A Sad State of Affairs: is transparency a solution?

This is a guest post by Rodney Bent, Independent Consultant

With much hoopla in December 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented the first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, aka the QDDR. This substantial document, 90 pages worth, was intended to replicate for the Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development what the Quadrennial Defense Review (aka the QDR) does. The Department of Defense prepares the QDR every four years to outline how strategy and resources will work together to promote American aims. Strategy and resources are like a Watson-Crick double helix diagram of DNA – both are integrated and intertwined, and essential to achieve the U.S. Government’s goals.

In 2010, Secretary Clinton asked:

“How can we do better?”

State and USAID have to get the most out of every dollar from the American taxpayers; we also have to look ahead, planning for a changing world. It’s ultimately about delivering results for the American people – protecting our interests and projecting our leadership in the 21st century”  Hillary Rodham Clinton, “Leading Through Civilian Power – The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review“, 2010

The Secretary had it right: how can the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development get the most out of every dollar? Unfortunately, the high falutin rhetoric and mundane reality have never meshed.  The State Department is unable to explain to the American people what they get for their tax dollars.  More worrying, however, is the Department often can’t explain with any specificity to others in the Department (or the White House and Congress), what will happen if they do or don’t spend the money the agency’s bureaus and offices are requesting.  In the parlance of the Government Performance and Results Act, what are the inputs, outputs and outcomes that will or will not take place with their funding.

In 2014, the State Department ranked 32 out of 68 organizations assessed by Publish What You Fund’s Annual Aid Transparency Index. USAID ranked 31. In 2015, a mid-year Review was conducted to assess progress. In it, State was deemed “off track” to meet its aid transparency commitments by the upcoming December 2015 deadline. USAID was “on track” by placing at the (bottom of the) Good category with 62.7%.

There are lots of reasons for this inexplicable and continuing problem. State Department employees in the main are hard-working, sensible, ethical and intelligent folks, so how else to explain the situation?

It’s the organization, stupid.

First, the State Department is decentralized, with spending authority, contracting authority and procurement norms that vary greatly by bureau and office.  If mapped, the State Department would resemble pre-1870 Germany, a colored jigsaw puzzle of different regions, each jealous of its unique culture and authorities.

Second, to compound the problem, there are two budget offices at the State Department, one dealing broadly with operating resources and the other dealing broadly with program resources.  The existence of two offices, a result of historical legacies and bureaucratic turf fights, prevent the key integration of people and programs.

Third, as a broad generalization, there are ingrained cultural issues that inhibit effective management.  The State Department cares deeply about the intent and symbolism of its spending.  It will frequently describe its budget in terms of “supporting” or “enhancing” or “promoting” a grand vision.  There is no scale that can be applied to those relative terms and there are rarely performance metrics.  To add to this cultural tone, the State Department views itself as a poor cousin to a Defense Department that has lavish assets and funding it can deploy to handle problems and situations.

The State Department should of course care deeply about the effective use of its resources.  In public and private, its senior management team, from Assistant Secretaries up to the Secretary will assert they care, and care deeply, about the effective use of resources.  The key problem, they will assert, is they don’t have enough resources to do all that is asked of them.  While that’s certainly true, there is also no question they could do a significantly better job of managing the resources they do get.

The starting point is detailed transparency on many levels.  Who is managing the contracts, grants and cooperative agreements?  What are the spending metrics and where are the evaluations?  How will it integrate staff with programs?  If Federal agencies other than the State Department and USAID are spending money in the same areas (e.g., Treasury Department, the Justice Department or the Defense Department), what are the comparative advantages and comparisons?  If non-U.S. Government agencies, such as the World Bank or foreign aid agencies, are working in a country or on a problem, how are U.S. Government programs integrated with these other resources?

As the State Department will be presenting its budget request for FY 2017 to the OMB this fall, it could start with answers to some of these questions.

With the December 2015 Busan deadline and the existing commitments on open data and transparency, the time to tackle these issues is long overdue. The 2016 Aid Transparency Index will be launched in the spring. Could State Department‘s inexplicable and continuing problem have transparency as a solution?

Rodney Bent has 34 years of experience in the public and private sectors, serving in 2011 as a Senior Adviser to the United States Deputy Secretary of State, whom he advised on the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review on management and budget issues.  From 2009 to 2011, he was an Executive Adviser at Booz Allen Hamilton with responsibility for international development and health issues.

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  • September 24, 2015 at 18:26
    Will Davis says:

    hard-hitting and insightful piece by someone who has fought the good fight in support of transparency

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