Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Fix the U.S. government by networking

By Julia L. Stern Best Defense guest columnist People say government is broken, that no matter how many interagency working groups or strategy documents are produced, the stovepipes that have been long-entrenched among government offices will inevitably remain. As an idealistic 20-something at the outset of my career in Washington, I of course believed that ...

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Wikimedia

By Julia L. Stern

Best Defense guest columnist

People say government is broken, that no matter how many interagency working groups or strategy documents are produced, the stovepipes that have been long-entrenched among government offices will inevitably remain.

By Julia L. Stern

Best Defense guest columnist

People say government is broken, that no matter how many interagency working groups or strategy documents are produced, the stovepipes that have been long-entrenched among government offices will inevitably remain.

As an idealistic 20-something at the outset of my career in Washington, I of course believed that my peers and I would break down the walls of bureaucracy and effect change from the inside out. And while there was certainly momentum to integrate efforts across agencies, particularly within the intelligence community in the wake of 9/11, I now understand the reality of implementing information sharing and integration ideas to be more nuanced than adhering to the mandates of the 9/11 Commission Report. And while the millennial generation — increasingly populating the workforce — is characterized as über-connected networkers knowing no barriers, communication and info sharing at all levels occurs based on personal relationships and is ad hoc at best.

Retired general Stanley McChrystal recently sent me an e-mail sharing his thoughts on the issue, from the perspective of a leader well-versed in innovative organization:

The speed and complexity of how we operate now means that we need to be able to operate across organizational lines earlier in careers, and at more junior levels. That means you can’t afford to have people toiling within their respective ‘guilds’ developing journeyman-like technical proficiency — yet largely not needing to understand or comfortably work across organizational lines. Senior people had that responsibility.

Second, we’ve found that during the years of isolated service building internally focused skills and experience, individuals tend to internalize strong organizational cultures that encourage, reward, and sometimes even prevent, working effectively with other agencies or organizations.

While institutional change takes a long time to stick, there are three key steps we can take as a government to foster greater collaboration both at the individual and at the institutional level:

1. Develop a U.S. government-wide interagency academy.

Just as each of the military services has its own academy to train and prepare future officers in the operating forces, there should be a comparable opportunity for junior U.S. government personnel — both military and civilian — to level the playing field of knowledge across all agencies and job functions at the outset of their careers.

A program to teach young action officers about their counterparts across Defense, State, USAID, Treasury, Congress, Justice, the intelligence community, and law enforcement elements would raise awareness of capabilities and authorities outside our own agencies, and of the value inherent in collaborating with partners. Additionally, the curriculum should follow a standardized USG planning process (and accompanying vocabulary) that can actually be understood and implemented across agencies. Participants would end up with the same understanding and interpretation of USG policy in the classroom, and therefore be much better equipped to work together once on the ground, whether in Washington or downrange in a combat zone.

2. Make available more interagency rotations for junior personnel.

Given the integrated nature of future security operations, Defense officials have acknowledged the need to increase engagement with other services and civilian agencies such as the Department of State and USAID — both from a high-level policy planning perspective in Washington, as well as on the ground within country teams and joint organizations.

A prime example of institutional efforts toward integration can be taken from the Marine Corps’s Junior Officer Strategic Intelligence Program. Junior level officers are immersed in the work and culture of an intelligence agency office, creating lasting professional connections and exposing them to data and tools that they would have otherwise not known to exist — resources that these officers will take back with them to the Marine Corps. Similarly, the presence of Marine officers in these civilian agencies serves as a constant reminder to policymakers and policy informers of Marines in the field and how these policies impact troops. Beyond the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense and intelligence community offer similar joint duty and educational opportunities for military and civilian personnel to gain exposure outside of their home agency.

These types of cross-sector experiences are crucial as we face a set of interconnected, complex global challenges that will require innovative approaches and resources to address. The key is making these opportunities known to personnel across military and civilian agencies early enough in their careers, so that they can leverage the training, education, and other prerequisites necessary to pursue the joint, interagency experiences that will broaden their skills and strategic perspectives. The existing Presidential Management Fellows program — the mission of which is to foster a cadre of future government leaders — exemplifies this opportunity by exposing fellows to several interagency rotations over two years. This model should be embraced across government.

3. Ensure implementation of interagency experiences throughout one’s career, and tie promotion and professional incentives to interagency rotations.

Experience from interagency rotations and exposure to counterparts at a U.S. government academy, no matter how productive at the time, will be far less worthwhile for the individuals and institutions involved if not directly implemented throughout the participant’s career.

It is often simply easier not to reach out to another office and get another opinion on the issue at hand, particularly when a deadline is fast approaching. This is human nature. There must be a mechanism to ensure accountability at the institutional level. Further, senior leaders across agencies and services must equally endorse promotion of personnel with interagency experience, acknowledging not only the value but the necessity of these experiences to bolster the future of the USG workforce. Individual institutions have much to gain — a better informed workforce and the ability to influence partners — from a program of earnest engagement with the interagency, particularly if the resulting relationships and exchange of best practices are infused back into U.S. government channels.

Since this legion of young professionals will inevitably assume the ranks and decision-making responsibility of U.S. policymakers, we must start the process of earnest collaboration now. This is not to say by any means that GenY/millennials’ networking instincts are right and our predecessors are wrong. It all comes down to the individuals involved, and turf wars and hoarding of information certainly exist throughout the ranks. We are not necessarily more curious about our peers’ perspectives than are our supervisors, nor are we adequately incentivized to seek out counterparts on a more-than-ad-hoc basis. But the technological and intellectual foundations of borderless communication have been laid — those entering the workforce in 2013 have never known a world where instantaneous virtual contact is not the norm — and in a world where geographic and sectoral lines are increasingly blurring, it has never been more critical (or possible) to actually embrace our networks.

Ultimately, institutions have to become networked and not just the people inside them. However, by developing robust training, education, and exchange opportunities for junior personnel — and ensuring these experiences are strategically managed throughout their careers — the next generation of our government will naturally mirror its people.

Julia L. Stern is a senior consultant with Booz Allen Hamilton, where she has worked on Afghanistan, national security, and intelligence issues for the Department of Defense, as well as security cooperation policy for the Marine Corps. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in public policy at the Kennedy School this autumn.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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