On Transformation

Reform is under way in many corners of our far-flung government.

Nearly three years ago, writer Shane Harris set out to assess reports that the State Department finally was bringing its approach to management up to date.

He found that then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in fact had spent a lot of energy securing the resources that the department needed for infrastructure, training and security. Our cover headline read: "Colin Powell has won his campaign to reform management at the State Department. Does it matter?"

Obviously, the kind of infrastructure and morale improvements Powell brought matter a lot. Equally clearly, the mission is what matters most, and as the United States has focused on the global war on terror, State's mission has shifted to imposing a "New Order" led by Powell's successor, Condoleezza Rice.

Rice's goal of a new "transformational diplomacy," Harris reports, may not come easily to the Foreign Service. Its members are being asked to learn the "hard" languages, to interact more with nonofficial actors like religious and nongovernmental organizations, to acquire the skills needed to help foreign citizens strengthen the rule of law, start businesses and improve health and education. Foreign Service officers cannot be promoted without serving in hardship posts like Ethiopia, China and Iraq.

Transformation is a term that's applied more and more to describe the internal reforms under way all across government. It was much in use during our Excellence in Government conference last month (some of whose proceedings are blogged at http://blog.excelgov.com). Many speakers described ambitious change initiatives:

Jacqueline Myers of the Forest Service recounted wrenching consolidations in agency business systems, changes that have cost hundreds of jobs and forced many people to move to a common site in Albuquerque, N.M.

Lt. Cols. Mark Tribus and Nate Allen told of Companycommander.com, an up-from-the ranks program to gather and disseminate information of particular utility to the 3,200 officers, ages 26 to 30, who lead the Army's key combat units.

Col. Kent M. Crossley of the Center for Army Lessons Learned related efforts to move beyond passive after-action reports to an aggressive program employing retired military officers to figure out what's working in Iraq and Afghanistan for the benefit of units preparing to deploy.

Adm. James Loy, who stood up the Transportation Security Administration and then helped do the same with the Homeland Security Department, described the extensive administrative consolidations that are providing a backbone for operating the department, while George W. Foresman, current undersecretary for preparedness at DHS, said that until the American people adopt a "culture of preparedness," the nation will not be ready for catastrophe.

For all the challenges, an innate optimism borne of a faith in our nation reigned at EIG. As former Ambassador Prudence Bushnell observed, our strength lies in the melting pot of white, black, Hispanic and Asian kids growing up together: "Not a country in the world is more diverse than ours, and there's not a challenge on the globe that does not exist within our borders." And so, she suggested, we will again become a beacon of hope for all.

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