Hitting Bottom in Foggy Bottom: The State Department Suffers from Low Morale, Bottlenecks, and Bureaucratic Ineptitude. Do We Need to Kill It to Save It?

By Armstrong, Matthew | DISAM Journal, March 2010 | Go to article overview

Hitting Bottom in Foggy Bottom: The State Department Suffers from Low Morale, Bottlenecks, and Bureaucratic Ineptitude. Do We Need to Kill It to Save It?


Armstrong, Matthew, DISAM Journal


[The following article originally appeared in Foreign Policy, September 11, 2009.]

Discussion over the fate of Foggy Bottom usually focuses on the tenure of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the troubles of public diplomacy, and the rise of special envoys on everything from European pipelines to Afghanistan and Pakistan. But Americans would benefit more from a reassessment of the core functionality of the United States Department of State (DOS).

Years of neglect and marginalization, as well as a dearth of long-term vision and strategic planning, have left the 19th-century institution hamstrung with fiefdoms and bureaucratic bottlenecks. The Pentagon now funds and controls a wide range of foreign-policy and diplomatic priorities--from development to public diplomacy and beyond. The world has changed, with everyone from politicians to talking heads to terrorists directly influencing global audiences. The most pressing issues are stateless: pandemics, recession, terrorism, poverty, proliferation, and conflict. But as report after report, investigation after investigation, has highlighted, the DOS is broken and paralyzed, unable to respond to the new 21st-century paradigm.

How did it get so bad? Is it possible to fix? Or should we just push it over the wall like a great Humpty Dumpty and reassign the pieces?

There is growing evidence that the internal machinations of the DOS have corrupted its "core missions" of traditional diplomacy and public diplomacy. This year, for example, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the department completely failed in its now four-year-old attempt to reorganize its nonproliferation bureau (a bureau that remains leaderless). [This referenced GAO report is available at www.gao.gov/new.items/d09738.pdf.] Besides failing to address mission overlap, low morale, and lack of career opportunities, the failed reorganization caused a significant drop in expertise in offices focused on proliferation issues--including "today's threats posted by Iran, North Korea, and Syria," the GAO's report said--and coordination with bodies like the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Another report by the DOS's Inspector General this year [available online at http://oig.state, gov/documents/organization/127270.pdf] described severe and broad dysfunction within the Africa bureau, while ignoring--perhaps considering it a given--the lack of department wide integration and leadership in operations. Examples of the dysfunction range from not providing public diplomacy personnel with computers capable of reading interoffice memos to a failure to effectively work with the new Africa Command.

By necessity, the Department of Defense (DOD) has stepped in where DOS has tuned out: Foggy Bottom relies on Pentagon funding and even personnel for basic operations central to its mission. For example, the DOD now performs much strategic communications work traditionally the purview of the DOS. In Somalia, for example, the DOS's budget for public diplomacy is $30,000. The Pentagon's is $600,000. And, in the DOS's bureaucratic wisdom, the $30,000 does not even belong to its Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs.

Further, rivalries between the different "cones"--or career tracks, referred to by one insider as the "conal caste system"--at the DOS severely impacts morale, career growth, and even operations. The report on the Africa bureau noted that in 2002, public affairs and public diplomacy was a "failed office"--and that the situation is worse in 2009. Public outreach workers said the bureau's leadership "does not understand public diplomacy." The sentiment is widespread. A 2008 report by a congressional ombudsman, the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, [available online at www.state.gov/documents/organization/106297.pdf] described a systemic failure to support and train public diplomacy officers in the field, as well as professional discrimination against those in the career track.

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