Necessary, But Not Sufficient: Reports on Benghazi and the IRS
When a bureaucracy screws up, it's just as hard to find out what happened as it is to fix it. The Benghazi and IRS debacles are no exception. The U.S. Federal Government, with over 2 million employees, is probably the largest, most complex bureaucracy the world has ever known. At their best, bureaucracies can be efficient and effective. Left unchecked, however, bureaucracies grow to become bloated and dysfunctional.
Let's begin with the fact that there are approximately 30,000 State Department employees worldwide and over 90,000 employees in the IRS. There are over 5 levels of organization in both the State Department and IRS organizations. Add to this the relationships with the White House staff, other departments, security organizations and cross-functional teams, and accountability is muddled. There were too many communication linkages. Time lags and distance prohibit real-time monitoring and oversight. If one were to diagram the communications matrix between and among the participants, it would take a supercomputer to analyze the interrelationships and track communications. Instead, the bureaucracy appointed committees to investigate.
Seven months after the event, the State Department issued the Benghazi Accountability Review Board (ARB) Report which included 5 major findings for discussion and 24 unclassified recommendations. The findings included such obvious conclusions that there were "security-related attacks," "systemic leadership failures," "inadequate security systems," "intelligence information gaps," and "proactive leadership failings" by two department officials. The 24 recommendations and department responses were similarly imprecise, stating a need to "strengthen security in high risk, high threat posts," "examine span of control," "augment Bureau staff and have them attend Region meetings," "establish oversight panel," "develop minimum standards for posts," and "establish support cells in advance of new posts." In summary, the prescribed remedies are largely directed at improving intelligence gathering, staffing, training, improving facilities, and establishing accountability.
The IRS situation analysis is equally too little, too late. According to reports, as early as March 2010 some conservative groups were targeted for special tax status scrutiny and by August 2011 senior IRS officials in Washington knew about it. The Inspector General's Report issued on May 14, 2013 was months in preparation. We learned that first-line managers changed the criteria for determining tax-exempt criteria at least 3 times (July 2011, January 2012, and May 2012) and that the targeting remained in effect over an 18-month period. Decision-making bottlenecks were compounded by the fact that filings were increasing (as much as 45% for 501(c)4 applications over a 4 year period) while processing times were taking longer. Using similar interviewing methods and document analysis -- as did the ARB -- as well as statistical sampling, the IG Report stated 9 fundamental recommendations. These recommendations included terms like: "Director must approve criteria changes," "developing new procedures," "developing training/workshops" (3 times), "new processes", "new guidance" (twice), and "provide oversight." IRS management responded to each recommendation in agreement, with only minor exceptions.
Following both investigations, congressional hearings were held by oversight committees from both the House and Senate. Viewers of these hearings can note the number of times witnesses expressed little or no knowledge of what transpired on their watch. In most cases, the reasons are obvious: they were too far removed from the incidents by distance and time; they over-relied on others to act; they didn't take personal responsibility or accountability; but they all promised to follow up, get answers, and take appropriate action so this would never happen again.
Despite the time and effort that have gone into these investigations, the outlook for closure and resolution remains tentative, if not illusory. The reasons are legion. Some of the reasons are the result of partisan, political motives that can only accept self-serving accommodations. Other reasons are methodological and inherent in the nature of bureaucracy. Regardless of the cause, satisfactory outcomes are doubtful.
Without questioning anyone's motives or intentions, there is a risk that these reports could end up being nothing but a giant data dump. It's too easy to confuse effort with results. Much time and effort went into the ARB and IG reports, but how much thought and consideration went into addressing such questions as:
• The reports prescribe what is expected to be done but relatively little on milestones or how progress will be monitored to allow mid-course corrections.
• Specific, measurable objectives are missing relative to many tasks. How will anyone know how well these goals were achieved?
• How will they know if any changes were the result of these actions or something else?
• What considerations were given to cost-benefit analyses to help ensure that proper resources were allocated; sufficient, but not over/under resourced?
• What are the consequences, if acceptable results aren't achieved? In addition to obvious program changes, will there be terminations, demotions or other actions?
These are not insignificant issues, but, in the "rush" to produce something for public consumption, so much energy was consumed in the report preparation that little remained for how it would be implemented. The same can be said about the hearings. Time passes and passion subsides. Another election cycle comes and goes, only to leave much of these initiatives unfinished and left for others to act on. This cannot be allowed to happen.
At the very minimum the following results need to be assured:
• Reduce organizational levels. Create a flatter organization with fewer steps between employees in the field and policy makers and persons with overall accountability.
• Improve communications flow upwards, downwards and across organization boundaries. Report weekly activities and accomplishments involving mission-critical tasks in clear, unambiguous, measurable statements.
• Hold people accountable for identifying specific, measurable tasks that cascade from the top to the bottom of the organization, which collectively and in the aggregate will ensure that all prescribed remedies will be implemented in a timely fashion.
• Appoint an independent change management organization to continuously monitor progress and empower it to intervene as necessary to address significant performance variance; much as an internal auditor would, and report directly, periodically to top management.
• The independent change management organization can counter organizational entropy or the natural tendency of people and organizations to wind down, become battle weary, and weaken their power to carry on.
The bureaucrats may say most of these were addressed in the reports. But too much can't be said about the need for an independent, adjunct, dedicated resource with responsibility to carry on with these projects. It's a well-known principle of acculturation that the longer a person is part of an organization, the more he or she identifies with and accepts the organization's culture, values, and beliefs. This especially true of the bureaucracies that created these problems and which would be expected to "bootstrap" these solutions.
It is axiomatic that people usually behave differently when they know they are being watched. They know they can be held accountable for their actions and that a record exists. In these cases, people weren't being watched in real time by anyone with authority to intervene. The watchers were derelict in their duties.
There's no better time than now to take steps to provide for the continuation and successful conclusion of the work that has been done. Radical changes in organization structure, behavior and controls are needed. Otherwise, there will be no redeeming value for the Benghazi tragedies and the IRS abuses that occurred, and the bureaucratic "fix" will live on.
Jay Partin, PhD, is Managing Director of Diameter Group, Ltd., a management consulting firm. He can be reached at C:UsersJayDesktopBureaucracyjaypartin@yahoo.com.