The President’s quiet crisis

first_imgGeorge W Bush has won public support for his handling of the war againstterror. But as the head of a crisis-ridden organisation, the US government, howdoes he fare in dealing with fundamental HR issues? By Paul SimpsonPut yourself in George W Bush’s shoes. You are the President,commander-in-chief and chief executive of an organisation, which has 3.6memployees and is facing its biggest crisis for 140 years. You have a threat to deal with which, if you blunder, could cost you yourjob and endanger the very existence of your organisation and the lives of manyof its staff. The vast, cumbersome bureaucracy you are supposed to command isfinding it hard to focus on the real enemy and not turf wars. Hundreds of youremployees have already died and thousands more are in danger from anthrax, thesource of which your best and brightest experts have so far failed to identify.And that’s not all. In the next four years, half of your workforce couldretire. It’s hard to recruit because, until recently, the public thought yourstaff were – in the words of US journalist Tom Jacobs – “wasteful,inefficient, no-account, ne’er-do-wells, who make scads of money ripping offtaxpayers and doing stuff any private sector company could do better”. In the rarefied air of Washington DC, crises are as frequent as abuses ofthe English language, but even before the attacks of 11 September, the word”crisis” was already being bandied around to describe the state ofthe USGovernment’s human resources. Indeed Senator Fred Thompson of Bush’sRepublican party publicly warned last June that poor workforce management was”threatening the government’s ability to function”. But since 11 September, says Ruth Lea, head of policy at the UK Institute ofDirectors (IoD): “America’s world has completely changed. It has never hadto deal with this on its own shores before. Whereas for those in Britain thethreat of terrorism has been around since the 1970s, for the US, this iscompletely unprecedented.” So unprecedented, it would be no exaggeration to say that the US governmentis facing its biggest HR crisis since the American civil war started in 1861.As Senator George Voinovich, the senior Republican on the Senate governmentaffairs subcommittee on government management, says: “If we are going towin the war, we have got to have the people.” So behind the dramatic headline-grabbing crises, Bush has to deal with whatJoseph Nye, dean of Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government,calls “a quiet crisis” in HR. “And the problem with a quietcrisis is you can’t get anyone to do anything about it.” Nye is hosting aseries of seminars with private and public executives to see what can be done. A year ago, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm ofCongress, recommended improving pay and benefits, more aggressive recruitmentof young people and the dismantling of certain bureaucratic restrictions whichmeant, for example, that it could take a year to offer someone a job even afterthe right candidate had been identified. Some government departments have woken up to the problem. The Department ofDefense (DoD), while masterminding the war against terror, has pledged toimprove the way it recruits, retains and trains employees and is drafting a newset of personnel rules. Ironically, the DoD is also trying to change the waypay is set, against the wishes of unions, including the American Federation ofPublic Employees. The US Treasury is set to roll out a new HR system in thenext fiscal year, while the Interior Department announced plans to beginworkforce planning. That’s right – begin workforce planning, not improve it. The HR crisis is the San Andreas fault which could fatally undermine the USgovernment’s campaign against terror over the next decade. But Bush also hasmore immediate problems to deal with, which, on the whole, pundits say he’shandled reasonably well. Richard Chiumento, a British HR specialist, says Bush scores well if youassess him as the chief executive of a crisis-ridden company. “If you lookat a checklist of things you would advise a CEO to do in a similar situation,he has done most of them. The first thing you want a leader to do is tell thetruth and communicate it consistently, and he has largely done that. He hasappointed one person to handle the media [Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld]and made sure he is well informed. There’s a great pressure to act in a crisisand he has done what a good CEO would have done – taken a step back, analysedhis intelligence, identified his target and gone for it.” And like a good CEO he is delegating, even at such a critical moment in hisnation’s history. “He has experienced people around him,” says theIoD’s Lea, “and he has called on them. If you compare him to, say, PresidentCarter, it’s a completely different approach. Carter tried to do everything andit wore him out, by the time he left office in 1981 he had aged much more thanfour years. He looked older then than he does now.” But the hardest HR issue Bush must confront is what Chiumento calls‘managing destabilisation’. “People are having to come to terms with thecertainty that things will never be as certain again,” says Chiumento,”and he’s done the right thing by letting everyone know about subsequentalerts. People know they are in an emergency situation but they also feel theyare kept in the loop.” The President has also encouraged departments to bring in stress counsellorsto help employees to deal with the loss of colleagues or the burden of extrawork. Civilian workers in the Pentagon have been encouraged to stroke”therapy dogs” at special assistance centres. The government’s Office of Personnel Management has called special sessionsof its Human Resource Management Council to give managers the information neededto reassure staff about anthrax. Departments such as the Postal Services havelaunched massive screening programmes and information initiatives to reassurestaff who fear for their lives. Sadly, government scientists have now changedtheir minds on how anthrax spreads so the Postal Service’s initial advice toits staff was obsolete and, given that two postal workers died, dangerous. Yet one anonymous employee e-mailed the Washington Post to complain that”since 11 September, our office and most of our agency has done nothing toimprove security. Our office manager is terminally apathetic and is of theopinion that nothing serious would ever happen here.” Bush can’t be held responsible for the apathy of a single office manager butthis single e-mail is telling evidence that he may find it easier to swaypublic opinion than to change how his bureaucracy works. There have been turfwars in Washington DC ever since it officially became the federal capital in1802. Like most bureaucracies, the departments and agencies of the USgovernment are better at defending their own prerogatives than anything else. Arms negotiator Richard Holbrooke told The New Yorker magazine:”Bureaucracies have a natural tendency not to co-operate, co-ordinate orconsolidate with each other. Think about hijacker Muhammad Atta [who directedone of the planes into the World Trade Center]. They [the CIA] had his name onthe watch list. Somehow that didn’t get communicated to the FBI or theairlines.” But Bush has begun to initiate change. Creating an Office of HomelandSecurity to co-ordinate national security had been mooted for decades butsomehow always slipped off Washington’s agenda. Bush now has such an office,even if it isn’t yet clear how it will work with the 40 agencies involved innational security – agencies like the FBI, CIA and Immigration andNaturalisation Service (INS) – or whether it can somehow pool intelligence andco-ordinate the actions of customs, border patrol and the coast guard, whichare all run by different departments. The evidence that much work is still to be done accumulates daily. FBIdirector Robert Mueller has admitted that his agency had “unacceptablyturned away local police offers of help” while the Bureau is furious withINS officials who arrested six men in the Midwest who had “suspiciousequipment” and material about nuclear power plants in their cars, and letthem go because their Israeli passports were valid. Even those who support the creation of such an office, such as Vietnamveteran and retired Colonel David Hackworth, have reservations. “It shouldbe a good thing as long as it doesn’t end up like the drugs czar, creating justanother layer of bureaucracy. What’s needed is a lean, mean, outfit which canget all the other agencies pulling in the same direction.” Tom Ridge, head of the new Office of Homeland Security, admits he has”no technical operation authority” but he does have direct access tothe President, and some say over agencies’ funding. Linda Holbeche, director ofresearch at Roffey Park Institute, says persuading agencies to share knowledgeis far from simple. “They might need taskforces or other initiatives toencourage people to share knowledge, but it won’t be easy, you really have to changethe culture of the organisations they’re employed in. People can only cope withso much change at once.” Ridge’s job will be tougher because two of the agencies – the FBI and theCIA – are more jittery and defensive than ever. Despite public support from thePresident, they have been made scapegoats for the failures (real and alleged)of intelligence which left the US at the terrorists’ mercy. Holbeche says similar cultural problems may hamper the administration’squest for creative new ideas with which to fight the war. “Research showsthat the biggest barriers to creativity come when employees don’t feelconfident that their idea will get to the right place in the organisation or,if it does, that they will get any of the credit for it.” In the headline-hoggingworld of the US capital, such suspicion may be hard to erase. Rumsfeld has reportedly complained to his military commanders about the lackof innovative ideas with which to fight the war against terror. And the Pentagon has launched a public competition for ideas to fightterror. More than 4,000 ideas have been submitted so far. The prize for winningideas is a defence contract. To some this is good open-minded government, toothers, it smacks of desperation. This has been a strange first year in office for George W Bush. The 43rdPresident has been the first who has been obliged to say “I do not haveanthrax”; probably the most famous presidential denial since Nixon’s”I am not a crook”. Even those like Colonel Hackworth, who doubt the quality of US troops (seebox), believe he will be successful: “We will learn the lessons, even ifit takes a disaster but this may be a 30-year war and we aren’t even throughthe first year. We know from Vietnam that we lose wars when we lose the publicsupport.” If the war lasts even a third as long as Hackworth suggests, the battle tomake effective use of its human resources is almost as critical as the conflictnow being played out outside the US. HR issues facing president Bush and the US governmentThe recruitment crisisWith 50 per cent of federal employees eligible to retire in thenext four years – and the workforce’s average age rising to 52 years – the USGovernment has some serious hiring to do. It normally recruits 300,000-400,000people a year, but that may have to rise to 500,000-600,000 just to keep theGovernment at its current size. Some restrictions on recruitment will be liftedby Bush’s ‘freedom to manage’ initiative but at the same time theadministration’s Office of Management and Budget wants to outsource 5 per cent(42,500 positions) of all federal jobs by October 2002.The morale crisisEven before employees were exposed to the threat ofbioterrorism, morale was in the words of one insider “about as low as alizard’s armpit” thanks to job cuts, the fact that the average publicemployee is paid 30 per cent less than his privately employed counterpart andthe poor public image of the federal government. Bobby Harnage, president ofthe American Federation of Government Employees union, testified to Congressthis summer that his members are “abused, ridiculed, and routinelyvilified as the enemies of freedom, democracy and American values”. Nowthe administration stands accused of not consistently extending protection fromthreats like anthrax to its employees.The skills crisisLast winter, the General Accounting Office identified theGovernment’s management of its “human capital” as a “highrisk”. Last March former US Defense Secretary James Schlesinger warnedthat national security was “on the brink of an unprecedented crisis ofcompetence”. This problem has been exacerbated by 11 September. One smallexample – it’s pointless having a Defense Department full of Russian linguistswhen the war against terror requires staff who speak Farsi.The cultural crisisReorganisation initiatives abound. A new Office of HomelandSecurity and Office of Computer Security have been founded and there is talk ofa new Army command to defend the US’ own territory. The administration is alsorecognising that Americans, after decades of agreeing with the Republican rightthat ‘big government is bad government’, have suddenly raised theirexpectations of what governments can and should do. Some Washington insidersthink successive cuts have left a ‘hollow government’ which can just about copewith business as usual, but not a crisis like the war on terror. The wayfederal employees work may change too. There is talk of encouragingtelecommuting and building what Richard Finn, of Penna Change Consulting, calls‘virtual teams’. “People are going to travel less and the competencieswhich will become important will be building teams through technologies such ase-mail, or video-conferencing”.The military HR crisisAs the number of US troops beingdeployed in Afghanistan grows, so do Colonel David H Hackworth’s fears for theArmy in which he served with such distinction.Hack, as he signs his e-mails, is the most decorated soldier inUS Army history (his collection of medals includes two Distinguished ServiceCrosses, 10 Silver Stars, four Legions of Merit, one Distinguished Flying Crossand eight Purple Hearts) and he is convinced US armed forces are getting theirHR all wrong.His big worry is the quality of training US soldiers now get.”Our conventional military have had so much emphasis on ‘Consideration ForOthers’ that standards have been so gutted that most basic-training graduatesno longer have the right stuff to survive on fields of strife.” The rigourof old has been replaced, he feels, by “fun summer camps for softies”.Laudable though “Consideration For Others” might be he says,”it’s not the name of the game; the name of the game is killing theenemy”.Just as worrying for the Pentagon is its continued difficultyin finding and training recruits. One in three recruits don’t actually completetheir term of service in the armed forces and despite some $60,000 retentionbonuses in the Air Force, and $20,000 joining payments to Army recruits thesupply of volunteers has been inconsistent and hasn’t massively picked up since11 September.The other HR dilemma posed by relying on volunteers is that sixout of 10 armed forces personnel are married (compared to 20 per cent in thedays of the draft), a shift which has sent budgets for housing and day carefacilities booming.Hackworth is not a fan of men and women training together or ofwomen fighting in the front line. “My advice is to take a page from theIsraeli Army and leave the women at home,” he says, adding that the sightof American women running around in T-shirts, as they did in the Gulf War, will”really inflame the Muslim world”. Men and women fighting alongside each other is a conundrumwhich many national armies, including Britain’s, have still not solved butHackworth fears that political correctness imposed by Washington may cost lives.The absurdity of making the forces politically correct has, hesays, been exacerbated by a class of senior officers interested only inadvancing their own careers. “At least three out of four military types inand around the Pentagon should be on their way to fighting units,” heinsists, adding that Army division HQs should be slimmed down to release morefighting men. Even the Pentagon admits it probably has 20-25 per cent too manybases and proposes to close some in 2003.He draws an analogy with his experiences in Vietnam. “My884 man infantry battalion had 250 soldiers when I took over. After much armtwisting, we got our combat strength up to 400, half of our authorisedstrength. The rest were sick, lame, lazy, on R and R (rest and recuperation),at school, transferring in or out or detailed to higher headquarters.”Officially, the US Army has 480,000 personnel on active duty, in reality, saysHackworth, who knows?William Moore, a retired US Armygeneral, says the challenge facing the armed forces is great: “Soldierssee their relevance as warriors questioned; fascination with technology isleading to the belief that anyone can be a warrior.”As if all these challenges weren’t enough to tax any largeemployer, the atrocities of 11 September have changed the armed forces’ missionand may yet change the way it is organised with less emphasis on massivedivisions and more funds for Marine-style units of 1,000 soldiers or less whocan be mobilised within 24-72 hours.A Pentagon review, under way when the attacks occurred,concluded that the armed forces’ “primary mission” is to defend thehomeland, an objective which hasn’t been central to US defence policy since theAmerican Civil War.If this really is, as President Bush says, a new kind of war,it will need new tactics and, in the longer term, perhaps a new kind of armedforces. But the bombing of Afghanistan fits into what former defence adviserLarry K Smith describes as the US military establishment’s traditional doctrineof “application of overwhelming force. That won’t work now. We’re going toneed a much greater emphasis on closework, extremely precise missions whichdemand the highest standards of intelligence, training, preparation andexecution. We haven’t been particularly good at this.”Indeed, when President Clinton’s national security team askedthe military chiefs for special operations to deal with on terrorists in asemi-urban environment they were told, an official claims, “That’s notwhat we do. We’re not organised for that. We need a brigade.”So the Pentagon may need, to use a management clich‚, to thinkoutside the box. They must also, says former Army general and NATO’s top leaderin Europe, Wesley Clark, be prepared to take risks: “The attitude was ifyou take losses you’re a loser.” The meagre consolation for commanders isthat, after 11 September, that attitude may seem obsolete. Features list 2021 – submitting content to Personnel TodayOn this page you will find details of how to submit content to Personnel Today. We do not publish a… Comments are closed. Related posts:center_img The President’s quiet crisisOn 1 Feb 2002 in Military, Personnel Today Previous Article Next Articlelast_img

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