Task Force Report: Powell's State Department
As Secretary Powell closes in on leaving the Cabinet I want to take some time to reflect on what his impact has been in our Consulates and Embassies overseas. I can't really offer any opinion on behalf of the Foreign Service and Civil Service folks working in the Truman building, and so will focus on the FS overseas (where I spent Powell's entire tenure). By and large this series will not address policy, it will focus on Powell as the leader and manager of the FS, and how his role at the top has trickled down and is being implemented at our missions. This will be a multi-part post.
Full disclosure: I believe Colin Powell has been very good for the rank and file of the Foreign Service. That does not preclude a bit of criticism, however.
I will base my comments on Powell's impact on our missions using the Foreign Affairs Council Task Force Report- Secretary Colin Powell's State Department: An Independant Assesment
(November 2004) as both a guide and a measuring stick. This report enemurates the official goals of the Secretary and his team for managing the Department and offers an outside review of how he did in hitting those goals. I will be using my own experience (two posts abroad during this time) as well as that of friends and colleagues to present a point of view from the field. Talk, as they say is cheap. How have Secretary Powell's plans and programs been put to work in reality?
The executive summary of that report reads in part:
Secretary Powell arrived at the State Department determined to fix a broken institution. He launched a two-pronged strategy. First, change the leadership culture so that managers at all levels focus on training, empowering and taking care of their people. Second, remedy critical management deficiencies: (1) restore diplomatic readiness by rebuilding State’s staff; (2) give State modern information technology (IT); (3) focus on security of the nation (visas and passports), of information and of Americans abroad, including U.S. government employees (also involves holding overseas staffs to the minimum necessary – right-sizing); (4) assure safe, healthy and secure facilities, especially overseas buildings; and (5) relate budgets to agreed strategies, policies and priorities. Visa and passport security required reshaping consular affairs to deal with the post-9/11 world. Secretary Powell also had to address two other major management issues: improving State’s congressional relations and overhauling public diplomacy following the 1999 merger of USIA into State.
The first section of the report deals with Powell's call for a "Leadership Culture" at State. Leadership training is now mandatory and promotion depends on taking the training. This is a good thing. To date, however, the actual ability to lead has very little impact on promotion. A great many senior officers pay lip service to leadership while continuing the same practices that got them to the senior positions they hold. It is hard to blame them in all honesty; paradigm shifts are hard to digest.
In “The Leadership Secrets of Colin Powell,” Oren Harari quotes the Secretary as saying "Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off." Well, he certainly pissed off a bunch of people (internally) by delivering bad news that needed to be delivered- i.e "the leadership around here is practically non-existant." Try to find someone who aspires to the Senior Foreign Service willing to do the same. Unpopular news tends to die on the vine- rarely does a leader emerge to tackle a problem. State has a special "channel" for dissent (more on communications within State later), and even gives an award for dissent each year. One award. Once a year. For dissent. Nothing for constructive criticism, which may actually lead to growth. Secretary Powell brought the issue to the light of day. We all need to ensure it does not fade with his departure.
Section two of the report deals with the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative- Powell's answer to the need to put "the right people in the right place at the right time with the right skills to advance American interests." Hiring increased exponentially under Powell, and critical shortfalls were filled. In many cases inexperienced officers were thrust into situations that should have been over their head and served quite well.
The only fault I can find in this program is that we failed to hire above the projected need to allow for some people to wash out. The Report states that "Quality of new hires is outstanding (one Assistant Secretary calls them "scary smart") –52.4% have masters’ degrees, 12.8% have law degrees." Unfortunately the means to pay for and the ability to obtain a masters or J.D. are rarely good measuring sticks for who will succeed in life, let alone who will make a good diplomat and leader. Our personell system makes it very hard to seperate anyone from the service once they have "tenure" (that is, have hit certain goals set for continued employment and promotion to the mid-levels of the career ladder). The practice of "damning by faint praise" in annual reviews and the above mentioned reluctance to make a tough call has yielded a number of officers who take tests well enough to get in, and are now with us for the long haul (this is a small number, to be sure, but in a post with say seven Americans one person like this is a mission killer). Standards for promotion and seperation need to be reviewed and strengthened to help encourage senior officer to make tough human resources decisions.
Part two of this series will cover Information Technology and Consular Affairs as addressed by the Foreign Affairs Council.