Breaking the Logjam in State Department Reports from Overseas

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Breaking the Logjam in State Department Reports from Overseas

November 9, 1987 18 min read Download Report
John Buttarazzi

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6 15 November 9, 1987 BREAKING THE LOGJAM IN STATE DEPARTMENT REPORTS FROM OVERSEAS IN'I'RODUCIION Knowledge of other countries is crucial to! making and executing foreign policy.

United States policymakers must understand the her workings of other nations their national culture, the thinking of their deusibnmakers and. mol ders of public opinion, and their economic and military strengths and. weaknesses;,.Reporting to Washington on these matters from posts abroad is the most important function of the State Department's Foreign Service Officer co s. Foreign reporting is the p osts around the world at a cost of some 1.7 billion per year raison d'etre of maintaining U.S. foreign servicest 3 s at 262 dipl'omatic and consular The usefulness and quality of this reporting, however, are matters .of mounting though little publicized, c oncern. Senior policymakers in. Washington have been complaining privately for years about the inadequacy of foreign service reporting, the excessive volume of reporting, and the shortage of good analyses of serious foreign policy issues, free of institut i onal bias. This inadequacy..hampers the policymakers in the White House, on the National Security Council, and in the seventh floor executive suites of the State Department, and complicates the policy formulation process Hemy Ovestaf6ing. The twin problem s of an excessive volume of reporting and a lack of good analytical reporting are not due to a shortage of money or people. To the contrary. They are the result of heavy overstaffing, a promotion system that rewards quantity of reporting instead of quality , and the institutional self-interest of the foreign service. Breaking the logjam in State Department reports from overseas in fact wdl save money and allow the Department to meet the tighter budget imposed on it by attempts to cut the federal deficit This is the second in a series by The Heritage Foundation's State Department Assessment Project.

Upcoming studies will address such issues as how the State Department manages U.S.-Soviet relations the Department's approach to Soviet espionage, and an analysis of the role of Foreign Service Officers. -2 A problem related to reporting is the lack of an adequate documents retrieval system, which makes it difficult if not impossible for.-end-users in Washington to retrieve from the State Department's voluminous fi l es useful information by country or subject, rather than by individual telegram To resolve these problems, State Department reforms are needed to Make reports from abroad more analytical and useful to the Washington decisionmakers Avoid institutional bias es as much as possible; and 44 Make it easier to find reports and obtain information.

Specific reforms to achieve these goals include Cutting the number of reporting officers drastically Reducing reporting volume 0+ Imposing higher standards on analytical reporting; and 0+ Establishing useful information retrieval systems.

Such reforms will be fought bitterly by the Foreign. Service; its 6 labor: union the Foreign Service Association, and its supporters in Congress., Nevertheless, these serious management problems cannot be solved without firm action, including major staff reductions I HAVE THE HONOR To REPORT Until World War I1 and for some years beyond, the principal State Department reporting instrument was the Foreign Service. Despatch, then addressed directly to the Secretary of State with the &gaging salutation Sir: I have the the delivery time to Washington by boat from a far-off station would be. as.,much as a month or more, the reporting officer was compelled to take a long-range view.

Events requi ring more urgent reporting could be sent by cable, but this was cumbersome and costly, and thus used sparingly. The communications technology of the day required the volume of foreign senrice reporting to be held to a minimum while the quality was expecte d to be the highest honor to report There followed a discursive, well thought-out report. Because These reporting standards of the "old foreign service" could still serve today's needs. But the electronic age has created a different kind of reporting. The e ase of instant transmission has shifted emphasis from thoughtful analysis toward a simple, news wire service-style of reporting events with urgency.. Volume, far from being restrained, is encouraged and praised as "productive 3 A Million Telqyams to Georg e !hltz In the huge embassy staffs that characterize most foreign service posts today, political and: economic officers compete with each other to report information in a frantic effort to demonstrate productivity The result: more than a million foreign se rvice telegrams are addressed to the Secretary of State each year. Not only does this volume make analysis difficult, it also creates work for-the thousands who staff the Washington offices of the Department of State.

Almost all reporting today is done by telegram, which has taken over from the airgram as airmail overtook surface mail) which earlier replaced the despatch.

Most foreign service reports no longer are thoughtful, discursive presentations, but imitations of the news media--hastily written descr iptions of fast-breaking events with little thought to relevance or U.S. national interests handling the volume of reportine which the State Department receives from its overseas missions. Foreign SeMce Officers (FSOs) assigned abroad are allowed and even encouraged to report everything. Officers in the field believe that frequent and voluminous reportmg shows Washington that they are busy. It keeps their name before the senior officers in the Department, of course, and when the annual performance reports a re written it enables their superiors to certify that they are productive Productivity" is a key buzzword in the annual performance evaluations that are prepared on all Foreign Service Officers. While it implies achievement, it is really synonymous with w o rk volume. Officers are praised for thorough and detailed reporting, but rarely criticized for "over-reporting:I Not reporting events can be hazardous for a foreign service career An FSO must worry about his future when Washington complains that the press asked questions about a fast-breaking story abroad and the Department had to reply "no comment" because a report on the matter had not been received. The moral is when in doubt, send in a report Acute Overload. There is no evidence that foreign policy dec i sions or the decision-making process itself have improved because of the enormous increase in volume of foreign service reporting. Indeed, a case can be made that both have suffered. The Department's information system is a victim of acute overload I Equa t ing Volume with Productivity. No news service could survive financially To make matters worse, the information contained in the 12 million reports-on file in the State Department 'is not retrievable in any systematic or useful fashion in spite of a costly computerized information system. As a result of this, position papers prepared in Washington still are formed in large part from the personal memories, impressions, and opinions of "experts" based on what they have learned and retained from their experien c e in particular regions and situations. It is a risky approach to policy-making THE PROBLEM OF QUANTITY The length and quantity of reports from abroad is a major part of the problem because it wastes talent and clogs the information retrieval system. The - 4 huge volume of reports flowing daily into the State Department has a paralyzing effect on end-users who feel compelled to scrutinize many of the reports lest something of importance escape their review. Yet to read even a significant part of the mountai n of reports would leave no time to do anything else, including acting on the information received staffs. Most American embassies dwarf those of all other countries, and in major foreign countries U.S. embassies have total staffs that number more than a t h ousand. There recently were 1,135 personnel, both American and local employees at the embassy in Paris. The numbers at Rome and London are comparable and while precise data are difficult to obtain, insiders claim that the embassies in Cairo and Mexico Cit y are even larger. Ironically, in major Western capitals and other attractive and comfortable locations, the State Department officers are a minority of the embassy staffs. Dozens of U.S. government agencies have offices and staffs, all reporting to Washin g ton. Some 43 U.S. government agencies have personnel somewhere abroad. Thirty-five have offices in Paris alone, and about the same number are in London and Rome. Embassy officials at such posts may include maritime attaches, graves attaches, Social Securi ty attaches, and others whose need to be there is at least questionable. Even the Tennessee Valley Authority has found the need to have an office in Switzerland.

Agency for International Development, often rival major branches of the local government in si ze. Most embassy operations, other than- consular. services and a few special units, either support or complement the information gathering and reporting function the Washington end. In a manner similar to their overseas counterparts, the Washington staff finds that maintaining an impressive flow of paper to posts overseas and to other offices in the State Department, or within the Washington foreign affairs community, contributes to their "productivity These end-users, in turn, stimulate even more reporti n g, often to satisfy their own interests and ambitions Tennessee Valley in switcerland, Over-reporting helps produce huge embassy In some developing countries, U.S. embassies, bloated with personnel from the The enormous volume of reports emanating from th e field generates readers at A Huge Manpower Requirement This huge excess of foreign reporting requires a long tail of foreign service support services. Directly involved are the elaborate communications systems with staffs of round-the-clock personnel, th e distribution systems within each sending and receiving unit, and the technical staff required to operate, maintain, and keep secure the sophisticated equipment required for modem cryptographic communications.

Indirect support is provided by other adminis trative staff who specialize in assigning and moving personnel, managing space, ordering supplies, handling travel and, of increasing importance, maintaining security. Also needed are records keepers required by law to keep track of all these activibes an d to maintain and catalog every document received by the Department of State 5 maintenance men, mechanics, guards, and local service personnel of every description in addition to the Department's 25,000 employees. Thus, the reporting process, the most time - consuming of all foreign service functions, cascades into a personnel and funding requirement many times the size of the reporting staff itself 4 Abroad, there is a contract force of some -30,000. servants, gardeners Reporting The excessive volume of over s eas reporting is well known inside the State Department. It is the bane of most senior officers who regularly work long hours and on weekends just to read the most "important" reports, leaving little time to think about or act on policy matters. Yet, effo rts to correct the problem have been perfunctory at best. T

cally, working groups are established to interview "end users reporting guidelines are re-hashed, modified, and re-issued, and a new message is sent to all posts, over the Secretary of State's sig nature, exhorting all reportmg officers to greater achievement.

One of the most candid messages was sent to all State Department staff by Henry Kissinger shortly after he became Secretary of State.l Recalling his service as National Security Advisor, Kiss inger noted Over the last four years, I have been struck by the sheer volume of information which flows into the Department contrasted with the paucity of good analytical material whether from the Department or the field. Mere reportage of events which ha v e already taken place and about which in many cases we can do little is not sufficient Kissinger's Admonitions Yet after correctly identifying the problem, Kissinger left the solution to the very people who were causing the problem and had a vested intere s t in continuing excess reporting. Kissinger ordered each Chief of Mission in each post "to review most carefully field reporting. I have the impression we can eliminate many items of minimal and marginal interest." Continued Kissinger I am asking the Unde r Secretary for Political Affairs to study reporting requuements to eliminate as many marginal requirements as possible."

Yet little came of Kissin er's insights and admonitions. The reason: He did little to reduce the excess staff responsible for the excess reporting. Nor was it fruitful to call for a study of "reporting requirements Very little reporting results from forma l reporting requirements. Voluntary reporting makes. up the overwhelming share of foreign service reports. Voluntarily reporting everything. of any possible interest to any federal agency is ingrained among FSOs THE PROBLEM OF QUALsry There is an inverse r e lationship between quality and quantity in foreign service reports. Quality of information, style, and analysis suffer because of the compulsion to report events as fast as they occur. This adds to the volume of reports and further aggravates the problem c 1 Reporting from the Field A message from Secretary of State Henry Kissmger to all staff.

Reprinted in Department of State Newsletter No. 150, November 1973. -6 Criticism of foreign service reporting quality is common. This criticism generally has focuse d on "lack of analysis although opinions differ as to what constitutes "analysis A 1977 review of reporting was conducted by an "in-house" operation called OASIS.2 In this review, the four major attributes of reporting were identified as source, analysis, relevance to U.S. interests, and overall usefulness. Panels of experienced FSOs were convened to evaluate a sampling of reports from a series of posts. Judgments were expressed in numerical terms based on a scientific system worked out jointly with an out s ide expert in such techniques. Some 46 posts were judged by career officials, all experienced reporting officers. The judgments among members of the panels showed amazing agreement. Only ten posts. rated a ,mean score of 50 percent or better for ''overall usefulness" of its reporting: About 20 percent of the reports reviewed were given the lowest grade, classified as useless to Washington users. The OASIS report was sent to the Under Secretary for Management, where it promptly disappeared UND-YING CAUSES O F REPORTING PROBLEMS The OASIS and other studies of reporting deficiencies have identified symptoms rather than causes. Had they sought causes, they would have discovered two 1) A lack of clear instructions fkom the StaW Department on..generall On some top i cs, such as certain kinds of economic reporting, for example, the requirements are defined with too much precision. Typical are the so-called CERP or Comprehensive Economic Reporting Program, requirements. Because reporting on foreign postal services, hea l th care systems or other non-foreign policy matters holds little appeal for most FSOs, the CERP requirements were viewed as essential reportin%requirements The lack of good quality analytical reporting led other government departments to establish their o w n staffs at the major embassies abroad to report on matters of interest to them. This aggravated the overstaffing abroad and led the State Department to establish the CERP requirements for regular reports. of information generally economic, needed by othe r departments. The CERP requirements however, have not led other departments to reduce their overseas staffs,. with the result that there are still more reporting officers abroad and increased foreign reporting. There is a reluctance to interfere with volu n tary reporting in most areas of politics and economics. A de facto competition with press and even television means that almost any event must be reported immediately so the Department hears it from the post before the story hits the news at home 2. OASIS , Unpublished series of panel evaluations of random samples of economic and political reports from 46 embassies over a period of one year. -7 2) Toomanyreporters Typically, the State Department interprets criticism of its reporting as meaning that it needs more reporting officers. When critics cite a lack of analytical reporting, the usual response is that the staff is already overworked and that better analysis can be provided only by increased staff Yet excess staff is the problem.

Overstaffing abroad, by the State Department and other government agencies creates com etition among reporting officers in the speed and volume of their reporting is generated The FSO perceives that the competitive game of over reporting will best serve his career advancement r e porting o P events. Consequently, a great deal of marginal or even useless THE SIORAGE AND RETRIEVAL OF DATA The issues of quantity 'and quality of reporting affect the ability to retrieve and use information. Much reporting from the field is redundant be c ause end-users frequently request information already reported, often more than once. The Murphy Commission Report, commissioned by Congress in the mid-1970s to study all aspects of foreign policymaking, found that a commonly held view among both. politic a l and economc reporting officers was that "much of the requested information is already available in Washington However, it is easier for them to ask us for it again than to retrieve it themselves."3 The retrieval of useful' information, particularly if i t is .be in central files, is almost impossible unless either the number of the message or a fairly precise date of the message is known. The Department's information center though automated, is overwhelmed by the volume and has no effecti v e system for data retrieval by subject. Reports, understandably, often do not deal with just one clearly identifiable subject. This makes cross-filing essential, yet no adequate ,cross filing system exists. Even when a report focuses mainly on a single to p ic, the report frequently is not drafted in a way permitting the Foreign Affairs Information Management staff, which disseminates and files documents, to discern the nature of the main topic (or topics) of the report The administrative staff in the State Department in Washington is almost completely divorced from the substantive staff that produces and reads. reports.

Neither staff is very familiar with the work of the other. Yet the information storage and retrieval system has been designed by and is oper ated by the administrative staff, largely to meet objectives of file administration rather than the management of information for end-users Freedom of Information Requests The difficulty of retrieving information from the automated document storage system has produced some bizarre situations. For example, under the Freedom of 3. Report of the Commission on the Oqahztion of the Government for the Conduct o Fomign Policy VOl. 2 the Murphy Commission; named after its chairman, retired Ambassador Robert Murp f y), June, 1975, Information Act, the Department receives a multitude..of .requests daily from researchers, journalists, and writers for documents related to a certain international situation or event. Those seeking information, by and large, have no under standing of the inner workings of the Department and believe that a request such as "all exchanges of correspondence related to Allende's downfall" can be readily produced.

The system, however, does not provide a basis for such a specific search of the fil es. It has happened that two separate but similar requests for information have resulted in totally separate sets of documents being delivered obviate the need for much of the current reporting. If information were stored so that it could be retrieved as i nformation, not just as specific documents, such time consuming tasks as preparing briefing and background papers could be perfo'med almost as computer exercises. Currently, with material in central files practically inaccessible, and with overseas commun ications now fast and easy, when information is needed the field will simply be asked to compile and report it, even if it previously had been reported.

The Department is revamping and updating its automated document storaFe system. Millions of dollars are being spent on new equipment and in redesignmg the system As in the past, the De artment is treating information retrieval as a involvement in the redesign. What is needed is a key word search system that includes a.mandatory summary sentence based on ce r tain approved key words. The development of the new system must be coordinated closely: with the. Washington users haaxssiile Files A highly efficient information management system would technical problem As such, the sta f! that will use the system has o n ly limited WHAT SHOULD BE DONE To be effective, any reform of the management of State Department information must involve both producers and users of information and be integrated with a major reform of the ,reporting'system. Such reform would save manpow e r cut costs, make information more accessible, reduce paperwork, enhance the Administration to make sound policy judgments. Because policy-level of gofan icials in the objective analysis of events and situations abroad, and improve the abili State Departm e nt, at the White House and elsewhere often must rely. on information presented orally or in quickly prepared memos, these presentations usually are strongly colored by personal biases and institutional preferences. Narrow bureaucratic interests, moreover, frequently will dominate the judgment of career officers Creating a country -If In reorienting the foreign service to more useful reporting, a new fype of report could be introduced. It would be in a booklet-type format contaiIllng detailed information ab o ut aspects of political, military, or economic affairs in each country. Such a document might be soft-bound and bear the reporting officer's name The appearance of the document as a short book or monograph would give the reporter some pride of authorship a nd contribute toward quality work. It could -9 be'prepared as an unclassified report with a classified appendix filed separately. A model of this, albeit much more comprehensive, is the bnefing book now prepared by the State Department for presidential tr i ps abroad A count book could provide background for officers new to the area. It historical perspective as events evolved over the years. Reporting officers, rather than shunning such long-range reporting as they do now, probably would take pride in autho r ing reports likely to be maintained as "books" and used for years as reference works. A designated editor for each country book would be responsible for keeping it current and bias-free, with editorial oversight by a presidenhal appointee to assure that i t stays that way. Storage could be in a special section of the State Department Library, providine a resource for the use of journalists-and other non-government personnel in addition to the official end-users could be a re ;Y erence. work when issues aros e in the-future- and as a source of Instructions on the preparation of performance evaluations of reporting officers should be revised to encourage more credit for quality reporting. RatinF officers should be instructed to be critical of excess quantity an d of when quantity reporting adversely affects quality More Ellicient Files A more efficient information storage system is needed to support the new reportin orientation. Automated files could be constructed to include all of the addition to the country bo o k. They might include standard country data such as population, leaders, political orientation, growth rates, size of military, alliances, debt position, and key biographical materials. Information analysts .in a new .Bureau of Information Management (now called the Bureau of Intelligence and Research could be assigned to keep these files up-to-date, including the name, office. and home telephone number of the responsible officer (thus providing a powerful inducement to keep the file current basic J ormati o n about a country or an issue necessary. for .a quick: review in As re orts come in from the field or, for that matter, as information is developed !r om any source, the responsible officer would extract whatever information might alter the data in the fi l e. The files would be maintained so that the Secretary of State, the National Security Advisor, or any other. authorized official could call up the data on a computer monitor and obtain a quick printout of the current status of events in any country or on any major issue, without the data being colored by the opinioiu or biases of an individual briefig officer. If judgments or opinions were desired they could be requested from experts and be considered in addition to the factual information from the offici a l record. Such a system would save the substantial amount of time and manpower now used to prepare position and background papers for senior officials The Storage Problem Department's legal obligation to maintain archives is very complex. There are some 1 2 million documents stored in the Department's central files with about 80,000 The problem of storing documents to meet both information needs and the 10 added monthly. To make it easier to retrieve datq a,new.format should be devised that would require a c ompulsory brief summary paragraph .for any document more than one page in length This opening paragraph should include a general description of the contents, written in a way that will make it susceptible to a computer key word search. For general informa t ion needs, the country and subject files would constitute the basic sources Over- time,- these could be expanded and made more comprehensive Every year, the State Department asks for more money and more people. For the past SLX years, the Admipistration a nd the Congress have granted, most of- those requests. This year, with the State Department budget in excess of 4 billion and 25,800 employees, Congress finally made modest cuts in the Department's request for operatmg funds.

For fiscal year 1988, the Depa rtment asked for an increase in salaries and expenses from 1.319 billion to $1.461 billion. Both houses of Congress have approved about 1.35 billion. While this is an increase, it is less than the Department wanted As a result, Department management has p roposed modest cuts of $59 million in salaries and benefits, leading to cries of anguish that this will adversely affect foreign policy.

For years the State Department has been living high; on the hog with' little or no pressure to economize or to find les s expensive ways of operating. The acknowledged. problems of excess reporting and inadequate analytical reporting have not been addressed If these problems can be corrected, much greater savings can be realized over the long run in the budgets of both the State Department and the 43 other agencies that maintain personnel abroad.

Reform must encompass five separate but related actions routine and redundant reporting 1 2) Reduce substantiayI the number of reporting officerq 3) Reorient reporting priorities b y encouraging more comprehensive, analytical 4) File data in a way that permits retrieval as useful infodon rather than as individual documentq and reports with long-term value 5) Establish an efficient retrieval system Elimination of useless reporting ca n be achieved by a firm directive describing reporting needs with precision. This must be accompamed by a major reduction of reporting staffs, both State Department and other agency personnel, worldwide. This will require a major initiative by the White Ho u se, with the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Personnel Management overseeing the staff reduction 11 and the elimination of positions. Legislation is not required to achieve this, but Congress can assist the effort by reducing the State D epartments authorized staffing and encouraging reform of foreign reporting procedures.

Staff reductions will be bitterly opposed by the foreign service and its supporters in Con ess and the media.--The result, however, would pive the State providing U.S. l eaders the kind of information they need to make effective policy decisions at less cost and with smaller staff Department an i nr ormation system suitable to its global responsibilities, while Prepared for The Heritage Foundation by John Krizay John Kriz ay served as a Foreign Service officer from 1954 to 1976.


John Buttarazzi