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85 SIX Turning a Screw with a Rubber Screwdriver HOW THINGS ARE DONE in America is different from how things are done at the State Department. This became increasingly clear to me during my time in Foggy Bottom, and nothing has changed my mind since I left to start an entrepreneurship consulting business that works with both public and private sector clients. The America we explored in chapter 4 is not at all like Washington, D.C. This is an observation many have made, notably New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman when he toured Silicon Valley’s most exciting tech companies in 2014 just as immigration reform and free-trade negotiations with Europe and Asia met their latest demise in Congress: “What a contrast. Silicon Valley: Where ideas come to launch. Washington, D.C.: Where ideas go to die. . . . Silicon Valley: Smart as we can be. Washington: Dumb as we wanna be.”1 I will try to be less harsh but, frankly, I could be even harsher. As a business guy with little experience of Washington, I suffered “shock and awe” when I first arrived at the State Department. I was coming from a world chock-a-block with entrepreneurs, innovators, and commercializers with problem-solving attitudes, proactive types who relentlessly chased workarounds when the going got rough. The State Department and Washington were essentially the exact opposite. I soon coined a response to friends who 86 PEACE THROUGH ENTREPRENEURSHIP asked how my work was going at State: “How should it be going? The State Department is the Antichrist of entrepreneurship!” This was a (slight) exaggeration, of course, but even the language of Washington was imbued with dysfunction, overpromise-and-under-deliver, and faux execution; a focus on optics, not on output. Having been raised on my parents’ dinner table stories of the horrors of Stalinism, it occurred to me that, in many ways, including architecturally, the State Department smacked of Soviet Russia. There was, for instance, “double speak” and long lists of almost Orwellian names and concepts. “Standing up” a new program meant doing events like lunches and conferences—more like propping up, and nothing like creating a real program with real elements. A close friend and exemplary foreign service officer told me the key to success at State was to “find a parade and get in front of it.” Merit hardly figured in hiring, firing, or promotion. What mattered was “time in grade” and being a “team player.” People would congratulate each other for “having moved paper,” which meant getting it to the “front office.” In the business world I knew, a deliverable was something I had to get done, something I was responsible for, and something a supervisor would check on for completion . In Washington, a deliverable was something to say in a speech—that everyone would forget as soon as it was said—so long as it sounded good. In other words, it didn’t really matter. Never Met a Payroll Chapter 5 marveled at how ridiculously microscopic entrepreneurship’s share of U.S. aid spending is. This chapter is about throwing good money after bad. Even if we did spend more dollars on entrepreneurship, we are not likely to see positive results if we don’t change the process for how we spend. That is because our government turns screws with a rubber screwdriver . The people involved in development (and entrepreneurship) are, as a whole, not up to the task and, further, are beaten down by the system they work in. And the procurement process that dictates how our government contracts for goods and services (especially in the aid industry) is grossly broken, as likely to award contracts to those who know how to win contracts as to those who actually know how to execute the specific service required. Let us start with the people problem. The main issue, as I see it, is simply a lack of private sector experience—not enough knowledge about TURNING A SCREW WITH A RUBBER SCREWDRIVER 87 what works in the real world—in the U.S. government. In my two years at the State Department, I did not encounter a single person who had ever met a payroll, delivered a product, or started a business. The “business people” at State all seemed to be lawyers, investment bankers, or heirs to industrial fortunes. These were not the people we met in chapter 4; these people had no experience creating and running businesses. I am sure there were some entrepreneurs...


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