Rice's Management at Issue

Many in the State Department's rank and file see Secretary Condoleezza Rice as aloof, reliant on her closest aides and out of touch with the other employees.
Many in the State Department's rank and file see Secretary Condoleezza Rice as aloof, reliant on her closest aides and out of touch with the other employees. (By Wathiq Khuzaie -- Getty Images)
By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2007

Shortly after Condoleezza Rice took charge of the 57,000-person State Department in 2005, she said she relished the challenge of "line responsibility" in leading a large organization. "I really enjoy that," she said in an interview. "Some of my favorite times here have been my budget and high-level management reviews."

Nearly three years later, Rice is under fire from inside and outside the State Department for a range of crises that are largely managerial in nature -- the failure to monitor private security guards in Iraq, the delays in opening the huge U.S. Embassy under construction in Baghdad and the resistance of some Foreign Service officers to being forced to serve there. Over the summer, the department also fell woefully short in processing passport applications, resulting in ruined vacation plans for many Americans.

Within the department, Rice is viewed by many rank-and-file employees as an aloof manager who relies on a tight circle of aides, leaving her out of touch with the rest of the staff, in contrast to her predecessor, Colin L. Powell, a retired Army general who won praise from workers for treating them as though they were his "troops." At her last town hall meeting with employees 2 1/2 years ago, Rice told staffers: "I consider myself the chief management officer of this department." But a poll by the American Foreign Service Association indicated that an overwhelming majority did not feel that Rice was their advocate.

The latest controversy about forced assignments to Iraq has only heightened internal resentment of Rice's management style. "I personally do not like the ultimatum-giving," said one Foreign Service officer. "It is not what State is about."

Senior State Department officials dispute such charges, contending that Rice has moved quickly to deal with emerging problems at State despite her hectic overseas schedule. "Given what is on the secretary's plate, the myriad issues, the travel, the contact with foreign leaders and meetings at the White House, I never cease to be amazed at how up to speed she is on key management issues," said Deputy Secretary John D. Negroponte, who noted that he is the department's chief operating officer.

At a contentious hearing before the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee last month, Democrats aggressively questioned Rice over what one lawmaker labeled "seriously deficient" management. Asked to explain her oversight of State's private security contractors, Rice offered an answer that, to some lawmakers, seemed to deflect responsibility: "I certainly regret that we did not have the kind of oversight that I would have insisted upon."

Committee Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) said he was taken aback by Rice's responses. "She acted as if she had nothing to do with it," he said. "There are too many issues we know about, in which people were not given the oversight they needed, in what seems to be a pattern of indifference to management."

Rice's management has come under fire before. As national security adviser during President Bush's first term, she was criticized by many insiders for permitting a dysfunctional policymaking process while fierce battles raged among top Cabinet members.

At State, Rice has pushed ambitious efforts to reshape how foreign aid is distributed and to shift key diplomatic jobs from Europe to emerging powers such as China and India. The foreign-assistance overhaul, in which Rice personally approved country-by-country budget numbers, was criticized by lawmakers and some within the department because it appeared to minimize the advice of specialists in the field. The job shifts were put in place so quickly that a number of Foreign Service officers who had been promised plum posts in Paris and elsewhere had to be told that those positions no longer existed. Henrietta H. Fore, undersecretary of state for management, said 285 overseas jobs have been shifted so far, with another 85 slated for movement.

Rice's defenders said she has taken on hard issues that previous secretaries ducked because they wanted to avoid dissent. They said she has been hampered by the fact that a key management job -- deputy secretary of state -- was vacant for eight months, after Robert B. Zoellick left in July 2006. Rice struggled for months to fill the post, which was unoccupied for the longest period in State Department history, until Negroponte came on board early this year.

Early on, Rice set up a seventh-floor office at State headquarters that in many ways echoed the style of one of the most successful secretaries of state, James A. Baker III, who served under President George H.W. Bush. Baker relied on a small group of senior officials to set policy. But aides also said Rice fancies herself as more like another predecessor, George P. Shultz, who was revered for listening to the bureaucracy's concerns.

When Rice is not traveling, she meets at 8 a.m. weekdays with a few top aides for half an hour to map out her day, before meeting with other top department officials. In the evenings, she holds a wrap-up meeting with close aides to review and plan ahead. Spokesman Tom Casey said Rice has visited the offices of about two dozen bureaus of the State Department and, since March, has met with a dozen desk officers to get their views.

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