Contributor
Congratulations on your new job! As the Secretary of State, you will be responsible for shaping and implementing our nation's foreign policy. The success of that policy will depend on many factors – including the State Department's ability to implement it. Importantly, any policy initiative must have a firm grounding in the administrative and logistical side of State, broadly speaking – security, finance, personnel, procurement, embassy construction and information technology.
Nevertheless, numerous Secretaries of State have neglected the perceived dreariness of management for the glamor of making foreign policy. This has left the agency badly deteriorated, performing poorly and periodically wracked by scandal. Reforming and rebuilding State's administrative functions must be a priority for you. Following are three areas that should be of particular focus.
First – you need to reconfigure and rationalize the organization chart governing State's administrative and logistical functions. Currently, billions of dollars worth of highly diverse duties are consolidated under one person – an overload of power, money and responsibility in a single pair of hands. This portfolio should be broken up and its various functions grouped thematically into four new subdivisions (one each for security, administration, finance and human capital). These subdivisions should be headed by a senior official with expertise in the relevant area and the ability to make that area perform.
Second – you must have an aggressive Inspector General, brought in from the outside. Every agency has an Inspector General whose job it is to keep the agency honest and well-managed; they report to the agency head, Congress and the American people through various investigations and recommendations. Unfortunately, State's Office of Inspector General has been clouded by scandal for years – with career staff and outside whistleblower organizations alleging that it has covered up incompetence and wrongdoing. These ongoing failures have allowed waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement to flourish.
Take what your Inspector General uncovers and recommends seriously – meet with him/her frequently. Insist that you are not afraid to hear bad news. Do not fall into the trap of allowing your Inspector General to tell you that everything is fine – it can't be in such a large organization. Mandate that irregularities be corrected when they are found; left untreated they will metastasize – sometimes very publicly.
Respect and listen to whistle blowers who report mismanagement and corruption. Like the Office of Inspector General, they are a bulwark against further problems and scandal. Nothing can be hidden in an Internet world, and whistleblowers can take their complaints to the American people with the click of a mouse or the snap of a cellphone camera.
Third – you need to clean up State's human resources division, which has a long history of cronyism, incompetence, and abuse. Senior career officials, for example, often stay in place too long – many on contract after retirement – blocking the normal promotion and upflow of mid-level and junior staff. The departure of senior officials is traditional and there are many experienced people ready and able to assume their duties, as well as provide a fresh look at US foreign policy.
In addition, desirable jobs and significant monetary incentives are given to insiders by insiders – stifling the initiative and morale of less-favored employees. Also, internal dispute mechanisms are abused as management draws out legal proceedings to fatigue and bankrupt any employee filing a complaint or blowing the whistle.
Embarrassingly, State's diversity statistics rank at the bottom of government agencies. Nevertheless, the Department has done nothing to improve its record – for years trying to hide the problem by refusing to publish those same statistics – despite legal requirements to do so.
An overhaul of the personnel system cannot be done from within – experts must be brought in from the outside. The Office of Personnel Management and the Government Accountability Office have staff with the appropriate skills; you might also recruit personnel professionals from the military or private industry. These outside experts should review the current system for structural flaws, abuse and irregularities. Thereafter, they will need to develop new and revised regulations and procedures incorporating best practices from elsewhere in the government and the private sector. A report and recommendations to you and Congress would complete their work.
At the same time, State's longstanding failure to increase diversity must be corrected. To do this, you will need to replace existing staff with professionals from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a prominent law firm that deals with such matters or other.
All of these reforms will necessitate cooperation with Congress and may require legislation. You should welcome that, as many on the Hill are familiar with these matters and can help fix them.
These reforms – and others needed to make your tenure at State successful -- will not be easy and will not garner you public praise. Nevertheless, you have a remarkable opportunity to set the agency for which you are responsible on a better and more productive path.
Note: This is the latest in Whirled View's Troubled State of State Series which began January 23, 2008.