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Taking it Online: Reimagining Foreign Policymaking by Revisiting Scientific Management Theory

November 3, 2020 ~


In this blog, I’ll be blunt by stating that explaining U.S. foreign policy is particularly hard when U.S. public policies are neither clear nor coherent. The default position taken by the greater foreign policy community, including ambassadors and foreign and civil service officers towards not only foreign audiences, but also American nationals, is expressed in relatively vague and broad terms and nearly impossible to measure, assess or evaluate. From pivoting to reimagining the world and systems as we know it, I discuss three key areas to consider in reimagining foreign policymaking by revisiting U.S. public administration theory. Despite it being one of the oldest theories in the available literature, I revisit Scientific Management theory or Taylorism for possible application in Communication, Personnel and Agility in the context of foreign policymaking. When engineer Frederick Taylor published his Principles of Scientific Management in 1911, the United States was experiencing, on the one hand, unprecedented economic growth and technological advances, but on the other hand, rapid depletion of natural resources and waste of materials. Taylor opened his seminal work with a reminder of this stark contrast, writing passionately about, “wastes of human efforts…are less visible, less tangible, and are but vaguely appreciated.” (p. 5) To address the waste of efforts, Taylor proposed four principles of Scientific Management: 1) Science over Rule of Thumb; 2) Hire, Train, Teach and Develop Employee, Using Science Principles; 3) Cooperate to Insure All Work is in Accordance with the Principles of Science; and 4) Identify Near Equal Division of the Work and Responsibility Between Management and Employees. Scientific Management theory, taken in its pure form, likely did not exist outside Taylor’s Philadelphia steel plant, but certainly elements of his four principles do exist and perhaps more so today in the “developing” economies attempting to replicate the success of the “developed” economies as they move to industrialize, while encountering similar challenges as described in Taylor’s opening pages. Not without its shortcomings, more recent literature argues Scientific Management theory erroneously assumes that employees are one dimensional, that there is one best way of doing things and that their practitioners place emphasis on outputs and quantitative data. In my view, these aren’t necessarily shortcomings in the foreign policy context. The U.S. Government in 2020 is significantly larger and more complex than the USG during the time of Taylor. The influence of Taylorism was widespread by the 1930’s, a period in which government experienced rapid growth during the New Deal. This obsession with efficiency still drives public policies and administration and Taylorism continues to be an attractive theoretical framework for scholars and students as well as public administrators who then promote policies and programs aimed at achieving efficiencies from business to education. It is Taylor’s first principle of Scientific Management, that is most relevant to this discussion; however, all four have merit. Taylor proposed to replace rule-of-thumb work methods with methods based on a scientific study of the various tasks involved. He believed in investing time in the systematic observation and study of a task, with the view that this time invested upfront would result in improvements in the system, saving time and increasing efficiency in dividends later. Taylor demonstrated this through a simple time study that broke a job into its component parts and measured each. Through his study, Taylor essentially elevated the concept of planning. First, Communication consistently rises to the top as one area that is critical to being more efficient and effective as an organization and falls squarely into Taylor’s first principle. By this, I mean to advocate not only for the careful consideration and description of the language in use, content of communication, but also the platform of communication. Speaking and writing in clear, plain English (native language) with substance and meaning is necessary in a large, heterogenous and representative democracy that is the United States with diverse citizenry and thus, audiences. Communication, whether in a more traditional sense with policy memorandums or press releases to a more modern sense with social media such as Twitter and Facebook are all required. 1. What is the agency vision/mission statement and what are the agency’s tasks? The answer should be clear, concise, unique and conveyed by the top-tier of management and leadership to all employees.

2. How does the agency deliberate with its counterparts across the interagency? Are decisions out of these deliberations then conveyed to the working level staff? What kind of feedback loop exists? Executive agencies often compete against each other for limited resources and legitimacy and go to great lengths not to communicate with each other or even undermine efforts.

3. In what ways does the agency communicate or report to Congress? In this environment, maintaining the communication channels is key to building trust and can make a big difference in getting legislation passed or modified.

4. How informed are American citizens as to what the agency’s mission is and what it does or produces? Communication has been very key to American diplomacy; however, its emphasis has been on external/foreign audiences, often alienating the domestic audiences, that of U.S. citizens.

Second, Personnel or Human Capital (see my July blog) aligns well with Taylor’s second principle, may be prioritized through two major actions: 1) standardization of the work described, and 2) fit for the job or purpose. Taylor’s Scientific Management theory paved the way for the creation of work standards and clear divisions of labor. Job announcements (JA’s), position descriptions (PD’s) and performance evaluations (PE’s) all need to be aligned with the vision and mission statement for each agency and the core duties needed to properly match what the agency does. As a specific example, job code series and titles are often inconsistent and not uniform across the federal government or even across the foreign and civil services. Frederick Mosher’s real-world perspective in Democracy and Public Service describes five periods of personnel reform, but I advocate to add a sixth, an evidence-informed period that is upon us. This would appear to be consistent with Taylor’s principles to develop the science behind recruiting and retaining personnel. On the second aspect, being fit for the job or purpose must, and the clearest departure from the subject of Taylor’s study, entail both hard and soft skills, especially those that reflect today’s emerging needs and a better reflection of the diversity of U.S. interests and values. In a March 2004 interview with Dr. Mitchell Reiss, Director for Policy Planning at the Department of State, for Policy Perspectives, Dr. Reiss stated, “It is not enough to have good feelings or say, “I really want to save the world.” All of us want peace on earth but that’s not enough. You have to have skill sets that are valuable to people. There are a variety of skill sets that are valuable. It can be accounting, it can be a military background, it can be an intelligence background, it can be a legal background, it can even be a medical background certainly, transnational health issues are enormously important today and we have an expert on our staff that deals with those. Whatever it is, you have to be able to develop a skill set, hopefully something that moves you passionately, so you'll be good at it, so you'll be invested in it, so you'll love it.”

Third and finally, Agility seems to be in accordance with Taylor’s third and fourth principles on cooperation and equal division of work. By agility, I mean structuring the federal government horizontally and vertically. On horizontal restructuring, more could be done to remove barriers from interagency and public-private sector transfers. In looking at vertical restructuring, to address fatigue and monotony over the long term, managers must identify ways in which their staff can be engaged, challenged and contribute in this information age. Congress can pass laws to mandate policies and programs to promote horizontal and vertical agility. Further, the changing labor market and the influence of technology suggest that society and government should prepare students and government officials to be life-long learners and should help them make appropriate transition from school to work or higher institutions of learning and even back again. If excellence in public service is to prevail in America, there must be a concerted effort to learn, relearn and demystify the psychology of efficiency and control. Managers and executives will feel increasing pressure to ensure that not only do staff obtain the proper professional development and training to keep up with technology and best practices across the government and within their home agency, but that policies and programs should be designed so that the information or knowledge is not lost once the public servant moves on. See the July 2020 National Governors Association’s State Guide for Preparing the Future Workforce. While this guide was written prior to COVID-19, there are many best practices shared that still have application and utility.

Communications, personnel and agility all need to be seriously considered in any reimaginings of foreign policymaking. Executives, leaders and employees who are communicative, fit for their jobs and purpose while being agile will help to ensure that transitions in Administrations are not so abrupt and disruptive, leading to the inefficiencies and lack of productivity that Taylor warned of and tried to address in his four principles. Taylor’s scientific management theory was groundbreaking for its time, but what is remarkable is how it has shown amazing endurance, relatability and relevance, from the industrial age to the information age. Sometimes, in order to get a better visual or to reimagine, it may be necessary to take several steps away.


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