It won’t be easy reforming the bloated federal bureaucracy.
It won’t be easy and may be the most formidable task ahead
Reforming the federal bureaucracy — military, civilian, domestic or Foreign Service — is not easy. It is scaling a mountain. In fact, of all the challenges facing the Trump administration, this basic one may be the most formidable. Naming leadership to top in departments and agencies begins a process — but the hard work lies ahead. The hard work is leading reform. As a practical matter, anti-reform pressure (in some cases, intrigue and treachery) begins immediately, as forces inside and outside government seek quietly to derail reformminded nominations, methodically slowing personnel reductions, planning for legal and bureaucratic resistance (including delays and distractions), firming up or extending contracts, and preloading recommendations and briefing books for appointees.
As a onetime assistant secretary of State, I got “the treatment.” My goals included reforming a wide-ranging, largely unmonitored, two billion dollar federal bureau. My team had full “top cover” from President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell to reform, but inertia is strong.
Our mission was global security, police training, counter-narcotics, and counterterrorism. We were busy. Problem was — as always — executing a mission, while reforming management. What we did was unique in Iraq and Afghanistan, Kosovo, Colombia and dozens of other countries. But implementation and management frustrations were not unique. They appear all over the federal government.
From the start, some knew we had a bead on their underperforming programs, inefficiencies, duplication, waste and lack of systematic management. Most problems centered on accountability, not malfeasance. Resistance was both borderline comic, borderline tragic.
The slow roll. For months before confirmation, State Department personnel repeatedly “lost” White House requests for State forms. Pressed by White House counsel, they said no action had been taken on these repeated White House requests because they came by “fax” not “hard copy.” White House counsel was agog. Hard copies got delivered that day. The departmental modus was passive aggressive, grudging cooperation.
Swamp and cover. Next came massive briefing books — many boxes. Each was inordinately thick — theoretically fine, operationally a foil. Buried deep in them were all the signs, named sources, and confirmations of programmatic waste, duplication, misdirection, financial loose ends, and spending without measure. But unless one looked hard, these problems stayed hidden. Modus was overwhelm, force shortcuts, obscure facts.
Thankfully, five years of congressional oversight investigating gave me a clue. A brilliant certified public accountant helped me parse the volume, and press accountability. He later became acting inspector general, a three-time civil servant ambassador — and is not yet done. Notably, both the Bush White House and Secretary Powell wanted that deep dive, accountability, workability, and reform. But consolidating change is hard, especially at State and Defense. Smart people say acquisition reform is an oxymoron; it is not, but expect lots of backsliding and resistance, between incremental advances. Inertia is an active, not passive, foe.
In the end, those “burrowed in,” used to different political leadership, had to be brought over — convinced to straighten up and fly right, or get let go. We were fair, but ferreted out hidden agendas. Consequences followed subterfuge and nonperformance. The priority was on thinking anew, leveraging deep expertise for new ends. Cynicism had to be tamped down, careers understood, trust built. Truth suddenly mattered, again. Along with loyalty, mission focus, and outcomes. Willingness to take risks and work hard was rewarded. Slowly, the ship turned — toward the president’s agenda.
In time, we got results in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo and Colombia, as well as other parts of the world. We also got better financial and operational readiness and management. In the process, morale rose. Contractors stopped trying to modify for gain. Some cut checks back to the U.S. government. Others faced new competition, penalties, disgorged bonuses, or were terminated. Accountability became a watchword.
In the end, good news came. Results included new pride in doing things right — financially, operationally, strategically, cooperatively, assuring readiness and finishing jobs. If a slog, there was satisfaction in workmanship and problems solved. None of this, of course, was permanent. As Churchill said, “victory is not final, failure is not fatal, it is the courage to continue that counts.” That courage is what we tried to institutionalize.
As the Trump White House appointees turn into the wind, it will stiffen. Making changes, and making them last is harder than it looks. The field is sloped against reformers. But shock therapy and consistency helps. Within weeks, I audited programs in dozens of embassies, finding major anomalies. I then de-obligated 60 million dollars that had been improperly obligated, closing secret ambassadorial contingency funds. I ended accounting tricks called “slush funds,” and reprogrammed the money, then reported it to Congress. Word travelled fast. These habits stopped.
Other issues were bigger, congressional micromanagement, political pressures, unwieldy Merits Systems Protection Board, 10-year programs with license to lollygag, poor contingency planning, disinterest in asset prepositioning, bad interagency cooperation. In short, vested interests do not like being dislodged — but must be.
So, the challenge of inertia is real and immediate. But accomplishment is possible, if resolve stays. Needed are knowledge, patience and persuasion, decisiveness, persistence and leadership. The mandate is real, as it was in 1980. The mission, like a mountain, awaits.
In the end, those “burrowed in,” used to different political leadership, had to be brought over — convinced to straighten up and fly right, or get let go.