Friday, August 7, 2009

Running USAID: Is anyone interested?

Six months into the Obama administration and there is still no one named to fill the position of USAID administrator. Several candidates have apparently been casualties of the vetting process. Is it really not possible to identify a highly qualified candidate who is willing to subject himself or herself to the vetting gauntlet? I doubt it. But first the administration needs to decide how USAID will fit into the Washington power structure. If USAID is to be a poor cousin of the State Department, the administration will attract one kind of candidate. If USAID is to be rebuilt into a strong, independent institution that only takes policy guidance from the State Department as in earlier times, the administration will attract a much more impressive candidate. I hope the administration takes the latter approach. What qualities should the candidate bring to the position? There are two obvious ones, although after 50 years in Washington and serving at embassies overseas I have learned that what should be obvious is not always the case in this city. The candidate should have an impeccable understanding of international development issues and an acknowledged ability to manage a large, sprawling global bureaucracy. These two qualities are of equal importance. Their order is unimportant. I might place the management issue first depending on the attributes of the two or three people immediately below the USAID administrator. While the candidate may not possess all of them, there are a number of other highly-desirable qualities that will contribute to a particularly effective administrator. He or she should be known to and have easy access to the president, vice president and secretary of state or bring the right combination of personality, competence, and persistence that will quickly give the person this access. The candidate should be personally committed to remaining in the position for four years (well maybe only three and a half years now). This is no stepping stone position. It is the real thing. Successful experience in working with Congress is a major plus. Finally, management experience somewhere in the federal or state system will permit the candidate to get out of the starting blocks much faster than someone who does not have this background. This is not a long list. The more rigorous vetting process of the Obama administration can not be the overriding excuse for failure to name an administrator. If so, dozens of other senior appointees would not be carrying out their duties today. Getting a USAID leader really should not be that difficult unless there is no agreement on where the new administrator fits in the bureaucracy. Any outstanding prospect will have little interest in taking on this responsibility if the responsibility is not clear.

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