The Administration

Suspense kills morale — get those Trump/Tillerson State cuts over with

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“You hire consultants to tell you to do what you already intend to do.” So says a friend with many years’ experience in the business world.  The recent, unfortunate “Listening Report” by Insigniam concerning the Department of State and USAID is a good example of that principle. Produced at a cost of over $1 million on an apparently sole source contract, it features, along with a load of management fad mumbo-jumbo, some recommendations not visibly based on the data collected, but certainly intended to support the pillaging of the State Department that is clearly in the administration’s intentions.

Mere mortal taxpayers were only supposed to have the pleasure of paying for this study, without actually being allowed to see it. But fortunately, some public-spirited people have shared the document outside the State Department, including with me. Just to be clear, it is not classifiable on national security grounds, based on the Executive Order that deals with such matters, despite the fact that Insigniam labeled it “Confidential and Proprietary.” I would have tried to keep it under wraps too.

Anyway, in the category of recommending what management intends to do anyway, Insigniam recommends moving issuance of visas, passports etc. to the Department of Homeland Security. This view is popular within the administration, and despite the fact that there is nothing cited in the body of the report that in any way supports this view, Insigniam had no problem inserting it into the concluding list of recommendations.

To his credit, Secretary of State Tillerson seems to have recognized belatedly that this would bring rapid financial ruin to the State Department, which depends heavily on the fees the Bureau of Consular Affairs brings in to fund department operations more broadly. He reportedly is now fighting to preserve the visa function at State.  Too little, too late? Perhaps Tillerson is now not so pleased with Nathan Owen Rosenberg, his former colleague on the board of the Boy Scouts of America, who is a founding partner of Insigniam.

The consulting firm’s recommendations also indicated not the slightest understanding of how the U.S. government actually works.  A “shared services model for all federal agencies?” Well, the U.S. government already has one, known as ICASS (International Cooperative Administrative Support Services) covering administrative support at all U.S. embassies and consulates. Insigniam should have known that.  Standardized security clearances transferable across agency lines might be a good idea, broadly speaking, but the State Department is not in a position to act on its own to make this happen. Why put it into recommendations for one Cabinet agency, when any initiative would have to be government-wide? Make your recommendation to the White House.

{mosads}Furthermore, to suggest, as Insigniam does, that the Department of State currently lacks a mission is patently absurd. The department provides a reasonable quick definition: “to advance the national interests of the United States” based on “the interests and protection of the American people.”  Of course, the political responsibility for identifying, defining, and prioritizing U.S. interests, i.e. for the specific content of U.S. diplomatic action, lies with the President. Perhaps Insigniam is not entirely clear on the fact that the Department of State, from the Secretary on down, actually works for the President, whose responsibilities extend far beyond targeting budget cuts. Inconsistent and perpetually contradictory policy guidance is impossible for even the most able diplomats to implement.

In place of actual knowledge about its subject, Insigniam resorts to the pious obfuscation that is a typical tool of management fads. State Department personnel are told that “it is imperative that the future they are working towards empowers, inspires, and challenges them.” But there is nothing in Insigniam’s recommendations intended to accomplish that concretely. True, they propose a campaign to “treasure the talent” at State and USAID, but the relevant recommendations are boilerplate stuff from a freshman year business administration textbook, not reflecting any understanding of the specificities of the unusual agencies under review. They equate embassies with the business world’s “front-line operations that interact with and deliver results to customers.” I certainly never served at an embassy where the host government regarded itself as our “customer,” or wanted to be treated as such.  Other examples of Insigniam’s cluelessness about diplomacy and international assistance abound.  

It reminds me of my first posting, in the Caribbean, where a couple of Harvard Business School students, summer interns for a major U.S. consulting firm, announced that they were revamping the local citrus industry. We asked: “Do you know anything about citrus?” Silly question. The answer was: “Not a thing, but business school has given us the method we can apply to anything.” Whatever method the Insigniam folks picked up in b-school has not produced analysis and recommendations that really address the specific case at hand.

But why worry? The report’s bottom line is that the real problem is a climate of doubt and concern, which reports in The Hill and elsewhere have highlighted. Insigniam takes the view that people at State and USAID just spend too much darn time worrying about whether they will have a job the next day, in light of the White House’s promised dramatic budget cuts. The solution, fortunately, is simple.

The best way to empower, inspire, and challenge State and AID personnel is to chop away as fast as possible, so people can worry about their new present, not an uncertain future. After all, if you’ve sent people home for good, they won’t waste energy trying to survive at Foggy Bottom, just making the remaining employees nervous.

Eric Terzuolo served with the U.S. Department of State from 1982 to 2003 and has been on contract to the Foreign Service Institute, teaching West European area studies, since 2010. The views expressed here are purely his own.


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