- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 3, 2003

Current and former State Department officials have been taking to the nation’s op-ed pages to dismiss Newt Gingrich’s recent criticisms of the effectiveness of American diplomacy.When Mr. Gingrich first went public with his critique of the State Department in an address to the American Enterprise Institute in April, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage struck back immediately, quipping that Mr. Gingrich was “off his meds and out of therapy.”

It was a good ad hominem counterpunch by Mr. Armitage — one that hit Mr. Gingrich where he is most vulnerable: his reputation for outspokenness. But I wish Mr. Armitage and others who try to defend the State Department would put aside their desire to shoot the messenger and focus on the message Mr. Gingrich is delivering. In this case, Mr. Gingrich is right — the State Department is in need of radical reform now.

My conviction is based on seven years of observing the State Department from the inside, both in Washington, D.C. and overseas embassies — a degree of familiarity with the organization that neither Mr. Gingrich nor Mr. Armitage can claim.From what I have seen, I agree with Mr. Gingrich that the State Department is — in the words he quotes from the Hart-Rudman Commission — “a crippled institution.”

I want to make clear that my criticism is directed at the State Department as an organization and not against its employees, whether foreign service or civil service.In fact, the State Department has some of the most talented, dedicated and patriotic employees inside or outside government.The problem is that the department squanders this talent.

Where the U.S. military uses force multipliers like technology to enhance the effectiveness of its troops, the State Department’s organizational structure acts as a force divider, limiting the effectiveness of the department’s workforce.The State Department’s flawed structure forces highly capable individuals to spend their days navigating the department’s bureaucracy and producing little of value to the American people.At the State Department, the whole is far less than the sum of the parts.

Any reform of the State Department, therefore, must start by dismantling the burdensome organizational structure that prevents the State Department’s employees from displaying the excellence they are capable of.

Below is a four-step plan for restoring the State Department’s health.These reforms will no doubt be disruptive to the day-to-day functioning of the State Department. Good — because radical surgery is needed to get this crippled institution back on its feet again.

m Step One: Eliminate most of the State Department’s 25 bureaus.

The State Department has a needlessly complex organizational structure that detracts from clear and effective policy-making. Below the secretary of state and his chief lieutenants are a dizzying 25 assistant secretaries, each with a bureau of hundreds of employees.Some bureaus cover geographic areas (e.g. Africa), while others are so-called “functional” bureaus devoted to topics like arms control or human rights.The idea behind the structure is that policy is made with the consensus of all concerned bureaus, so that certain objectives (e.g. arms control and human rights) are not sacrificed to geopolitical interests.

But this matrix structure has, over time, become unwieldy. It is common for a “decision-memo” — a recommendation to a senior official like the secretary of state to approve a certain policy — to require dozens of clearances from various offices within various bureaus before becoming policy.As the memo makes its way through the department, each bureau adds to or deletes from the text as it sees fit.The result is that the final policy developed is often not a clear expression of our national interest — but rather a muddled, repeatedly qualified, toned-down and hedged “consensus.”This consensus-driven policy-making leads to Mr. Gingrich’s charge that the State Department’s culture favors “process, politeness and accommodation.”

To cure this ill, the State Department needs to eliminate most, if not all, of its functional bureaus. In so doing we will acknowledge the primacy of our geopolitical interests in the policy-making process by giving the geographical bureaus final decision-making authority on policies toward the countries they cover.Responsibility for ensuring our policies are consistent with objectives like human rights and arms control would rest with the assistant secretary of the relevant regional bureau or, in the case of major policies, with the secretary of state. The result will be greater clarity in the policy-making process — and greater accountability for the paths our policy-makers choose.

The Hart-Rudman Commission also prescribed a strengthening of State’s regional bureaus, calling for five new undersecretaries of state, each with complete authority over policy in a majorgeographicarea. Though this is a step in the right direction, the commission is wrong to propose yet another level of bureaucracy — the last thing that the State Department needs.

m Step Two: Eliminate half of the management layers within the typical bureau.

Vertically, the State Department also needs to do major cutting. Top to bottom, there are too many layers of management in Washington. A typical geographic bureau is currently staffed as follows: country desk officer — deputy office director — office director — deputy assistant secretary — principal deputy assistant secretary — assistant secretary.(Yes, “principal deputy assistant secretary” is a real title. And, yes, you counted right — that’s three modifiers of the word “secretary” all in one title).A more sensible structure would be: country desk officer — office director — assistant secretary. The country desk officer would have lead responsibility for U.S. policy toward that country (e.g. Nigeria) — in the case of large or particularly significant countries, he would have a staff to assist him. The office director would coordinate policy across a group of countries within a region (e.g. West Africa), while the assistant secretary would manage relations with the entire region (Africa).

m Step Three: Redeploy manpower saved through Steps 1 and 2 into project-based teams that will focus on the nation’s highest priorities.

The State Department’s personnel system needs to become much more flexible than it is.Currently, the system is built around putting people into positions that have defined tasks (e.g., Nigeria desk officer). When new priorities emerge, it takes time for new positions to be created and new people to be put in them.How effective would our armed forces be if soldiers were tied to defined “positions” rather than ready to execute missions as needs arise?

Like the military, the State Department needs a large group of officers (as much as 20 percent of its entire corps) standing ready to work on the nation’s highest priorities.The State Department would then be in the position to deploy — within a matter of days — a hundred people to work on, say, Iraq reconstruction or the AIDS crisis in Africa.These diplomatic missions would have clearly defined objectives, allowing Congress and the public to measure State’s effectiveness. I have no doubt that the State Department’s officers, unshackled from the bureaucracy, will excel in these high-priority tasks.

m Step Four: Push responsibility — and accountability — as far down as possible.

For this new structure to work, decision-making authority and accountability within the department have to be pushed down several levels from where they are today.Major policy decisions could still be made at the assistant secretary level or above, but other policies would have to be made and implemented below. This would be a major cultural change for an organization that currently kicks every decision upstairs to the boss.With this added responsibility will come accountability — whereby State officers will be held responsible for ensuring their decisions support the president’s foreign policy goals.As in the military, the new State Department will have to train its officers to become leaders and decision-makers, not bureaucrats.

Many foreign service officers are angry with Mr. Gingrich for his criticisms of them and their employer. But instead, they should be angry with the State Department’s leadership — current and past — for allowing the organization to atrophy as it has. The State Department has become so weak, that, in the absence of radical reform, it risks becoming completely irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy.I, for one, say thank you, Mr. Gingrich.Thank you for sparking a public debate that, I hope, will lead to a State Department worthy of the American people.

William H. Avery served with the State Department in Sri Lanka, among other countries. He is now an independent consultant on international trade based in Belgium.

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