Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Banality of Bureaucracy: Organizational Failure in Iraq

The following was one of Christian Isely's last dispatches from Baghdad. (Note that it is neither against America nor against her leaders or their strategy, and certainly not against her soldiers, and not even against the politicians, but — as its title says explicitly — against the mindset of the bureaucrats.)

Baghdad — June 18, 2006

There are many reasons for the continued violence and tragedy in Iraq, some of which falls on Iraqi and foreign shoulders but much of which lies on our own. There has been a great deal written already about policy errors (too few troops, disbanding of the Iraqi army, etc) to failings in the reconstruction effort (lack of financial controls, poorly written contracts, etc). However, there has also been another significant factor detrimental to success in Iraq, organizational failure on the part of the US government. It is certainly a less simple or sexy explanation for the ongoing tribulations we are putting ourselves through in Iraq but this does not make it any less valid or tragic.

Organizational Confusion and Inter-Agency Rivalry

From the beginning, organizational chaos seemed to plague the mission. Witness the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) set up in early 2003 headed by retired General Jay Garner to manage the affairs of a liberated Iraq. It was subsequently transformed into the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), headed by L. Paul Bremer III. Debate still rages today about the perceived failings of ORHA and its transformation into the CPA and the reasons for the change. However, both of these organizations answered to the DOD so this represented largely an in-house rearranging of affairs.

The real organizational test came later when the CPA turned into the US Embassy and the DOD relinquished a great deal of control to the DOS during the granting of sovereignty to Iraq on June 28, 2004. This turnover in organizations required a great deal of transitioning. CPA staff went from being DOD employees to DOS employees overnight. The Project and Contracting Office (PCO), the temporary DOD organization set up to award and supervise infrastructure reconstruction projects then became the Program Management Office (PMO) and answered to the newly created Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO), a temporary organization set up by DOS, which was set up to manage all of the supplemental funding (about $18.5 billion) allocated by congress for the rebuilding of Iraq.

After sovereignty, the Coalition’s Senior Advisors to the Iraqi Ministers under Bremer now became Senior Consultants under IRMO. In theory, each Senior Consultant was to be responsible for overseeing the reconstruction of their designated purview. For instance, the Senior Consultant for Electricity would oversee all projects concerning the generation, transmission, and distribution of electrical power. In practice, there was more confusion for there was another large government agency also involved in reconstruction, the long standing US Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID also had their share of the supplemental budget and their own slate of projects and programs throughout Iraq ranging from work on power generation to water sanitation. In theory, USAID was supposed to answer to IRMO Senior Consultants but in practice they answered to no one despite the fact that they seemed to be working on many of the same types of projects. This kind of organizational rivalry is simple to understand. IRMO, as a temporary creation, was performing a role normally allocated to USAID. The unfortunate result of this rivalry has been a lack of coordination on both a macro and micro scale. For instance, NGOs with contracts under IRMO have received training assistance from USAID but this IRMO only found out via the NGOs themselves. Such work would have been far more effective had both organizations simply communicated.

Other instances involve conflicting messages from different US government representatives. USAID tells the Iraqi government or Iraqi institutions to do one thing when IRMO or DOS tells them to do something else. Naturally, the Iraqis themselves are a bitconfused when different representatives of the US government turn up demanding that they perform conflicting actions. Naturally, the inability of the US government to coordinate its own agencies and organizations has allowed the Iraqi clients to play off US government actors against each other.

Mission Confusion

However, the mistakes made from the lack of coordination between IRMO and USAID pale in comparison to other problems. That rivalry is between two organizations charged with the task of reconstruction so it is at least a road to hell paved with good intentions. Although the US mission in Iraq is currently perceived to have as its mission the reconstruction, stabilization, and establishment of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law in Iraq, in actuality the mission has become less focused. DOD, DOS, and USAID are not the only US government agencies represented in Iraq. The Departments of Justice, Commerce, and Homeland Security also have staff in Baghdad nominally serving the overall mission but also serving the goals and objectives of their home departments. One of the more glaring examples of agencies serving at cross purpose is the presence of the USDA. Quite simply, their primary job is to promote American agriculture exports to Iraq. While DOS and DOD are trying to promote the development of the agriculture sector in Iraq, one of Iraq’s most promising avenues for job creation and economic growth, USDA is seeking to promote the sale of American fertilizers, chicken feed, and other products which if successful would hinder the their domestic development and the associated jobs that would be created. Our brave soldiers are not sacrificing their lives so corporate American agro-business can earn higher profits by supplanting local Iraqi producers.

Quality of Personnel

The US Mission faces a devastating lack of talented man power. Since the invasion, it has always been difficult to recruit enough talented people to carry out this massive undertaking. Despite this problem, many talented and driven individuals participated in the US Mission and there are still some outstanding individuals who have continued to serve over here, even a few left over from CPA days. However, for the most part, the quality of personnel has declined significantly since DOS took charge. Under DOD many functions of the CPA were carried out by the military, DOD civilians, and detailees from other agencies including DOS. These civilians were individuals that originally expressed a great interest in coming to Baghdad. However, after DOS took command, many Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) were needed to staff what was now the largest embassy in the world. Sadly, few hastened to come. Most of those who did come came only so that they could hasten on to the next posting of their choosing whether it be Rome, London, or some other nice location. Very few have experience in the Arab world or know even the slightest Arabic. In recognition that not enough FSOs and other government employees were signing up for positions in Iraq, the government recently raised hazard and post differential rates for all government employees in theater essentially giving everyone a 20% raise.

Perhaps one reason for the lack of interest on the part of FSOs is the desire to avoid any sense of failure. The invasion was a DOD affair and DOS inherited many of the problems it created. The future of the US Mission in Iraq is certainly up in the air. Success is not a given. Failure is a strong possibility. Many FSOs have likely stayed away after judging that participation in this endeavor to be a risk to their careers.

In IRMO, most of the staff is made up of temporary contractors to DOS otherwise known as 3161s, a special category of personnel created after the launching of the War on Terror when it was realized that DOS did not have the means of fully staffing the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. 3161s get many of the typical government benefits afforded to government employees but not all. They are not eligible for employment with the DOS beyond theater and they cannot attain tenure unlike the FSOs. In theory, they are supposed to be the best and brightest experts in their field, brought to Iraq to provide specific advice related to their previous professional experience. Almost all of the Senior Consultants with IRMO are 3161s. Unfortunately, all 3161s are subject to pay-caps like other government workers. This effectively hinders the recruitment of private sector experts. However, in some circumstances 3161s have come aboard that have actually sacrificed higher incomes elsewhere in order to serve the cause and their country.

Recruitment is a major problem for IRMO. In most cases, it takes DOS at least 3 months to send out offer letters. This does not include any time for the necessary security clearance. This length of time is not surprising to those who work for the government. It is a shame that the hiring process for Iraq has not been prioritized and streamlined.

DOS has also proved ineffective with regard to staffing decisions. IRMO Ministry of Interior has been a particular failure. In 2005, it was determined that the functions of IRMO Ministry of Interior would be handed over largely for the US military to handle. Were these staff members relieved of their largely redundant positions? In fact, they were simply moved over to newly invented positions within the growing IRMO bureaucracy. New deputy positions were created as was the Office of Strategic Planning. IRMO has grown top heavy and layers of bureaucracy have only been added, never taken away. Additionally, these layers are made up largely of dead wood cleared from somewhere else, people who perhaps have no prospects outside of Iraq, people who receive reasonably sized paychecks for sitting at a desk in Baghdad. Worse than simply take up space, they actually provide negative value. A person’s job may be justified by having them “collect and process information” or by “clearing official memos and requests”. The heads of the organization are further removed from the experts advising the Iraqi government.

In short, as the premium talent with the greatest institutional knowledge and Iraq experience has left and have not been replaced, the dead wood and rent seekers have either stayed in place or taken up new levels in the growing administrative bureaucracy.

The Big Picture

Taken individually, organizational confusion, inter-agency rivalry, mission confusion, recruitment problems, and suffocating bureaucracy are obstacles to be overcome. Taken together, they can prove deadly to success. Maybe on the face of it, none of this seems so terrible. After all, most of the evidence provided comes largely from a few organizations within the US Mission. However, the organizations covered herein are responsible for a great deal of the US Mission in Iraq. The amount of projects and the allocated funding that falls under IRMO and USAID is truly immense. Their inability to effectively carry out the reconstruction effort is a major threat to the overall mission. Additionally, that these problems are allowed to fester and grow reflects upon the entire Embassy, especially the leadership. If mission leadership cannot bring IRMO, USAID, or DOS to task, what does that say about its ability to do so elsewhere with regard to all the other components of the US Mission?

Fortunately, the Administration has already begun to fix some of the problem by bringing USAID under closer control by DOS. However, this in itself will not be sufficient. Organizational chaos is not the only cause of our problems in Iraq but it is probably the most pervasive. Policy decisions that are deemed to be mistakes can be corrected or their negative effects can at least be partly mitigated later.

Organizational reform, on the other hand, is perhaps more difficult. We can start by remembering what we are really supposed to be accomplishing in Iraq. When the mission is clear, we can begin to address the other problems so commonplace to government organizations elsewhere. Perhaps only then will our brave soldiers and volunteers have not sacrificed in vain.

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