Shadow Government

QDDR: no bull’s-eye, but generally on-target

On Dec. 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rolled out the State Department’s first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) at an internal town hall meeting — a year behind schedule. No surprise, it turns out to be more of a public relations document than a disciplined strategic review. Yet if it doesn’t score ...

KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images
KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

On Dec. 15, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton rolled out the State Department’s first ever Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) at an internal town hall meeting — a year behind schedule. No surprise, it turns out to be more of a public relations document than a disciplined strategic review. Yet if it doesn’t score a bull-eye, the QDDR at least hits an outer ring by describing an ambitious and needed reform agenda.

Quadrennial reviews — used by the Department of Defense since 1993 and also adopted by the Intelligence Community and Department of Homeland Security — are supposed to evaluate an institution’s fitness for accomplishing expected missions and responding to crises. As guides for decision-makers, they should assess the continuing applicability of the agency’s charter, the global operating environment, institutional strengths and weaknesses, and options prioritized by resources available.

I may have missed something in my speed read through the QDDR’s 242 pages. But it seemed less an analytical assessment than a justification for steps the secretary had already taken. State’s desire to coordinate a growing menagerie of interagency actors in its embassies got coverage, but its evolving relationship with them was brief. The operating environment lacked details on forecast challenges and regional goals. Moreover, the authors pulled punches on institutional strengths and weaknesses, shed little light on budgetary realities, and established no discernible priorities among a long list of to-do’s.

Still, as a guide to intended reforms, the QDDR seems ambitious. It would expand functional areas by adding new under secretaries for economic and security matters, make international communications a core competency, and strengthen links between diplomacy and development assistance by consolidating the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) into a department that would have more of a programmatic orientation. Under a new lead-agency concept, USAID would focus on food and health issues, while State would manage democracy promotion and stability operations. It would make antiquated State and USAID personnel systems more responsive to mission needs. And, it contemplates a goal-driven planning process to improve policy planning and crisis coordination.

How radical is this? Expanding the number of functional bureaus and elevating their status could cause culture shock in a building where regional bureaus dominate. Theirs is an institution that has evolved over 200 years with diplomacy as its central competency, an etiquette rooted in discrete communication and obedience to process. Functional bureaus — many established during the Cold War — manage programs like counternarcotics, counterterrorism, democracy promotion, and international public relations. Their missions often involve tangible results and public discourse. State’s regional fiefdoms have tolerated such undiplomatic practices by minimizing their importance — so much so that FSO promotion boards sometimes regard a functional area assignment as a career-ender.

Consolidating USAID into the department and reorienting the whole to accommodate AID’s functional nature further exacerbates that tension. USAID employees remember what happened when State swallowed the U.S. Information Agency (public diplomacy) and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (ACDA) in 1999. Chopped up and parceled out to regional bureaus, public diplomacy flailed. Arms control lost clout through neglect and personnel shuffles. Already brought under nominal State management in 2006, USAID has been saddled with an additional layer of financial red tape in a Department known for taking six weeks to process a travel voucher. Employees on both sides must wonder how this merger can work.

Addressing the workforce, the QDDR takes on perhaps the biggest weakness of our foreign affairs establishment. Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) may be the department’s elite, but they must suffer a dysfunctional personnel system and inadequate training. Many go to post with little more than an orientation course since there is no congressionally authorized training float. Acquiring languages and skills comes second. Treated as lesser cousins, civil servants can hardly fill in, with no career track and limited opportunities to train or serve overseas. Mid-level vacancies seldom open up to outside hires, limiting the acquisition of talent. Within this milieu, USAID must rebuild its corps of career experts lost as contractors replaced them over the last 20 years. Meanwhile, employee unions may generally oppose more flexible hiring practices.

Planning is another concern. In the past, State’s plans and budgets depended on field inputs based on prior years’ experience. Global and regional strategies tended to be goal lists that reflected the president’s policies disconnected from any resource consideration. They didn’t necessarily coincide with the Pentagon’s planning efforts, driven by threat assessments and outcomes. Secretary of State Colin Powell established a strategic planning and performance process intended to improve resource management. However, the pre-analysis and post-evaluations contemplated under the QDDR could lead to more realistic and forward-leaning foreign affairs strategies. Unfortunately, the document doesn’t suggest how State planning would tie into other agencies’ efforts.

Tardy and wanting, the State Department’s first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review doesn’t do some of the things one would expect of a strategic assessment. More like former Secretary Condoleezza Rice’s Transformational Diplomacy effort, it specifies problems and announces decisions intended to affect a remedy. Unlike that effort, the QDDR is much larger in scope. And if carefully implemented, it could modernize the culture of the department and improve its operating practices. Secretary Clinton, QDDR Executive Director Anne-Marie Slaughter, and team members deserve credit for their audacity and clarity of vision.

How far it goes depends on how well President Obama supports it and whether Secretary Clinton gets stakeholder buy-in. Congressional support is also crucial. While the QDDR didn’t mention it, State’s relationship with Congress needs a makeover as well. And despite an Executive Summary disclaimer that "most of these [organizational] changes would not require new staff," developing the functional capacity that this agenda contemplates will require lots more personnel and more money. Bet on it.

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