A participant in developing the 2015 Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review summarizes its highlights for skeptics.
BY CHRIS DEGNAN
Last year, when I joined the team conducting the State Department’s latest Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, I quickly discovered that not all my friends in the department shared my excitement for the project. Reactions ranged from “Better you than me” to “Huh? What’s a QDDR?”
As I explained to the skeptics, my enthusiasm comes from a belief that diplomacy and development matter and, in an era of limited resources, should be conducted as strategically as possible. The QDDR is our chance to look beyond the crises of the day to modernize every aspect of our work.
In addition, my desire to be part of this second QDDR process (the first was conducted in 2010) was also based on a more selfish interest. I have devoted my career to the Foreign Service because I value public service, but I also want to work for an institution that values my family. They have chosen this career with me, so I wanted to try to help ensure that family issues were considered.
The final product—mercifully succinct and short on bureaucratese— meets my hopes. No, it does not solve every problem, but it does move the ball down the field on critical issues and addresses key policy and management priorities.
Global events will always remain unpredictable and crises inevitable, but that is no excuse for failing to plan for them. As Dwight Eisenhower observed, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” The 2015 Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review aims to model this kind of long-term thinking by laying out policy goals we can all use as signposts, along with internal reforms to help get us there. Combined with the implementation guidance that will follow, it is designed to have a meaningful impact on the daily work of diplomacy and development at headquarters and in the field.
From the beginning of the QDDR process in April 2014, the QDDR office, reporting to Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Heather Higginbottom, engaged Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development employees of all ranks and specialties, both in Washington, D.C., and overseas. We visited or spoke with staff serving at more than 50 posts and consulted the larger foreign affairs community: nongovernmental organization stakeholders, retired Foreign Service professionals and our allies overseas who are facing similar challenges.
The QDDR office reflects a similar diversity, comprised of Foreign Service officers and specialists, civil servants, political appointees, contractors and detailees from USAID, the Department of Defense and think-tanks. We also conducted an online QDDR Sounding Board Challenge, a separate channel from the regular State Sounding Board, in which 4,700 participants from all levels of State and USAID took part. Their responses helped make the QDDR a document that truly reflects the thinking of both organizations, not just a few voices.
The QDDR is our chance to look beyond the crises of the day to modernize every aspect of our work.
Finally, we are also grateful to the American Foreign Service Association for the series of thoughtful papers that they contributed to this process and the constructive spirit with which their representatives participated in the development of the QDDR report and its plans for implementation. AFSA’s contributions were essential to many areas of the final report, including the emphases on investing in a skilled and diverse workforce, enhancing economic leadership, managing and mitigating physical risk, and promoting employee work-life wellness.
Through months of engagement, a number of recurring themes emerged. The people who work for our organizations are dedicated, mission-oriented professionals with a passion for promoting America’s interests abroad. Most of them want the QDDR to offer clarity about U.S. foreign policy priorities and improve the tools to produce results in a rapidly changing world. Based on their extensive input, here are five specific ways the QDDR is attempting to meet that standard and make the lives of everyone on our teams a little easier:
Although State and USAID have come a long way from the infamous Wang computers of the 1990s, Foreign Service personnel serving overseas, in particular, now face a different communications challenge: how to respond to a constant flood of emails and taskers from Washington and still find time to engage beyond embassy walls. To help them cope with this dilemma, the QDDR calls for a comprehensive knowledge management strategy at both agencies, one that averts the need to “reinvent the wheel” every time we tackle a problem.
The great news is that we have a distinct advantage in this area: offices like the Information Resource Management Office of eDiplomacy have been working on knowledge issues for more than a decade, and the department has a deepening understanding of methodologies and techniques. We need a comprehensive strategy now to address the call by Secretary of State John Kerry for better knowledge management: “In a world of information saturation, State and USAID must improve our knowledge management, data and analytics to achieve these goals.”
We received countless helpful suggestions from the field which fed into our ideas on knowledge management, such as one from Matt Chessen, currently of the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to create a “full-time organization which supports and incubates innovative projects.” This feedback helped shape our proposal to establish a hub for data, diagnostics and design to increase our capacity to find, filter and leverage information throughout our operations. A space has been assigned for this hub, which will provide the equivalent of a garage for a startup tech company. The team coming together there will pilot ways to translate massive amounts of information into timely, user-friendly tools for decision-makers.
This is not about replacing relationships with robotics— quite the opposite. It is about using technology and information management to free those in the field to spend more time engaging directly with people. As Sec. Kerry told our chiefs of mission at their recent worldwide conference: “We must understand the force of Twitter, but it will never replace a handshake.” Better data and diagnostics will inform and amplify our work in the field, by helping diplomacy and development professionals respond more efficiently to taskings from Washington and thereby freeing us to develop and cultivate contacts outside the embassy.
Creating a more nimble organization also means recognizing changes in the broader culture. Dual-career marriages are increasingly the norm; many of us are taking on responsibility for aging parents; and smart phones too often mean there is no such thing as “outside the office.” Lisa Kyriienko, a construction executive in the Bureau of Overseas Building Operations, won the QDDR Sounding Board Challenge with 174 votes for her well-reasoned argument that “A strong State Department needs strong families,” which led to a digital videoconference with Special Representative Tom Perriello.
Doing our job right is not just about encouraging agility and engagement, but fostering innovation.
As Kyriienko noted: If we do not address the challenge of spousal employment, we “risk losing many qualified officers— male and female—who find that in our modern world, few spouses are willing to sacrifice the potential of a career” to follow their partners around the world for 20 years. With this in mind, we came up with a plan to expand top-level departmental support for the excellent, but understaffed, Family Liaison Office and its Global Employment Initiative, which currently has just 16 global employment advisers for 12,000 eligible family members. The QDDR will also facilitate greater career flexibility for employees who need to address family, health or educational needs through a new Career Break program that allows them to take extended leave while still maintaining their career.
Taking proper care of one’s mental and physical health is vital in any line of work, and good managers understand that. The QDDR contains recommendations for increasing resilience training to help people navigate a full career that will likely include some challenging posts. It also proposes increased support for wellness committees at overseas posts, as well as travel to posts by medical personnel to confer with those committees when necessary.
During the QDDR’s discovery phase, our team heard repeatedly from frontline diplomats and development professionals about the urgent need to address increasingly complex physical risks around the world. Indeed, there are few, if any, countries where our personnel face no security threats at all. Regrettably, such threats are inherent to performing our duties in the post-9/11 era, but a new risk management framework, created by the Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing and Innovation under the under secretary for management, will be invaluable as the department begins carrying out the QDDR’s proposal for a senior-level agility review.
State and USAID need to implement a standard approach for managing and mitigating risks, and Sec. Kerry is beginning a dialogue with Congress and the American people about how to get this balance right. To do our work well, we must get into the field and work with local contacts; but as organizations, State and USAID must balance this imperative with security needs. Many of our colleagues feel that this balance needs to be readjusted.
I can attest to this dilemma firsthand. As a public affairs officer in Jamaica, I was planning to visit an NGO that had received an embassy grant to educate young people about preventing HIV/AIDS. Because the group operated in a designated “no go” neighborhood, the trip was initially rejected. But with creativity, teamwork and an understanding of the mission, we worked with the Regional Security Office and the local police to find a way for me to visit the site and meet those performing this vital work.
Doing our job right is not just about encouraging agility and engagement, but fostering innovation. With the help of suggestions from people like David Dzebisashvili, a USAID employee currently serving in Tbilisi, the 2015 QDDR emphasizes the need to build a stronger culture of innovation, where taking smart risks is rewarded and diplomats and development professionals are not afraid to fail and derive the necessary lessons learned in order to stay on a path toward greater success.
As AFSA regularly reminds management, more than 60 percent of current State Foreign Service personnel have been in the department for less than 10 years, due to the large influx of new hires during Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Diplomacy 3.0 initiative. Newer officers often need to adjust to the department’s ethos, but that should not be a one-way process. Our organizational culture needs to adapt to their needs, as well, and this requires a new style of leadership.
While researching various archives for the QDDR, we discovered an interview with a retired ambassador involved in a similar reform effort 30 years ago. This person had heard sentiments expressed such as, “Training is for dogs” and “There’s no morale problem at my post; if people don’t like it they can leave.” Clearly, we have made progress from the days when this mentality was the norm. Sec. Kerry has made clear in the QDDR and elsewhere that only leaders and managers who treat their people as human beings first and employees second will succeed. Our organizations need to start developing leadership early, ensure we have the tools to succeed and avoid burnout by providing a psychologically sustainable career trajectory. This approach fed into a number of our report’s recommendations.
For example, the QDDR supports an overhaul of leadership and management training to elevate hands-on, in-context coaching, not just the study of abstract ideas. It also supports broadening and deepening vetting for people who will assume State and USAID’s highest positions, so that these leaders demonstrate a pattern of treating their teams professionally and inspiring them to their best performance before assuming greater responsibilities.
The QDDR strives to change State and USAID’s organizational culture to reflect larger societal changes. Both organizations need a more agile, nimble and diverse workforce that can quickly adapt to the fluid and unpredictable nature of global events. The QDDR endorses the new Diplomatic Mastery curriculum being developed at the Foreign Service Institute, as well as new “blended and continuous” training materials being developed for real-time use at posts.
In addition, our report advocates giving Foreign and Civil Service employees more opportunities to circulate within and between State and USAID and take more long-term training and excursion tours. Given the understandable fear that such rotations will take employees out of their career trajectory, the QDDR calls for more serious and meaningful performance evaluations for such “out-tours.”
No organization changes its culture overnight—certainly not large bureaucracies with their own traditions and mores. Many of the things we “have always done” exist for a good reason. But to stay on our toes and keep up with the world’s changes, we need to continually re-examine our practices, and change course where necessary.
The QDDR team believes these are important reforms, but we know that they do not mean anything without a concrete plan for implementation. If there is one thing I learned from this process, it is that the review was shaped by the people who showed up. I believe the same will be true of its implementation and impact.
Toward that end, please consider how you might engage with our office or at your post to be part of the difficult but rewarding work of making this a better place to work, so that each of us can have even greater impact around the world. Please go to www.state.gov/qddr to find out more, and write to us at QDDRideas@state.gov.