Diplomats give Powell high marks after two years

Secretary of State Colin Powell is fulfilling his promise to revitalize the State Department after decades of management neglect at the department, a council of current and former diplomats say in a new report.

In an assessment of Powell's leadership two years into his tenure, the diplomats credit Powell for increasing the department's budget, boosting the workforce, upgrading technology and enhancing overseas security. But the diplomats said more progress is needed in all of those areas, along with creating a more open culture and ensuring that appointed ambassadors have strong managerial backgrounds.

Powell "undertook a wide range of steps aimed at equipping the State Department and U.S. Foreign Service to meet the foreign policy challenges of the 21st Century," the Foreign Affairs Council said in its assessment, signed by the leaders of 11 diplomacy groups, including the American Foreign Service Association. "The accomplishments are substantial, even historic."

In the late 1990s, numerous groups issued reports decrying the poor state of management at the State Department, which they said had been underfunded and understaffed, left with decrepit facilities and outdated technology and governed by officials with little leadership or management training. Some reports called for massive reorganization of the department.

After taking office in January 2001, Powell said a massive reorganization would be distracting and instead opted for an incremental approach to improving the department's operations. He started with the budget, banking on widely-held respect for him in the administration and in Congress to secure annual increases that boosted the foreign affairs administration budget from $4.9 billion in 2001 to a proposed $6.4 billion in 2004.

With the increased funding the State Department:

  • Hired 1,780 new employees in fiscal 2002. The department plans to complete a three-year hiring effort in 2004 that will increase the department's workforce by 1,158 employees above attrition. Last year, the department attracted an unprecedented 35,000 people to take the Foreign Service exam and reduced the hiring cycle for new officers from 27 months to 10 months.
  • Modernized technology at posts around the world. The department has installed Internet and intranet access at 230 of 246 sites, classified system access at 161 of 221 sites and developed a prototype messaging system to replace its aging telegram and email systems.
  • Reached the fifth year of a 10-year, $10 billion effort to secure U.S. embassies overseas in the wake of the August 1998 East African embassy bombings. While securing facilities, the department has also revamped its construction office. The office now follows modern real estate practices and has reduced the embassy compound construction time from five years to two years.
  • Opened a liaison office at the House of Representatives, modeled after the military branches' liaison offices. Lawmakers have long criticized State for being unresponsive. The Senate has yet to agree to a State Department liaison office.

Grant Green, Powell's undersecretary for management, said Powell's commitment to management issues is a key reason progress has been made. In the past, secretaries of State paid little to no attention to the department's operational concerns.

"This isn't rocket science. It's just paying attention to those things," Green said. "We've been able to succeed in these areas because the secretary cares about them and people know he cares about them."

People, technology, facilities and security have been the four priorities of Powell's management agenda, Green said. Small steps have made a big difference in each area, he said. For example, the department sent out reminder cards to people who had signed up for the Foreign Service exam. In the cards, Powell urged them to take the exam. "It's little stuff like that," Green said. "It's like a college basketball coach trying to recruit a high school kid. You stay in their face, you let them know you love them, that you need them, that you want them."

While the diplomats' report generally gave Powell's team high marks, it pointed out several areas where a lot more work needs to be done. For example, the report says that congressional staffers still complain that the State Department is slow to respond to requests. Green acknowledged that more can be done to improve congressional-State relations. "We've reached out and we'll get better," Green said.

The diplomats also urged Powell to continue to push for additional funding to keep management improvements on track.

John Naland, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said many secretaries of State have promised to improve management, but few have followed through. "Secretary Powell has actually been able to do that," Naland said. "A lot of secretaries wanted to, but they got wrapped up in crisis after crisis overseas. Secretary Powell has obviously had crisis after crisis overseas, but he has still found an hour or so a day to work on diplomatic readiness."

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