Reliable Foreign Policy Hampered by Administrative Failures

Government

See the first part of this feature, Government Oversight and the Critical Role of Inspectors General.

Implementation of U.S. foreign policy by the State Department is largely dependent on the administrative side of the agency, which includes offices focusing on personnel, security, contracting, and budget. Because senior political appointees typically find the inner workings of State to be impenetrable, they tend to limit their involvement with administrative matters to numbers battles with Congress over staff and budget. This lack of internal oversight has collided with the lack of external oversight by a Congress that has until only very recently demonstrated little interest in policing the agency it is charged with overseeing. Add to that an Office of Special Counsel, which was created to review and remedy government whistleblower complaints but has itself been compromised in recent years, and you’re left with a perfect storm of incompetence, cronyism, and corruption within the State Department.

FLAWED ADMINISTRATION = INEFFECTIVE POLICY

This situation has built over a long period of time and several administrations. Secretary of State John Kerry has made a first step toward cleaning the agency up by pressing for Steve A. Linick to be confirmed as a permanent inspector general. (It only took the Obama administration 1,989 days to make the nomination.) Once vetted and confirmed, it is important that Linick be given the staff and resources to get the job done. When administrative functions are degraded, policy cannot be competently implemented.

The absence thus far of a permanent inspector general have been most strongly felt by administrative and support personnel who fall under Patrick Kennedy, the Undersecretary of State for Management. Every office space in the known universe has its issues and gripes, of course, but most offices don’t deal with life-or-death issues or carry the weight of the American foreign policy apparatus. One State Department employee offered a representative example of the system’s dysfunction. In 2008, the State Department began rolling out a new system for official communications called State Messaging and Archive Retrieval Toolset-Unclassified, or SMART. It was designed to unify e-mail, internal memos, and diplomatic cables between departments and embassies in a single Microsoft Outlook-based system. The program was beleaguered with management and spending issues, and implementation of the system ran into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Consulting the actual users of such systems is an essential step in any software engineering project. When State Department employees were brought into focus group testing, they expressed serious concerns about the software’s design, which eliminated or made cumbersome the multi-office clearance process otherwise required for formal messages. State quickly addressed the problem—by removing concerned employees from the focus group and barring them from subsequent system tests. The parallels to the catastrophe at Benghazi are striking. The people who would actually use SMART were ignored for not slavishly nodding in agreement with their superiors. Likewise in Libya, when Eric Nordstrom, a State Department official in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, issued warnings about inadequate security in Benghazi, he was told, “Basically, stop complaining.”

Many will argue that the Benghazi issue is overplayed, and as a political issue for conspiracy theorists, they are correct. But former State Department employees who spoke to ClearanceJobs are adamant that Benghazi is the culmination of years of internal corruption and inadequate oversight. It is not an aberration, but a tragic but inevitable result of a broken system. The extensive reporting by Pat Kushlis at Whirled View would seem to confirm this opinion.

FIRST STEPS

To reestablish trust and credibility, one of Linick’s first tasks as inspector general must be to bring in new faces not previously seen at State. He will need to establish an open-door policy that will allow employees to report malfeasance directly to him without fear of the retaliation that is currently so prevalent. Linick must make whistleblower protection within the State Department a priority. For all its rhetoric about the virtues of whistleblowing, the U.S. government seems reflexively to retaliate against anyone who speaks out against corruption. This is equally true for national security whistleblowers, and agency management whistleblowers such as Peter Van Buren, Aurelia Fedenisn, and Joan Wadelton. Worse yet, even when prosecutions and persecutions are proven to be intellectually indefensible (Michael DeKort comes to mind), the government presses forward all the same—apparently to dissuade others from stepping out of line.

A great irony at the State Department is that it actively solicits management whistleblowers with announcements encouraging employees to call the Office of the Inspector General hotline. In theory, State sees management whistleblowers as desirable commodities that keep the system free of fraud, waste, and mismanagement. In fact, there is a legitimate fear among State Department employees that approaching the inspector general at present can end a one’s career. As Jake Wiens of the Project on Government Oversight (POGO) testified before Congress, “countless whistleblowers have come to POGO expressing concerns that they did not trust the State [inspector general]. That perception, regardless of fact, can have a devastating impact on the ability of an [inspector general] office to be successful because whistleblowers are such a critical source of information.” Perhaps hesitant State Department employees witnessed what happened to Joan Wadelton, a career foreign service officer who was retaliated against, passed over for promotion, and forced into retirement after blowing the whistle on promotion irregularities at State.

Meanwhile, Congress is presently drafting legislation to restructure the Office of the Inspector General. Such legislation should mandate the timely appointment of a non-career, nonpartisan inspector general by any incoming administration. Career State Department officials should be disallowed from assuming the post. In addition, legislation should bar the current practice of allowing career foreign service officers to rotate into the Office of the Inspector General as an assignment, which essentially allows them to investigate their friends, colleagues, and future superiors.

Legislation should also create a Foreign Service ombudsman, who, along with his or her civil service counterpart, should be hired from outside the State Department and who should report directly to the Secretary of State. These positions should have as a primary function the mediation of employee complaints to avoid costly and time-consuming litigation.

The Foreign Service grievance process is also due for reform, if only to eliminate structural barriers to impartiality. This would mean removing many of the grievance functions from human resources and providing a mechanism for outside mediators (who have no previous ties to State) to resolve disputes without litigation, shortening timelines for resolution of complaints. In addition, the practice of hiring retired State officials (who come into the job with existing relationships and prejudices) to sit on the Foreign Service grievance board as judges should be barred.

Congress must establish a regular, bipartisan channel across both chambers for whistleblowers to report waste, fraud, and mismanagement. According to State Department employees, the present practice is to go to whichever Hill office they know best, whether it’s connected to the oversight committees or not. This means that although many people may be reporting identical problems, because their reports are scattered across several offices, the problems reported are diluted or obscured. A permanent, staff-level joint Senate Committee on Foreign Relations – House Committee on Foreign Affairs working group should be created to meet with State Department whistleblowers on a regular basis.

No one should envy the job Steve Linick has ahead of him. Decisive action is needed if the State Department is to be repaired. The American people are paying for an effective, reliable foreign policy. It’s time that they get it.

David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at http://dwb.io.

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