Senators Kerry, Lugar and the future of USAID

United States Agency for International DevelopmentImage via Wikipedia

In late June, the GAO released its report, Foreign Assistance: USAID Needs to Improve Its Strategic Planning to Address Current and Future Workforce Needs (GAO-10-496 June 30, 2010). Here is a quick summary:

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) oversees U.S. foreign assistance programs in more than 100 countries. In 2003, GAO recommended that USAID develop a comprehensive workforce planning system to better identify its staffing needs and requirements. Key principles for effective strategic workforce planning are important to an agency’s ability to carry out its mission. GAO examined (1) changes in USAID’s workforce and program funding since 2004, (2) the extent to which it has developed a strategic workforce plan, (3) the efforts it has taken to implement two key human capital initiatives, and (4) the challenges and constraints that affect its workforce planning and management. To conduct the work, GAO analyzed staffing and program funding data; reviewed documentation related to the agency’s workforce planning; and interviewed officials in Washington, D.C., and at six overseas missions selected to obtain an appropriate mix of geographic coverage, programs, and workforce size and composition.

USAID’s workforce declined 2.7 percent from 2004 to 2009. While the decline is primarily due to decreases in the number of U.S. and foreign national personal services contractors, these staff continue to comprise the majority of USAID’s workforce. Over the same period USAID’s program funding increased 92 percent to $17.9 billion. USAID also faces some workforce gaps and vacancies at the six missions visited by GAO. Mission officials cited recruiting difficulties and the need for staff in priority countries, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, as factors contributing to these vacancies. According to mission officials, it is not uncommon for positions to remain vacant for a lengthy period. During this time staff may assume multiple responsibilities and accept additional workload, which present some challenges in the agency’s ability to manage and oversee its activities. For example, workforce gaps and heavy workload may limit mission staff’s ability to travel to the field to monitor and evaluate the implementation of projects. USAID’s 5-year workforce plan for fiscal years 2009 through 2013 discusses the agency’s challenges and the steps it has taken and plans to take to strengthen its workforce. However, the plan lacks several key elements that GAO has identified as critical to strategic workforce planning. For example, the plan generally does not include a major portion of USAID’s workforce–U.S. and foreign national personal services contractors. In particular, it is not comprehensive in its analysis of workforce and competency gaps and the staffing levels that the agency requires to meet its program needs and goals. USAID has taken actions to implement two key initiatives specified in its workforce plan–a workforce planning model and expansion of its Foreign Service–but it generally lacks documented plans to help ensure they are implemented successfully. For example, USAID implemented the workforce planning model to project its workforce and budgetary needs, but it has not developed plans for providing all missions comprehensive information about the model and its projections to inform missions of how it will affect their workforce planning. In addition, USAID has not fully met its Foreign Service hiring targets nor developed plans for how it will meet its hiring goals, and it has not planned the required overseas training assignments for all new hires to help ensure that missions have the necessary resources and mentors. USAID faces several challenges in its workforce planning and management. First, USAID lacks a sufficiently reliable and comprehensive system to record the number, location, and occupation of its staff. Second, according to mission officials, operating in an uncertain environment with shifting program priorities and funding can make it difficult to ensure that missions have the staff available with the necessary skills when needed. Third, the processes USAID must use to plan for the placement of its overseas staff require coordination with State; however, USAID has not consistently developed and shared its plans for the numbers and specific locations for these assignments.

As expected, the report got a response from Congress – specifically the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In response to the GAO report emphasizing the need for comprehensive strategic planning to meet workforce needs at USAID, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-MA) and Ranking Member Dick Lugar (R-IN), who authored the Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act of 2009 to help address USAID’s gaps in capacity issued the following statement:

“The strength of USAID lies with its people, officers who are on the frontlines building schools, delivering health programs, and distributing food. But over the past decade, we have undermined our foreign service corps by not providing the agency with the resources to expand personnel so they can meet the demands of USAID programming. This GAO report underscores these workforce gaps and reaffirms the urgent need for critical changes, which Senator Lugar and I addressed in last year’s Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act. The Foreign Relations Committee will continue our push for reform,” said Chairman Kerry.

“I am hopeful this report will give momentum not only to our legislation, but also to Dr. Shah’s attempts to reform the agency by recreating a policy planning shop and revitalizing a unit dedicated to evaluating and analyzing programs and projects,” Ranking Member Lugar said.

Following is a summary of the Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act, which was introduced in July 2009 and passed out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in November 2009.

Foreign Assistance Revitalization and Accountability Act of 2009

Build Policy and Strategy Capacity:

  • Reestablish a Bureau of Policy and Strategic Planning in USAID.  Currently, USAID has very limited policy and strategic planning capacity.  The last Administration closed down the policy bureau and relegated USAID as a program implementer instead of a policy actor.  This bill begins to restore thinking, strategic decision-making, and policy innovation to the Agency.  It will also add a second deputy Administrator for management and operations, and an Assistant Administrator to oversee the policy bureau.
  • Strengthen and coordinate U.S. foreign aid in the field.  The bill makes the USAID mission director responsible for coordinating all U.S. development and humanitarian assistance efforts in a given country, under guidance of the Chief of Mission.  It also urges the Agency to fundamentally reconsider the role, responsibility, structure, and function of USAID missions in the 21st century.

Increase Accountability:

  • Establish a Council on Research and Evaluation of Foreign Assistance.  As we look to double U.S. foreign assistance programs by 2015, we need a better way to evaluate which development programs work, which have minimal impact, and what factors determine success or failure.  Our current system is unable to provide this analysis.  This evaluation group would be based in the executive branch, but it would operate independently under the auspices of an interagency board.  Its mandate is to objectively evaluate the impact and results of all development and foreign aid programs undertaken by the U.S. Government.  The group would have a second division focused on innovation research that would be an incubator for cutting-edge development projects and would be modeled after the Defense Department’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).
  • Reestablish “lessons learned” center in USAID.  The bill reestablishes a “lessons learned” center so that we can better understand what projects work, which projects fail, and how to design future programs for maximum impact.
  • Transparency.  The bill establishes important transparency standards so that taxpayers have a clearer understanding of where their money is going, what projects are being funded, and what outcomes are resulting.

Personnel and Human Resources: 

  • Establish a human resources and personnel strategy for USAID.  This bill jump-starts the rebuilding process by mandating a comprehensive review of all aspects of human resources, establishing a high-level task force to advise on critical personnel issues, and directing GAO to assess the new personnel strategy.
  • Rebuild expertise: rotations and training.  The bill requires personnel to undertake interagency and international rotations to bring a cross-disciplinary focus to USAID.  It encourages external training and education opportunities, and it provides new flexibilities in the operating expenses account so that Foreign Service officers and civil servants can better monitor programs and advise missions on development issues.

Can you feel impatience in the air?  The previous four USAID directors have written about the future of USAID here.  Josh Rogin of The Cable has also written about the growing angst about the agency’s future…

Related item:

Foreign Assistance: USAID Needs to Improve Its Strategic Planning to Address Current and Future Workforce Needs | GAO-10-496 June 30, 2010

UK Ambassador on the Problem with Diplomatic Blogging

Frances Guy is the UK Ambassador to the Republic of Lebanon. She has been in Beirut since October 2006. Her previous jobs include Ambassador to Yemen (2001 -2004) and Head of Engaging with the Islamic World Group (2004 -2006).  Ambassador Guy has also been posted in Ethiopia, Sudan, Thailand and France.  Recently, she posted a blog post on Lebanon’s recently deceased top Shi’ite cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah.  Unless you are following UK developments in Lebanon, you may not have heard about her, but for the controversy generated by that blog post that had since been removed.  The British government removed it last week, saying it did not reflect government policy.

Frances Guy HMA Beirut meeting Sheikh Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah a leading Shia scholar in Lebanon
Photo from FCO/Flicker used under Creative Commons License

Ambassador Guy has now written a public apology in her blog at the FCO Global Conversation page.

The problem with diplomatic blogging is that you risk being anodyne or controversial. Clearly in the last few days I have been the latter. This was not my intent. My comments on the late Sayid Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah have now been removed because they were leading to confusion about British policy. I would like to be clear. I have no truck with terrorism wherever it is committed in whoever’s name. The British Government has been clear that it condemns terrorist activity carried out by Hizballah. I share that view. I believe that it should be possible for Hizballah to reject violence and play a constructive, democratic and peaceful role in Lebanese politics, in line with UN Security Council Resolutions, including UNSCR 1701. This is something I discussed often with Sayid Fadlallah when we met.

The blog was my personal attempt to offer some reflections of a figure who while controversial was also highly influential in Lebanon’s history and who offered spiritual guidance to many Muslims in need. I recognise that some of my words have upset people. This was certainly not my intention. I have spent most of my career in the Arab world working to combat terrorism, and the extremism and prejudice which can fuel it. I am sorry that an attempt to acknowledge the spiritual significance to many of Sayid Fadlallah and the views that he held in the latter part of his life has served only to further entrench divisions in this complex part of the world. I regret any offence caused.

The Guardian reports that “a Foreign Office spokesman said […] Guy’s post had been removed “after mature consideration”. The Guardian piece also speculates that diplomats’ personal blogs, which flourished under Hague’s digitally aware Labour predecessor, David Miliband, may be more closely vetted in future because of this incident.

Remains to be seen how this is going to play out in William Hague’s FCO but Oliver Miles, a former UK ambassador to Greece writes in the Guardian with a call to “Stop the blogging ambassadors,” saying that “the immediacy of social media does not lend itself to the measured nature of international diplomacy.” Excerpt:

[T]here is a real problem here. Why do diplomats (and Whitaker’s article quotes some examples from Americans as well as the British) feel the need to let it all hang out?

The reason is simple. The Miliband regime in the Foreign Office, obsessed with “process”, “image”, and to be blunt anything trendy, encouraged the idea that running a blog was a good career move. And, of course, a blog of this nature has to be a little bit spicy. Who wants to read the ambassador in South Korea, after attending the great jamboree of ambassadors summoned to London to listen to William Hague, opining that “to hear what the new coalition government expects of the diplomatic service was both helpful and fascinating”?
So why not go all the way with blogs, Twitter, Facebook and no doubt umpteen other forms of social media? Before answering that, we need to consider what ambassadors are for. They are not super-journalists, or super-agony-aunts. Their job is to advise their governments on policy, for which deep understanding of the country in which they work is required, to carry out policy and on occasion to advocate and promote it publicly; and to provide a discreet and reliable channel of communication between governments.
Modern media, like old-fashioned media, can of course be used effectively, and that is part of an ambassador’s skill. I think Frances Guy blogging on the subject of a green Queen’s birthday party (that’s a green birthday party, not a green Queen) got across a few points highlighting the Foreign Office and the Queen’s green credentials, possibly as effectively as writing an article in a local newspaper.

But it’s a pretty miserable benefit compared with the risks. Leaving aside the trivia, the issues with which ambassadors have to deal are better dealt with penseroso rather than allegro. Blogs by ambassadors were bound to end in tears. Let’s hope William Hague will blow the whistle. There is a good Yorkshire saying: Hear all, see all, say now’t.

Read the entire Stop the blogging ambassadors here.  Our blog friend, three-times UK ambassador Charles Crawford also has an item here on FCO’s ambassadorial blogs.

As an aside, Robert Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, who is’s intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and, most recently, The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower wrote about the Sheik: 

He was a founder of Da’wa, the Islamic group to which Iraq’s current Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki belongs. In the 1980s, Fadlallah was at the top of the Reagan Administration’s enemy list. The White House mistakenly believed he was the spiritual leader of Hizballah, the Lebanese militant group the U.S. was at war with at the time.
The problem is, there never has been a shred of evidence that Fadlallah was responsible for the Marine bombing, other than his preaching against foreign occupation. But in that sense, he was no different from Lebanon’s other Muslim clerics who also did not want foreign troops in the country. Fadlallah was with near certainty not involved in Hizballah’s terrorist attacks in Lebanon.
But where we really got Fadlallah wrong was when we started to call him the spiritual leader of Hizballah. That honor belonged exclusively to Ayatullah Khomeini — and now to his successor, Ayatullah Khamenei, in Tehran.
Leaving those meetings, I thought that rather than me, it should be our ambassador in Beirut meeting Fadlallah. But he wasn’t allowed to, because Fadlallah was on a terrorism watch list.

Don’t get me wrong. Fadlallah was not a friend of the U.S. He preached jihad against the West and created a climate for the attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. But at the end of the day, he was an independent Arab voice, a Shi’a Muslim courageous enough to stand up against Iran. In that sense, we should regret his passing.

Read the whole thing here.

So there. As simple or as convoluted an issue as you want it. There is already a call for for Ambassador Guy’s head here

Which just shows the perilous thin line diplomats walk in the new social media lane of public engagement — 


Ops Center: the charm of going blue in a Barbie-size wooden outhouse with a mini blue bulb

In case you did not see this exclusive from WaPo, a peek into the State Department’s Operations Center. Excerpt: 

Every secret federal command center has its charms. At the Pentagon, vents slit the floor to block fumes, in case of a chemical attack. At the National Counterterrorism Center, an electric current excites gas between glass panes, fogging over for top-secret meetings. At the White House, the Situation Room seals so tightly that closing the door creates a sucking sound.

But none comes close to the State Department’s Operations Center. Or its Barbie-size wooden outhouse, nailed to a beam, fitted with a miniature blue bulb.

“I’m going blue!” duty desk officers call out when they stand up to go to the bathroom. They flip a switch, triggering a blue glow from the outhouse. As on an airplane, the light signals: Bathroom occupied; remain in your seats. Work stations must be staffed in case of an emergency.

The ops center at State mixes, inimitably, an offbeat sense of humor and an obsessive sense of mission, with its round-the-clock, windowless, weight-gaining jobs. Down the hall from the secretary of state’s suite, the center is a secure, adrenalin-injected space, accessed through the swipe of a badge and the peck of a keypad code.
The ops center handles about 340,000 calls on 244 lines a year, not all of them momentous. “Sir, Puerto Rico is not governed by the State Department,” an officer drones to a man in San Juan. “You need to contact local authorities. Puerto Rico is actually a U.S. territory.”

During shuttle launches, State officers stand by in case the flight aborts and orbits back to earth. They use a pea-green, 1960s-style phone, a dedicated line to the NASA flight director. If the shuttle has to divert to land in Spain, for example, they’ll call Madrid and say: 1. Don’t panic. 2. Clear the airspace. 3. It’s coming your way.
What matters is you’re on shift, in the right chair.”

Which is why ops officers take bathroom breaks so deliberately. You might call it a unique approach to government waste. Officers announce, “I’m going blue!” And when they reach the bathroom door, a red-lettered sign admonishes:

“Limit Your Visit.”

Continue reading, For State Department officers directing calls, adrenaline always on the line.