By Brian Friel
May 14, 2001The Bush administration has given a new name-and new life-to a Clinton administration proposal to let federal managers run their offices more like private businesses. The birthplace of the resurrected idea is an obscure State Department office with a private sector-style mission: the Foreign Buildings Operation, which serves as the landlord for U.S. facilities overseas. In 1996, Vice President Al Gore proposed turning many federal agencies into performance-based organizations, or PBOs. Under that concept, agency executives would be allowed to make personnel changes and purchases more easily than at other federal agencies. In return, the executives would promise to improve their agencies' performance within a few years.
On paper, three agencies became PBOs during the Clinton years: the Education Department's Office of Student Financial Assistance, the Patent and Trademark Office and the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic services office. Now the Bush administration is proposing to turn State's Foreign Buildings Operation into its first results-based organization, or RBO. "We need flexibility with hiring and procurement practices," said Foreign Buildings Operation chief Chuck Williams, a retired Army Corps of Engineers general whom Secretary of State Colin Powell appointed in March to "turn around" the much-criticized office. "If I need a geotechnical engineer [immediately], I need to have the ability to hire that person directly from the private sector, and get them hired quickly. If I have a non-performer, it shouldn't take five years to get that person off the rolls," Williams said. The Foreign Buildings Operation builds, maintains and secures American embassies abroad. Several reports in recent years have criticized the office for not having a capital planning process and for completing projects behind schedule and above cost. Williams said the reports were on the mark. "The Secretary asked me to come in and do my own assessment. I took about six weeks and did that, and I basically concluded that the Foreign Buildings Operation in its current posture and organizational focus couldn't get its job done," Williams said. Williams' assessment came as the Bush administration proposed $1.3 billion in embassy security, construction and maintenance work in 2002-money that the Foreign Buildings Operation would be expected to spend wisely. Powell and Williams agreed to move the office out from under State's Bureau of Administration so that Williams reports directly to Grant Green, Powell's management chief. Williams then began reorganizing the office into what he calls "accountability cells" that are focused on specific functions such as planning, development and real estate management. Williams is setting up performance agreements with each of the senior managers in the 700-person office and has set some basic targets for the whole organization, including getting embassy construction costs down and speeding up the office's work. He is also figuring out a way to charge other agencies that use State Department facilities a fee for the office's landlord-like services. "We think all of this is going to be a model for how a government operation should run when it can align itself to look like a business entity," Williams said. To make the Foreign Buildings Operation more like a business, the State Department will ask Congress to free the office from governmentwide procurement and personnel rules. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said on the House floor last week that he would propose an addition to the Foreign Affairs authorization bill that would turn Williams' office into a results-based organization. Lawmakers are debating the bill this month. "I have a great interest in bringing about common-sense practices in the planning and management of our overseas buildings infrastructure," Blumenauer said. "I am impressed with the business-like approach being taken by Gen. Chuck Williams." Other agencies have faced opposition to personnel rule changes. To become a PBO, the Patent and Trademark Office had to guarantee its workers' unions that employees would still be provided with merit system protections under Title 5 of the U.S. Code. If those protections were removed, "people would feel very vulnerable," said Ronald Stern, president of the Patent Office Professionals Association. Similarly, some federal procurement officials have said that agencies don't need special exemptions from government acquisition rules because those rules have been loosened over the past decade. Jerry Ellig, a senior research fellow at George Mason University's Mercatus Center in Arlington, Va., said either the performance- or results-based organization approach could be considered for a variety of federal operations. "As long as they have the idea right, it doesn't matter what they call it," Ellig said.
By Brian Friel
May 14, 2001