It won’t be easy re­form­ing the bloated fed­eral bu­reau­cracy.

It won’t be easy and may be the most for­mi­da­ble task ahead

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - By Robert Charles Robert Charles, a for­mer U.S. Navy in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, was as­sis­tant sec­re­tary of State in the Ge­orge W. Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion.

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.


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