State Department budget reforms could help prevent future rescissions

The U.S. State Department building in Washington, D.C. Photo by: REUTERS / Jim Young

WASHINGTON — The State Department will carry out a set of budget-related reforms aimed at streamlining its processes and averting future rescission attempts, according to Jim Richardson, director of the agency’s Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources, also known as the F Bureau.

At the end of the last fiscal year, the State Department failed to obligate some money that it should have due to “lots of reasons,” Richardson said Tuesday at the Professional Services Council’s annual development conference, adding that he didn’t want to go further into detail.

“The fact is the system is just designed to make last-minute decisions, and the reality is we can no longer operate that way,” he said. “I am committed to doing these things to help us get ahead of that situation so we don’t ever have that situation again.”

“The fact is the system is just designed to make last-minute decisions, and the reality is we can no longer operate that way.”

— Jim Richardson, director, Office of U.S. Foreign Assistance Resources

The F Bureau is rolling out the Amplify Foreign Assistance Initiative, which will work to improve budget processes, refine requirements, and push the system to be faster and more efficient.

“What you should expect is really the outcome, which is you will see your money faster,” Richardson said to the audience of for-profit aid implementers. He added that the State Department will measure its success based on whether it is obligating funds faster than in previous years throughout the process, from mission and bureau requests to when the money is assigned.

The potential rescission and conversations about the Trump administration’s foreign assistance review have made for an eventful four months on the job, Richardson said.

The foreign assistance review is a high-level conversation on how the administration thinks about foreign assistance — essentially an aggregation of the parts of the National Security Strategy and the joint strategic plan that pertain to foreign assistance, along with a “journey to self-reliance,” he said.

“I think people have heard this and they think there is some secret committee meeting in the basement of the Eisenhower Building making decisions on programs in countries, and that’s just not true,” Richardson said. “There’s been a lot of misconceptions about that.”

There shouldn’t be anything new or surprising in the foreign assistance review if it is ever released, he said. Whether it is made public or not “probably doesn’t really matter because the principles are built into every other document from the administration,” he added.

USAID is also working to reform or improve some of its processes, Administrator Mark Green said at the event. Acting on feedback from many contractors who said USAID’s procurement workforce was not adequately resourced or empowered, the agency has worked to hire additional contracting staff, with more hiring planned. In total, there will be a 30% increase in the contracting staff workforce from the addition of about 40 new foreign service officers, according to Green.

The administration has also streamlined some proposal review processes, is changing monitoring and evaluation practices to allow for more collaboration, and will be looking more closely at how international partners are building the capacity of their local subcontractors, Green said.

“You reminded us [that] progress on the journey to self-reliance is not the absence of international partners, but those partners playing the right role in U.S. foreign assistance,” he said.

The agency has created a capacity-strengthening indicator, and starting this year, each mission will report on the capacity-building process of local partners that receive subawards and measure success by how well organizations equip them to implement programs.

Update, Dec. 4, 2019: This article’s headline has been updated to clarify the potential impact of State Department budget reforms.

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    Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.