Analysis: Internationally oriented executives needed

Many domestic federal agencies aren’t prepared for global responsibilities.

At virtually every turn, government agencies are finding that their domestic missions have expanded to include important international responsibilities. Yet in many instances, federal agencies are not adequately prepared to handle these new and challenging demands.

The reasons are basic. There is a scarcity of leaders and staff well-versed and experienced in the global environment at many traditionally domestic-oriented agencies, a lack of government training programs and resources devoted to help fill the void, and a tendency not to deal with the issue until problems arise.

Take the Food and Drug Administration. It was created as a national regulatory agency, but because of the explosion of overseas drug manufacturing and the deluge of imported foods from all corners of the world, today its reach must be global.

Unfortunately, FDA has lacked the capacity to keep pace with the changes brought about by globalization -- the need to inspect thousands of foreign plants and products, to keep tainted drugs and foods out of the country, and to navigate many different languages, protocols and regulatory systems.

This dilemma is hardly unique.

The financial meltdown exposed the weaknesses of the nation's securities and banking regulators, reinforcing the need for more stringent government oversight of global markets and international transactions, and making clear that what happens in Europe or Asia directly impacts financial dealings in the United States.

Transportation security, anti-terrorism initiatives, cybersecurity, drug interdiction, offshore tax havens, climate change, energy needs, public health, maritime and aviation policies are just a few of the many other types of issues frequently requiring international collaboration and management by federal agencies.

Despite the increased international responsibilities, federal workers at the traditionally domestic agencies have received little preparation to deal with foreign governments, international organizations, overseas businesses and nonprofit groups. All too often in government, there is a mind-set that domestic and foreign policy are separate and distinct arenas.

The issues are too important to be ignored, with the government's work in the international sector directly affecting our economy, our public health and our national security. It is essential that our civil servants possess the ability to work internationally and to understand the global implications of policies and programs. Yet outside the traditional defense, diplomatic and trade spheres, many agencies lack a human capital strategy that incorporates international concerns and workforce needs.

Training and career development opportunities for international leadership must be given far greater attention than they are today. Such investments are routinely made in the military and the diplomatic corps, but are not even on the radar screen for much of our government.

Senior leaders must understand the international role of their work, communicate it to employees, and support employees in their efforts to fulfill that role. A 2003 RAND Corp. report found the nation is producing too few future government leaders who combine "substantive depth with international experience and outlook," and there is little evidence that much has changed in the past six years.

Leadership development programs must include a broad, global perspective. The Senior Executive Service, the government's career leadership corps, should actively recruit managers from outside the government with international experience and rotate federal executives with skills and knowledge in global affairs among agencies that need such expertise. Federal recruitment also must take better advantage of the ethnic and cultural diversity of the United States, a factor that could help bring cultural sensitivity and foreign language skills to the table.

At the end of the day, the ability of our government to effectively serve the interests of the nation depends heavily on the quality of the workforce and its leaders. And in today's interconnected world, this will require building a new generation of workers and leaders with international experience, a global outlook and the skills to match.

Christopher G. Caine is president and chief executive officer of Mercator XXI LLC and Max Stier is president and CEO of the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service.

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