Making Diplomacy Work

When most people think of diplomacy, they conger up images of the Secretary of State at a televised press conference with the Foreign Minister of another country. Or, perhaps, a treaty signing ceremony. American diplomats do, indeed, work daily with friends and allies to combat international terrorism, eradicate illegal narcotics, eliminate weapons of mass destruction, combat diseases like HIV/Aids or SARS, or reduce conflict in the many unsettled areas of the world. They visit American citizens in foreign jails and work to reduce barriers to international trade, promote development or increase understanding of the United States and its policies. What most people forget, however, is that we need a robust global support-services network to provide the infrastructure and support our nation and our diplomats need to project American influence effectively around the world.

Challenges to Global Diplomatic Shared Services

The countries our diplomatic personnel work in vary widely. Some are developed, stable countries. Embassies and diplomatic personnel can purchase on the local market or contract with commercial firms for many of the needed support services. Other countries are highly unstable or significantly under-developed. Our diplomatic personnel may face daily danger from global terrorism, crime, illness, or civil unrest. The living and working conditions for employees and their families may be quite harsh. Foreign labor and tax laws may impose certain requirements that complicate service delivery.

Since World War II, the Department of State has been the primary overseas provider of administrative support or shared services for employees from the more than 300 U.S. Government organizations that work in our diplomatic facilities. Our shared services personnel not only provide essential services to our embassies and consulates, they also support the families of our diplomatic corps. Typically, this translates into providing them with housing, medical care, access to schooling and other services including, in some places, potable water. If the Department were not prepared to provide a level of shared services under all conditions, the United States would find it much more difficult to field its diplomatic representatives, America's first line of offense and defense in a complex and often dangerous world.

The Department offers a broad range of services to its customers. Customers purchase almost US$1 billion in shared services support from the Department of State each year. The list below describes the major service groupings that are split up into 32 cost centers at a large diplomatic post, and 16 at a small one:

  • computer systems support (hardware, software, security, etc.)
  • diplomatic mail
  • facilities (leasing office and residential property, maintenance, utilities, office cleaning)
  • finance (accounting, budgeting & financial planning, accounts payable, payroll, disbursement)
  • fleet management
  • human resources
  • liaison with the community (schooling, family member employment, etc.)
  • medical services
  • office supply
  • procurement
  • property management (receipt, storage, inventory, delivery, disposal)
  • reproduction, printing and graphic services
  • security services (protection of people and property)
  • shipment and customs
  • telephone (switchboard & reception, leased lines)
  • travel services

From a service provider’s perspective, there are challenges unique to the U.S. Government. An ambassador, appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate, is responsible for running each of our 163 embassies. Many see themselves as Chief Executive Officers and want the mission to run "their way." The 300 U.S. Government organizations that we support overseas are independent legal entities. They obtain their mission and funding directly from the President, OMB and the U.S. Congress. Customers can purchase their support services from the Department of State, buy it from commercial vendors in the U.S. or overseas, provide it themselves or obtain services from another U.S. Government agency. This ability to choose applies to all but two of the 32 cost centers.

Since customer organizations often do not know how much money they will have available for purchasing shared services until late into the fiscal year, making revenue projections and financial planning is highly unpredictable. The inter-agency culture is based on consensus, continuous negotiation, an aversion to risk, significant stovepipes, and a resistance to change agency-specific procedures. The result is a decision-making process that is highly political, slow and given to decisions which reflect the lowest-common denominator. This makes it a challenge for the service provider to obtain the kind of clear targets he or she needs to manage service delivery.

Meeting the Challenges and Delivering Service

Service providers at each overseas location have a Service Level Agreement (SLA) with their customers. They negotiate performance standards with the customers that form the basis for an annual assessment of the service provider and service quality. We have a number of regional support centers in addition to headquarters support from the Washington D.C. metropolitan area. The Department has a procurement center in Frankfurt, Germany; logistics support centers in New York, Baltimore, Miami, Seattle, and Brownsville, U.S.A., and Antwerp, Belgium; two financial service centers in Charleston, U.S.A. and Bangkok, Thailand; and regional service centers in Frankfurt, Germany and Fort Lauderdale, U.S.A.. There are service providers at the headquarters level organized by geographic area and functional specialty. We also have a 15-person inter-agency service center that provides support to the governance system, bills and collects revenue from the customer organizations, provides training to overseas posts and customer service to customer organizations.

Secretary Powell challenged us to "revolutionize the delivery of support services to our personnel on the front lines." My approach to this challenge is best expressed by a mathematical equation:

D + V + F > R

The "D" stands for dissatisfaction. "V" represents vision. "F" is for the first steps that are essential to any change effort. "R" describes the resistance in an organization that any change effort has to overcome. To implement change, dissatisfaction plus vision plus the first steps have to be greater than the resistance to change.

Before the U.S. Senate confirmed Secretary Powell, over 1,500 courageous Department of State employees signed an "SOS" petition. SOS stood for "Saving Our State." The petition described the leadership, management and resource challenges that the organization and its new leadership needed to confront. Any change effort could count on a number of ready recruits from this band of committed employees.

Secretary Powell quickly communicated his vision for the Department: "… I’ve got to empower you to do the people’s work. We are coming in with a few political appointees. We are taking over a great group of company commanders, battalion commanders, sergeants, privates, all working together. And what I have to do is put you in the best possible position to be empowered to do what you know to do for the service of the nation. So I am going to be doing everything I can to make your jobs easier to do." He made it clear he had high standards and high expectations for performance. The Secretary described his own role as communicating and conveying down through every layer to the last person in the organization the valuable role that they are performing and how what they do contributes to the mission. Shared services and the support operations clearly form a vital part of the Secretary’s vision for the organization.

It is up to people like me to provide the leadership to prod the organization to take those first steps. One of the first things I did was create the Center for Administrative Innovation. We recruited 11 talented and energetic people to concentrate on finding better ways of delivering service. The team developed a "toolkit" of best practices from individual embassies overseas. The team also led focus groups aimed at documenting and improving business processes such as managing a warehouse, improving customer service or moving from an old embassy building to a new one.

Metrics are an essential element of our improvement strategy. If we aren’t keeping score, we don’t know if we are getting better or worse. When we measure the right things, we can improve performance. We ship tons of furniture, equipment, supplies and other material to our overseas posts every year. By keeping close track of important metrics, the logistics centers that manage our shipping have been able to reduce the amount of time it takes to get material to our overseas customers.

Any process is easier to measure and improve if it is standardized. Many of the business processes at our embassies reflect local influence and a historical lack of central coordination. With sponsorship from the Center for Administrative Innovation, four embassies already have ISO-9000 certification for part of their shared services operation. We expect to expand the program with additional embassies later this fiscal year. By standardizing our business processes, we not only make them easier to improve, we provide a more reliable and predictable experience for our customers. We also reduce the local "learning curve" as our shared services employees rotate among assignments.

Tailoring one’s tactics to the organization is another critical element of our approach. Rather than view our entrepreneurial ambassadors as potential problems, we have recruited them as allies. A number of proactive ambassadors have lent their support to testing new methods of delivering shared services. Their willingness to commit talent, expertise and cash to improving service delivery provided us with an opportunity to prove concepts, as well as highlight successes which, in turn, we could market to other areas of the organization.