Radical Proposal or Same Old Same-Old?

by Steven R. Corman

Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the HELP Commission, appointed by President Bush, would propose sweeping changes in the structure of the State Department, presumably to be undertaken by the next administration.

Quoting the chair of the HELP Commission, Mary Bush, WaPo said

the idea of a “super-State” is “bold, very innovative, provocative,” but she emphasized that it is one of many recommendations designed to bring rationality and structure to a system that is no longer working. Over two years, the commission heard from 75 experts, and “no one walked in and supported the status quo,” Bush said. “They all said this has to be fixed.”

In some senses, the proposal is indeed bold, innovative, and provocative. The report, available in its entirety here, is broad in scope. Its main focus is foreign assistance programs. Thus it calls for aligning foreign assistance programs with broader policy objectives and improving management oversight of assistance agencies. While a minority of the commissioners thought this should take the form of a separate Department of Development, the majority favor a reorganization that would create a

a next-generation Department of State with four sub-Cabinet agencies that report to the Secretary. They would focus on (1) trade and long-term development; (2) humanitarian crises and postconflict states; (3) political and security affairs; and (4) public diplomacy. (p. 15)

But in another sense, the proposal seems less like a bold and innovative step and more like another in a long string of reports calling for change in the way the United States handles its interactions with foreigners. In 2005 the GAO recommended that a similar reorganization be undertaken by the White House:

This report recommends that the Director of the Office of Global Communications fully implement the role envisioned for the office in the President’s executive order, including facilitating the development of a national communications strategy to help guide and coordinate the diverse public diplomacy efforts of the State Department, USAID, BBG, and DOD.

This in turn echoes a 2004 Defense Sciences Board report which also called for more coordination, to be provided by a Deputy National Security Adviser and new structures within the NSC:

The Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communication should chair a Strategic Communication Committee. Its members should have the equivalent of under secretary rank and be designated by the Secretaries of State, Defense and Homeland Security; the Attorney General; the Chief of Staff to the President; the Director of the Office of Management and Budget; the White House Communications Director; the Director of Central Intelligence; the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Director of the Agency for International Development; and the Chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors. Unlike previous coordinating mechanisms with nominal authority, this Strategic Communication Committee should have authority to assign responsibilities and plan the work of departments and agencies in the areas of public diplomacy, public affairs, and military information operations; concur in strategic communication personnel choices; shape strategic communication budget priorities; and provide program and project direction to a new Center for Strategic Communication.

Earlier this year the State Department released its own U.S. National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Communication. It is focused on items 3 and 4 of the HELP Commission’s list, but its recommendations have a familiar ring. Without recognizing any particular deficiency, it sees the need for more interagency coordination “at a minimum” between the White House Office of Global Communication, the White House Press Secretary, the NSC Senior Communication Director, State Department Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs staff, and the Defense Department Public Affairs staff. This group would decide how to respond to a given exigency, then

Following the response decision, a conference call will be conducted with public affairs and communication representatives from relevant agencies to refine and coordinate unified messaging. The resulting message from the Counterterrorism Communications Center and appropriate official statements will be relayed to Cabinet secretaries, ambassadors and the military chain of command through the Rapid Response Unit at the State Department (p. 8 )

Shortly after the release of this document the GAO again criticized the coordination of agencies involved in foreign affairs, this time in terms of assessing effectiveness: “Agencies conducting research do not have systematic processes in place to assess whether they are meeting their users’ needs, and efforts to coordinate and share collected information are limited” (p. 3)

An outside observer cannot help but get the impression that these are earnest efforts by different groups to reach the same conclusions over and over again. To their credit, they are recognizing that everything we do with respect to foreign audiences has communication value. This latest report is to be commended for rolling foreign assistance into that mix.

But otherwise it is part of a peculiar pattern I have observed in many different venues having to do with terrorism, strategic communication, and international relations: Everyone seems to have a good grip on what the problems are and some ideas about how we might solve them. But no one seems to have a clue about how we actually move toward integrated solutions.

Most often the impulse is to add more layers of management coordination, but organizational theory would question whether the best response to a complex environment is to add control mechanisms. Perhaps the most innovative suggestion of the HELP Commission report is that we think about a more radical redesign of the State Department.

But at the same time it runs up against the same old conundrum: How do we accomplish that? I propose that we form a commission whose task is to determine what prevents the government from moving toward solutions to problems that are repeatedly acknowledged in reports by its commissions, boards, and agencies.

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  1. [...] a large, diverse group, and got everyone on the same page.  However this exercise shows (as I have argued before) that our problem is not a lack of understanding or consensus about what needs to be done.  Rather [...]