Watchdog: Accountability

Key John Kerry adviser runs State Department's redundant, mission-less 'conflict' bureau, IG says

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White House,Watchdog,Michal Conger,John Kerry,National Security,State Department,Inspectors General,Accountability

A new diplomatic program dedicated to preventing conflicts and run by a key adviser to Secretary of State John Kerry is directionless and unstable, and few in government know what it actually does, an internal watchdog says.

The Bureau of Conflict Stabilization Operations was formed in November 2011 as "the institutional locus for policy and operational solutions for crisis, conflict, and instability."

But the bureau is mostly just a redundancy, according to a new report by the State Department inspector general.

Despite its official tasks, CSO has yet to figure out what it can do that other State Department bureaus or the U.S. Agency for International Development don't already do.

In fact, the bureau's mission is almost identical to that of USAID's Office of Transition Initiatives, the IG said.

"Most bureaus remain uncertain about CSO’s mission and are unaware of its analytical capabilities," the IG said.

"In addition, CSO’s new operational role as program implementer puts it in many of the same places as other actors within the U.S. government, which can create overlap and duplicate efforts, especially with USAID," the IG said.

"CSO has not clearly defined and articulated its mission to those outside the bureau and even to some of its own staff," the IG said.

"It has diminished, rather than enhanced, a whole-of-government approach and, with few exceptions, most notably Syria, it has not engaged in recognized high-priority conflicts of national security interest."

Even some of these engagements largely duplicated what USAID and other State Department bureaus were doing, such as in Kenya and Burma, according to the IG.

A working group that was supposed to focus CSO's efforts and develop a process for deciding where to get involved instead came up with more than 40 potential engagement locations and no standard method.

The lack of direction results in low morale and job confusion for CSO staff. The bureau had 54 percent turnover between February 2012 and August 2013, which "created widespread internal suspicion and job insecurity in addition to confusion in the Department and the interagency," the IG said.

The bureau's struggle to establish its role has led to confusion outside CSO as well. Coupled with a disregard for State Department and government rules, CSO has made other bureaus and government offices reluctant to work with it even when its role is more clearly defined.

"The perceived CSO attitude that it does not have to follow rules is cited by some bureaus and ambassadors as reasons they seek to avoid working with CSO," the IG said.

Assistant Secretary of State Rick Barton and his staff promote a culture of skirting the rules, saying the "urgent" nature of their work and a need for innovation agility justify their rule-bending, according to the IG.

"Bureau practices violate basic department regulations and procedures in several areas, including security, travel and hiring," the IG said.

CSO has three employees with government purchase cards, but has never reviewed their use of government funds, the IG said.

Purchase card reviews are required annually.

It also lacks a travel policy, often scheduling flights at the last minute and avoiding contract carriers that give cheaper government rates.

The bureau doesn't always properly vet contractors given security clearances, which is a security risk, the report said.

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