Management Matters Management MattersManagement Matters
Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

Culture Clashes

ARCHIVES
Earlier this year as the Senate was preparing the fiscal 2010 budget for the federal government, Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D., received what he described as a surprising call at home. It was from Defense Secretary Robert Gates. But Gates wasn't calling to complain about the Pentagon's funding. He was calling to ask Conrad to not let the Senate cut the State Department's budget.

The call was surprising because the State and Defense departments are longtime bureaucratic rivals, famous for bitter disputes over policies and battles to pull the White House toward one and away from the other. "Most of my career, the secretaries of State and Defense weren't speaking to one another," Gates said in early October at a George Washington University forum. "It could get pretty ugly, actually." Gates, on the other hand, has gone out of his way to forge a strong working relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. At the same Oct. 5 event, Clinton praised Gates for taking a "whole of government" approach -- rather than perpetuating the turf wars between the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom.

Great rivalries and infighting have long plagued interdepartmental relationships across government. The CIA has done battle with the military services' intelligence agencies. The National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service have fought over the proper management of federal lands. The FBI has tussled with other federal law enforcement agencies and local police forces. The Office of Management and Budget has crossed bureaucratic swords with almost every other agency.

Many of the battle lines are written into agencies' conflicting or overlapping mission statements. As part of the Interior Department, the Park Service is inclined toward conservation while the Forest Service, as part of Agriculture, is prone toward land use. When criminals act, they don't check to see whether agents from the FBI or the Drug Enforcement Administration or the Secret Service, or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives should be the ones to pursue them. To oversimplify, State seeks to prevent wars, while Defense seeks to execute them effectively.

Such conflicting missions have tended to generate antagonism among departments. Gates is trying to overcome that tendency by setting an example at the top. "The truth of the matter is, if the bureaucracies realize that the principals get along and work together and are on the same page, it radiates downward," he said at GW. "When people discover it's not career-enhancing to try to set your principal's hair on fire because the other person is doing something horrible, it makes a huge difference, and not just at this level, but all through the bureaucracy."

Clinton offered a real-world example of interagency cooperation. In Afghanistan, State's diplomats are working with military officers to improve cell phone service for the people of that war-torn country. "We began looking for places we could put up cell towers," Clinton said. "We began looking for how we would incentivize businesses in Afghanistan to spread their cell phone coverage."

She emphasized that the State Department was taking the lead on the project, since it has diplomatic, not just military, objectives. For his part, Gates said acknowledging that Clinton is the lead spokesperson for American foreign policy was the first step in building a proper working relationship with her department. Working with her meant also helping her fight battles when he could -- as he did with the budget earlier this year. "We're not trying to prove anything," Gates said. "It's just this is what works. And this is how government ought to work."

Brian Friel covered management and human resources at Government Executive for six years and is now a National Journal staff correspondent.

 

Brian Friel is founder of One Nation Analytics, an independent research, analytics and consulting firm for the federal market.

FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

    Download
  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

    Download
  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

    Download
  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

    Download
  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

    Download
  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.