Culture Clashes

Bureaucratic rivalries run deep. Can leaders bring conflicting agencies into harmony?

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.