George W Bush has won public support for his handling of the war against
terror. But as the head of a crisis-ridden organisation, the US government, how
does he fare in dealing with fundamental HR issues? By Paul Simpson
Put yourself in George W Bush’s shoes. You are the President,
commander-in-chief and chief executive of an organisation, which has 3.6m
employees and is facing its biggest crisis for 140 years.
You have a threat to deal with which, if you blunder, could cost you your
job and endanger the very existence of your organisation and the lives of many
of its staff. The vast, cumbersome bureaucracy you are supposed to command is
finding it hard to focus on the real enemy and not turf wars. Hundreds of your
employees have already died and thousands more are in danger from anthrax, the
source 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 could
retire. It’s hard to recruit because, until recently, the public thought your
staff were – in the words of US journalist Tom Jacobs – "wasteful,
inefficient, no-account, ne’er-do-wells, who make scads of money ripping off
taxpayers and doing stuff any private sector company could do better".
In the rarefied air of Washington DC, crises are as frequent as abuses of
the English language, but even before the attacks of 11 September, the word
"crisis" was already being bandied around to describe the state of
the USGovernment’s human resources. Indeed Senator Fred Thompson of Bush’s
Republican 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 of
Directors (IoD): "America’s world has completely changed. It has never had
to deal with this on its own shores before. Whereas for those in Britain the
threat of terrorism has been around since the 1970s, for the US, this is
So unprecedented, it would be no exaggeration to say that the US government
is facing its biggest HR crisis since the American civil war started in 1861.
As Senator George Voinovich, the senior Republican on the Senate government
affairs subcommittee on government management, says: "If we are going to
win the war, we have got to have the people."
So behind the dramatic headline-grabbing crises, Bush has to deal with what
Joseph Nye, dean of Harvard University’s John F Kennedy School of Government,
calls "a quiet crisis" in HR. "And the problem with a quiet
crisis is you can’t get anyone to do anything about it." Nye is hosting a
series of seminars with private and public executives to see what can be done.
A year ago, the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of
Congress, recommended improving pay and benefits, more aggressive recruitment
of young people and the dismantling of certain bureaucratic restrictions which
meant, for example, that it could take a year to offer someone a job even after
the right candidate had been identified.
Some government departments have woken up to the problem. The Department of
Defense (DoD), while masterminding the war against terror, has pledged to
improve the way it recruits, retains and trains employees and is drafting a new
set of personnel rules. Ironically, the DoD is also trying to change the way
pay is set, against the wishes of unions, including the American Federation of
Public Employees. The US Treasury is set to roll out a new HR system in the
next fiscal year, while the Interior Department announced plans to begin
workforce planning. That’s right – begin workforce planning, not improve it.
The HR crisis is the San Andreas fault which could fatally undermine the US
government’s campaign against terror over the next decade. But Bush also has
more immediate problems to deal with, which, on the whole, pundits say he’s
handled reasonably well.
Richard Chiumento, a British HR specialist, says Bush scores well if you
assess him as the chief executive of a crisis-ridden company. "If you look
at 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 the
truth and communicate it consistently, and he has largely done that. He has
appointed 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 crisis
and he has done what a good CEO would have done – taken a step back, analysed
his intelligence, identified his target and gone for it."
And like a good CEO he is delegating, even at such a critical moment in his
nation’s history. "He has experienced people around him," says the
IoD’s Lea, "and he has called on them. If you compare him to, say, President
Carter, it’s a completely different approach. Carter tried to do everything and
it wore him out, by the time he left office in 1981 he had aged much more than
four 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 the
certainty that things will never be as certain again," says Chiumento,
"and he’s done the right thing by letting everyone know about subsequent
alerts. People know they are in an emergency situation but they also feel they
are kept in the loop."
The President has also encouraged departments to bring in stress counsellors
to help employees to deal with the loss of colleagues or the burden of extra
work. 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 sessions
of its Human Resource Management Council to give managers the information needed
to reassure staff about anthrax. Departments such as the Postal Services have
launched massive screening programmes and information initiatives to reassure
staff who fear for their lives. Sadly, government scientists have now changed
their minds on how anthrax spreads so the Postal Service’s initial advice to
its 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 to
improve security. Our office manager is terminally apathetic and is of the
opinion that nothing serious would ever happen here."
Bush can’t be held responsible for the apathy of a single office manager but
this single e-mail is telling evidence that he may find it easier to sway
public opinion than to change how his bureaucracy works. There have been turf
wars in Washington DC ever since it officially became the federal capital in
1802. Like most bureaucracies, the departments and agencies of the US
government 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 or
consolidate with each other. Think about hijacker Muhammad Atta [who directed
one of the planes into the World Trade Center]. They [the CIA] had his name on
the watch list. Somehow that didn’t get communicated to the FBI or the
But Bush has begun to initiate change. Creating an Office of Homeland
Security to co-ordinate national security had been mooted for decades but
somehow 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 in
national security – agencies like the FBI, CIA and Immigration and
Naturalisation Service (INS) – or whether it can somehow pool intelligence and
co-ordinate the actions of customs, border patrol and the coast guard, which
are all run by different departments.
The evidence that much work is still to be done accumulates daily. FBI
director Robert Mueller has admitted that his agency had "unacceptably
turned away local police offers of help" while the Bureau is furious with
INS officials who arrested six men in the Midwest who had "suspicious
equipment" and material about nuclear power plants in their cars, and let
them go because their Israeli passports were valid.
Even those who support the creation of such an office, such as Vietnam
veteran and retired Colonel David Hackworth, have reservations. "It should
be a good thing as long as it doesn’t end up like the drugs czar, creating just
another layer of bureaucracy. What’s needed is a lean, mean, outfit which can
get 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 to
the President, and some say over agencies’ funding. Linda Holbeche, director of
research at Roffey Park Institute, says persuading agencies to share knowledge
is far from simple. "They might need taskforces or other initiatives to
encourage people to share knowledge, but it won’t be easy, you really have to change
the culture of the organisations they’re employed in. People can only cope with
so much change at once."
Ridge’s job will be tougher because two of the agencies – the FBI and the
CIA – are more jittery and defensive than ever. Despite public support from the
President, 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’s
quest for creative new ideas with which to fight the war. "Research shows
that the biggest barriers to creativity come when employees don’t feel
confident 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-hogging
world of the US capital, such suspicion may be hard to erase.
Rumsfeld has reportedly complained to his military commanders about the lack
of innovative ideas with which to fight the war against terror.
And the Pentagon has launched a public competition for ideas to fight
terror. More than 4,000 ideas have been submitted so far. The prize for winning
ideas is a defence contract. To some this is good open-minded government, to
others, it smacks of desperation.
This has been a strange first year in office for George W Bush. The 43rd
President has been the first who has been obliged to say "I do not have
anthrax"; 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 (see
box), believe he will be successful: "We will learn the lessons, even if
it takes a disaster but this may be a 30-year war and we aren’t even through
the first year. We know from Vietnam that we lose wars when we lose the public
If the war lasts even a third as long as Hackworth suggests, the battle to
make effective use of its human resources is almost as critical as the conflict
now being played out outside the US.
HR issues facing president Bush and the US government
The recruitment crisis
With 50 per cent of federal employees eligible to retire in the
next four years – and the workforce’s average age rising to 52 years – the US
Government has some serious hiring to do. It normally recruits 300,000-400,000
people a year, but that may have to rise to 500,000-600,000 just to keep the
Government at its current size. Some restrictions on recruitment will be lifted
by Bush’s ‘freedom to manage’ initiative but at the same time the
administration’s Office of Management and Budget wants to outsource 5 per cent
(42,500 positions) of all federal jobs by October 2002.
The morale crisis
Even before employees were exposed to the threat of
bioterrorism, morale was in the words of one insider "about as low as a
lizard’s armpit" thanks to job cuts, the fact that the average public
employee is paid 30 per cent less than his privately employed counterpart and
the poor public image of the federal government. Bobby Harnage, president of
the American Federation of Government Employees union, testified to Congress
this summer that his members are "abused, ridiculed, and routinely
vilified as the enemies of freedom, democracy and American values". Now
the administration stands accused of not consistently extending protection from
threats like anthrax to its employees.
The skills crisis
Last winter, the General Accounting Office identified the
Government’s management of its "human capital" as a "high
risk". Last March former US Defense Secretary James Schlesinger warned
that national security was "on the brink of an unprecedented crisis of
competence". This problem has been exacerbated by 11 September. One small
example – it’s pointless having a Defense Department full of Russian linguists
when the war against terror requires staff who speak Farsi.
The cultural crisis
Reorganisation initiatives abound. A new Office of Homeland
Security and Office of Computer Security have been founded and there is talk of
a new Army command to defend the US’ own territory. The administration is also
recognising that Americans, after decades of agreeing with the Republican right
that ‘big government is bad government’, have suddenly raised their
expectations of what governments can and should do. Some Washington insiders
think successive cuts have left a ‘hollow government’ which can just about cope
with business as usual, but not a crisis like the war on terror. The way
federal employees work may change too. There is talk of encouraging
telecommuting and building what Richard Finn, of Penna Change Consulting, calls
‘virtual teams’. "People are going to travel less and the competencies
which will become important will be building teams through technologies such as
e-mail, or video-conferencing".
The military HR crisis
As the number of US troops being
deployed in Afghanistan grows, so do Colonel David H Hackworth’s fears for the
Army in which he served with such distinction.
Hack, as he signs his e-mails, is the most decorated soldier in
US Army history (his collection of medals includes two Distinguished Service
Crosses, 10 Silver Stars, four Legions of Merit, one Distinguished Flying Cross
and eight Purple Hearts) and he is convinced US armed forces are getting their
HR all wrong.
His big worry is the quality of training US soldiers now get.
"Our conventional military have had so much emphasis on ‘Consideration For
Others’ that standards have been so gutted that most basic-training graduates
no longer have the right stuff to survive on fields of strife." The rigour
of 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 the
Just as worrying for the Pentagon is its continued difficulty
in finding and training recruits. One in three recruits don’t actually complete
their term of service in the armed forces and despite some $60,000 retention
bonuses in the Air Force, and $20,000 joining payments to Army recruits the
supply of volunteers has been inconsistent and hasn’t massively picked up since
The other HR dilemma posed by relying on volunteers is that six
out of 10 armed forces personnel are married (compared to 20 per cent in the
days of the draft), a shift which has sent budgets for housing and day care
Hackworth is not a fan of men and women training together or of
women fighting in the front line. "My advice is to take a page from the
Israeli Army and leave the women at home," he says, adding that the sight
of 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 conundrum
which many national armies, including Britain’s, have still not solved but
Hackworth fears that political correctness imposed by Washington may cost lives.
The absurdity of making the forces politically correct has, he
says, been exacerbated by a class of senior officers interested only in
advancing their own careers. "At least three out of four military types in
and around the Pentagon should be on their way to fighting units," he
insists, adding that Army division HQs should be slimmed down to release more
fighting men. Even the Pentagon admits it probably has 20-25 per cent too many
bases and proposes to close some in 2003.
He draws an analogy with his experiences in Vietnam. "My
884 man infantry battalion had 250 soldiers when I took over. After much arm
twisting, we got our combat strength up to 400, half of our authorised
strength. 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, says
Hackworth, who knows?
William Moore, a retired US Army
general, says the challenge facing the armed forces is great: "Soldiers
see their relevance as warriors questioned; fascination with technology is
leading to the belief that anyone can be a warrior."
As if all these challenges weren’t enough to tax any large
employer, the atrocities of 11 September have changed the armed forces’ mission
and may yet change the way it is organised with less emphasis on massive
divisions and more funds for Marine-style units of 1,000 soldiers or less who
can 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 the
homeland, an objective which hasn’t been central to US defence policy since the
American 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 armed
forces. But the bombing of Afghanistan fits into what former defence adviser
Larry K Smith describes as the US military establishment’s traditional doctrine
of "application of overwhelming force. That won’t work now. We’re going to
need a much greater emphasis on closework, extremely precise missions which
demand the highest standards of intelligence, training, preparation and
execution. We haven’t been particularly good at this."
Indeed, when President Clinton’s national security team asked
the military chiefs for special operations to deal with on terrorists in a
semi-urban environment they were told, an official claims, "That’s not
what we do. We’re not organised for that. We need a brigade."
So the Pentagon may need, to use a management clich‚, to think
outside the box. They must also, says former Army general and NATO’s top leader
in Europe, Wesley Clark, be prepared to take risks: "The attitude was if
you take losses you’re a loser." The meagre consolation for commanders is
that, after 11 September, that attitude may seem obsolete.