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Rodney Bent interview

Friday, August 27th, 2004 - 20:00
Phrase: 
"One of the best pieces of advice I received was to listen to what the Iraqis wanted, not just jump ahead and assume that they wanted the same things that we wanted."
Radio show date: 
Sat, 08/28/2004
Guest: 
Intro text: 
Leadership; Financial Management; Collaboration: Networks and Partnerships...

Leadership; Financial Management; Collaboration: Networks and Partnerships

Complete transcript: 

Monday, June 21, 2004

Arlington, Virginia

Mr. Lawrence: Good morning and welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, partner in charge of The IBM Center for The Business of Government. We created the Center in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. Find out more about the Center by visiting us on the web at www.businessofgovernment.org.

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our conversation today is with Rodney Bent. Rodney�s a professional staffer on the House Appropriations Committee. But perhaps more interesting, he�s just come back from six months in Iraq, where he�s been the director of the CPA�s Office of Management and Budget and also served as a senior adviser to the Iraqi Ministry of Finance.

Good morning, Rodney.

Mr. Bent: Good morning.

Mr. Lawrence: And joining us in our conversation also from IBM is Jonathan Breul.

Good morning, Jonathan.

Mr. Breul: Good morning.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, Rodney, let�s start at the beginning. Could you begin by describing for our listeners how the resources were allocated for the reconstruction of Iraq?

Mr. Bent: Certainly, absolutely. There were three pots of money. Perhaps the most important pot of money is Iraq�s own resources, the oil money that it earned both currently and then previously under Saddam, under the Oil for Food Program. That�s about, in terms of the �04 budget, $21 billion.

In addition, there was 18.4 billion that was appropriated last year, and prior to that, a couple of billion, 3 billion that Congress also appropriated. Finally, there was the about 12-, $13 billion that other countries had pledged to help Iraq in its reconstruction in a Madrid conference in October of 2003.

Mr. Lawrence: Now money was allocated through the supplemental. And I�m curious, is there precedent for allocating money this way?

Mr. Bent: There is. The President requested something over $21 billion, I think, originally. And he presented his request in a format with about 10 or 11 sectors, about 60 line items, such as power generation or potable water. But he really was requesting a large amount of money that would be similar -- that he could use in a flexible manner similar to what had been done with the Y2K fund or the supplemental immediately after the September 11th tragedy.

Mr. Breul: Rodney, the Coalition Provisional Authority, or CPA, was the name of the temporary governing body which has been designated by the United Nations as the lawful government of Iraq until Iraq assumes sovereignty. What role did the CPA play in managing the fund?

Mr. Bent: Oh, a huge role. Ambassador Bremer was essentially the fiscal steward for the Iraqi funds, and he was also, if you will, the person who was allocating the American supplemental. What he and the CPA did essentially was to try and put together a budget and a resource plan for the reconstruction of Iraq.

Mr. Breul: Well, what are the critical skills required to manage and provide oversight for the reconstruction funds?

Mr. Bent: Good question. I think that when I got out there, I discovered that I had a staff of 10 or 11 people who were enthusiastic, young, intelligent, but had never worked on budget issues before. And so one of the skills, and we can talk a little bit later about this, is sort of that fundamental analytical perspective, how to listen, how to ask the right questions. What kind of options do you prepare? Who�s doing what? What are the consequences if you do it a certain way? Can it be done? What are the practical questions?

Mr. Breul: Well, what was your role and what were your duties then while you were in Iraq?

Mr. Bent: I had a bunch of them. I was the head of the CPA Office of Management and Budget. I was the senior adviser to the Ministry of Finance. And I was also the senior adviser to the Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation, and other duties as assigned.

Mr. Lawrence: How do you get three jobs?

Mr. Bent: Well, essentially the titles were meaningless in the sense that we were sort of inventing as we went along. It wasn�t structured. You went you there and you essentially would see things that needed doing, questions that needed to asked, or problems that needed to be addressed. And so a lot of times, you know, we were working on things that would have been well outside the purview of what you would normally think of. For example, we worked on the pay structure for Iraqi civil servants, you know, who gets paid how much, how they�re defined. That is not something that usually a Ministry of Finance or an OMB would look at, but there, it was essential. And then you add in things like reforming the pension system or handling food subsidies, oil subsidies, electricity subsidies, building electric power plants. It was just a huge range of activities.

Mr. Lawrence: What does a typical day look like when you�re doing these kind of things?

Mr. Bent: Well, it was intense. Generally people were in the office by 7:00 in the morning and we would go until 10:00, 11:00, midnight, 1:00, or 2:00, 7 days a week. The only time we theoretically had off were Friday mornings between about 9:00 and 12:30, where I say �theoretically,� because no meetings were supposed to be held, but, in fact, people tended to go to the office because that�s where the computers were, that�s where you could get things done. Well, it was tough.

Mr. Lawrence: Tell us about your experiences leading up to this role.

Mr. Bent: Sure. I�d been, for five years prior to doing this job, the senior career head of the international division at the Office of Management and Budget, and I�d worked at OMB for about 20 years. Before that I�d been a banker in New York and had worked at the U.S. Treasury Department in their international division.

Mr. Lawrence: And then tell us about, given your experiences, walk us through your decision to actually go to Iraq.

Mr. Bent: Well, it was a little spontaneous. I got a call from the Pentagon asking if I knew anybody who would be interested in working on budgets in Iraq, and I said I would. And they said, well, the search is over.

Mr. Lawrence: And when you got there, how would you compare and contrast your experiences sort of in Washington versus working there just in terms of, say, management skills and the kinds of things, you know, you would think about as an adviser?

Mr. Bent: There are a lot of similarities, especially given work at OMB, where usually there�s a lot of conflict: agencies want more money, the Congress wants more information, the President wants more flexibility. And some of those same conflicts play out -- or played out in Iraq as well, but there were just extra complexities in Iraq, there were extra challenges.

Take small things, like phones. Here, everybody�s got phones, faxes, E-mail. There, the phones, there were no land lines in Baghdad, so everybody had to use small cellular phones. The signals were erratic. In fact, I had -- used to have to stand on a chair at the Ministry of Finance to try and call back to CPA with the cell phone. Most people didn�t have phones, and so although the CPA provided cell phones to the Minister and his senior deputies, they weren�t always on, you couldn�t always find people. And so just basic communication was hard.

Plus, Iraq is a society that prizes that kind of personal relationship. Things that you might do here over the phone, there, they really required a face-to-face meeting. You had to sit down and you had to have tea, you had to talk about families, you had to talk about your personal relationship. It�s a very intimate kind of way of doing business.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, how about just continuing on the tactical? How about just languages?

Mr. Bent: Most of the Iraqis that we dealt with were quite fluent in English, to a greater or lesser degree. We did have interpreters and you�d use them in situations where it was important that you get the facts or the nuances exactly right. But by and large, we conducted business in English, and that was less of a problem than I thought it might be.

Mr. Lawrence: And then how about the speed of decision-making? As you were describing all the challenges in your different roles, I couldn�t help but think of sort of a desire to go fast and get things done. And when you talked about the relationships people needed, having tea, it seemed like go slow, so I�m sure it�s been a balancing act.

Mr. Bent: There was clearly a lot of cultural differences, if you will. Ambassador Bremer�s a very decisive guy. Anybody who�s been in a meeting with him, you know, he wants the facts, he wants your recommendation, he wants to know why you think this way. He�ll ask, frankly, a series of very probing questions and he makes a decision.

With the Iraqis, it�s a different cultural mode of handling things. There�s a great respect for I think elders. And so that means that when you have a conversation, you have to make sure that the oldest person in the room has a say. You have to make sure that there�s a traditional -- or terrific emphasis on coming to a consensus. It�s -- people might say what they think, but they always want to bring in other people. And so you found yourself frequently having to make sure that you talked with everybody and that you drew people out in a way, and did it in a respectful manner. It�s considered very rude to directly contradict somebody. It�s not that people don�t say no, but they would preface it by saying, well, with respect, I appreciate what you�re saying, but in fact, I must offer up an alternative suggestion as opposed to you�re an idiot. And that took a little while to get used to.

If you�re coming from a culture that kind of prizes decisiveness and get it done and do it now to a culture where you have to explain the context, people want to know what your motivation is, why are you doing this, what are the implications, what does it mean for them. And that just takes more time, but in some sense it�s worth it because once they�re persuaded, then they will do it.

Mr. Lawrence: How did all these things change your management approaches and styles while you were there?

Mr. Bent: The absolute importance of listening carefully. Before I went over, I asked a variety of people at the World Bank or AID or the State Department what it was like and what the issues were. And I think one of the best pieces of advice I got was to listen to what the Iraqis wanted, not just jump ahead and assume that they would want the same things that we would want. And so I spent, frankly, a lot of my time listening and then trying to summarize and then trying to present options that would reflect what they wanted.

Mr. Lawrence: Can you give me an example of where they would not want what we wanted?

Mr. Bent: In terms of basic personal security, the aftermath of the war was really a disaster, the looting, the crime. The Iraqis had this tremendous sense of personal vulnerability in which your kids could be kidnapped as they were walking to school; cars were taken. It�s impossible to project that sense of insecurity to, say, people here in Washington. You walk out your door, you get in your car, you drive off, you don�t worry about somebody taking shots at you, you don�t worry about your kids being grabbed while they�re being walked to school, you don�t worry about a ransom note, you don�t worry about roadside bombs or grenades or gunshots. And yet, that�s part of everyday life in Iraq. And so, you know, there�s that huge difference there, so security is one thing.

Basic infrastructure, electricity, communication, telephones, these are all things, employment, that are important to Iraqis. And yet, for the Americans I think when we were there, and I�ll just use this as an example, not to pass judgment, but security, sort of training the Iraqi police or training the Iraqi armed forces, and that clearly is part of dealing with that first problem I talked about, security. But it was such a long-term solution, it was something where, you know, by the time the police were trained and equipped, it was going to be months down the road. And yet, what the Iraqis wanted now was being able to walk out their door and not feel like they were going to be killed.

Mr. Lawrence: Interesting.

How has the economy of Iraq changed over the last two years? We�ll ask Rodney Bent to take us through the stages of the economy pre-Iraqi Freedom and what it�s like now when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I�m Paul Lawrence, and this morning�s conversation is with Rodney Bent. Rodney�s on the professional staff of the House Appropriations Committee.

And joining us in our conversation is Jonathan Breul.

Well, Rodney, in this segment, I�d like to talk about doing business in Iraq. Perhaps you could begin by telling us more about the political and social and economic contexts in the country. What were your observations about the people of Iraq in terms of their sense of history and the social cohesion?

Mr. Bent: I guess the starting point for Iraq is really the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. And out of that wreckage the British, particularly for the history buffs, Richard Bell created an Iraq that previously was probably several parts. I mean, one would be Kurdistan, the third would be the Arab Sunni middle, if you will, and then there would be the Shia south.

Iraq has, you know, a huge history. I mean, you go back to Mesopotamia and Babylon, so it�s got 5,000 years� worth of history, but really only for the last 80 or 90 years as the country of Iraq. And so there are a lot of disparate groups. I mean, you categorize yourself by religion, by tribe, by ethnicity, by family, by clan, by whether you�re educated or not educated, rural, urban. There are just lots and lots of different ways of classifying yourself.

I was struck in some ways by how -- rigid might be the wrong word, but maybe class-conscious Iraqis were. Everybody knew sort of where you fit, that there wasn�t the kind of -- there was sort of a long history to families. And so people would say, oh, he comes from a good family. And the upper tiers of the Iraqi society are really both very well educated and everybody knows everybody. So for example, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Planning had a wife who worked as the director general of the Ministry of Finance, and everybody tended to be friends, to have gone to school with the other people. And so there was kind of, on the one hand, a whole series of divisions and, on the other hand, a kind of a cohesiveness. And it made for some strange interrelations.

Mr. Breul: Rodney, can you give us a sense of the state of the economy in Iraq before Operation Iraqi Freedom, and then what it was like when you were there?

Mr. Bent: The Saddam economy was essentially a disaster. The state ran everything. It was in a state of decay and decrepitude. It relied essentially on the Oil for Food Program to feed people. It�s -- if you drive down or go through Baghdad, even the nicer sections have a kind of a shabbiness, and I was just, frankly, struck by how rundown and decrepit and used everything seemed. Cars were all 10, 15 years old, battered, missing headlights, bumpers ripped off. It was a huge contrast to go to another Arab country, say Jordan and Amman or Abu Dhabi, and see essentially a complete contrast, with new cars, new buildings, paved streets, functioning electricity, everything. I think that the -- you know, Saddam obviously and his coterie of folks didn�t suffer from any of this, but you really felt the plight of everyday Iraqis.

Mr. Lawrence: And was it changing after Saddam or how --

Mr. Bent: I think just huge changes that you could see. I mean, there were probably a million additional cars on the street by the time I left. In fact, when I arrived in late October, you could drive through downtown Baghdad without too much trouble. I mean, the streets are broad, but there wasn�t a lot of traffic. By the time I left, people were complaining about the traffic. It would take an hour to get somewhere; everything was gridlocked.

You could see on some of the shopping districts just stacks of warehouse goods: refrigerators, air conditioners, TVs, satellites. There was an explosion in satellite TV, and you just felt like this society had opened up in some way from going -- from the closed Saddam period where, you know, you couldn�t own -- nobody had satellite TVs to a period where it seemed like every family who could afford one was out buying one.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, what are the types of challenges people like yourself face when you�re working in Iraq on a day-to-day basis?

Mr. Bent: Huge. I mean, the -- one challenge is communications. I talked about the cell phones, but that meant it was very difficult to get ahold of people. And Iraq, essentially, it was frozen in time. There was a Rip Van Winkle quality to, you know, pre-1991 and post-1991. So that, for example, in the medical schools, the journals stop in 1990, 1991. There are no recent journals.

People were not used to a computer. In fact, when I went to the Board of Supreme Audit, which was kind of a combination GAO and auditing firm, we talked about their use of computers and auditing processes. And they said, well, yes, of course we use computers. Let�s show you the computer center. Well, you go. Well, there are no computers in the computer center. What they meant by computers was essentially doing spreadsheets and very basic work as opposed what we might think of in terms of auditing.

Danger was clearly the second thing. Every time you strapped on your flak jacket and put on a helmet and drove out of the Green Zone, you were always a little bit nervous about, well, what might happen. The day before I left, in fact, one of my staff came in and very apologetically said, well, he�s sorry, but he�d wrecked the car. And, you know, I felt a little bit like, okay, I�m the dad and the teenage son has come back. And well, it turned out he�d been shot at by somebody driving a pickup truck with an AK and he�d just riddled the car with bullets, and it was just a miracle that the staffer wasn�t injured or killed. And I mean, that -- you know, one of my translators was blown up in a bomb on January 18th. You know, it was -- that gives a different perspective on things.

Mr. Breul: Let�s talk about the project implementation stage of the resources that were allocated for the reconstruction of Iraq. Can you describe the types of projects that the Defense Department, the State Department, and the U.S. Agency of International Development are implementing?

Mr. Bent: Sure. Broadly speaking, the Defense Department was doing two areas. One area was clearly security: training the Iraqi armed forces; training the ancillary groups, Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, the border enforcement. They were also, through the Project Management Office, handling a lot of the reconstruction of Iraq itself. The Army Corps of Engineers was heavily involved, so power plants, dams, irrigation, railroad, roads. Defense was involved in all of these things.

The State Department was working on training police on some of the democracy programs. AID was doing some of the reconstruction along with Defense on electricity, but they were also doing health, education, some other governance issues, trying to help the Iraqis establish what we would call a civil society.

Mr. Lawrence: The reconstruction has relied on a lot of private contractors, and that�s not without controversy in terms of pluses and minuses. I�d be curious sort of your perspective and some lessons learned on the use of contractors in this environment.

Mr. Bent: It�s one issue is using contractors to do what we�d call inherently governmental services. And, you know, whether you talk about the tragedy at Abu Gharib or, you know, clearly there�s been -- you know, that�s just horrible abuses. But really, contractors bring you a lot of things that you wouldn�t otherwise get. I mean, there are not many people in the U.S. Government that have sat around building power plants or looking at dams or being civil engineers. You get some, but they don�t generally -- they oversee, they don�t generally do. And so private contractors were essential.

I think it�s a little bit different when you talk about policing or some of the other things where there�s clearly a gray area in terms of what gets defined, who does what.

Mr. Lawrence: There�s a sense of one perspective that an awful lot of money�s being spent on contractors and, gee, you know, people are taking advantage of the system. There�s also a sense that, gee, this is a very high -- this is a very risky place, as you�ve indicated.

Mr. Bent: Yeah.

Mr. Lawrence: It probably does cost more to get people motivated. As the budget guy, how did you work that equation?

Mr. Bent: Well, it was an increasing part of the equation as we were ending. As I was leaving, I was listening to I think it was Mr. Waxman talking about trucks in Iraq and saying, well, people didn�t have -- they would abandon an $85,000 truck because it had a flat tire. And I don�t know this to be the case, but I was speculating in my mind, well, anybody who�s driven on a highway in Iraq knows that you�re not going to pull over and change a flat. I mean, that�s a sure way of getting killed. And so, you know, on the one hand it points out the risks of working in Iraq and just the extraordinary extra cost for security that you have to pay. On the other hand, you can sort of say, well, heck, why are we doing that if it�s going to cost, you know, for lack of a spare tire, we�re going to lose an $85,000 truck? Should we be doing that?

Mr. Lawrence: And how about the personal benefits when you see people interviewed now in the media? I mean, they do cite sort of, you know, sort of a Peace Corps kind of I should be there, I should go and help these people.

Mr. Bent: You know, I think that -- I never knew anybody over there who was in it for the money. And maybe truck drivers for Halliburton or whatever, but by and large, the folks at CPA were a pretty high-minded lot. I mean, it -- everybody went over there with a sense of purpose, with a kind of desire to help in any way you could.

I think that it was kind of interesting and contrasting sort of my experience at OMB with being over there. In both cases, you have talented staff, you have people who are motivated, but there was much more out there in CPA. There was a kind of a camaraderie; we�re all in this together. You know, whatever people felt about the war, and there were a range of people who actively didn�t support the war to people who were fervent believers, but that was essentially irrelevant. The war was, as far as I was concerned, was over and done with. We had to do what we could to help the Iraqi society.

Mr. Lawrence: That�s a fascinating point about the different perspectives on the war.

What types of management flexibilities are needed to manage funds in an ever-changing environment? We�ll ask Rodney Bent to tell us what he saw during his time in Iraq when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I�m Paul Lawrence, and today�s conversation is with Rodney Bent. Rodney�s on the professional staff of the House Appropriations Committee.

And joining us in our conversation is Jonathan Breul.

Well, Rodney, let�s talk about managing the fund in the section. The supplemental was set up to fund 10 priority areas. Could you talk to us about some of the key areas, and what was the strategy in terms of what to focus on first and prioritize?

Mr. Bent: Sure. The supplemental had, as you say, about 10 areas. The 60 line items, as we would call them, were things like training police or building electricity or electricity transmission. When the President requested it, the focus was clearly on what I�d call hard infrastructure: dams, power projects, that kind of thing.

What changed a little bit while I was there is that, well, first, in the middle of November, there was the announcement that we were going to give the Iraqis back sovereignty on June 30th, which meant that people suddenly started focusing on democracy and elections and all the things that go with a democracy, things that we take for granted here like organized political parties, a responsible media, a way of getting the message out. There, you know, you have dozens of parties, you have every tribe, every politician in some sense sort of mobilizes, and the media is just almost a cacophony of print and radio and TV. So it was -- you know, we clearly needed to put more money into helping Iraqis pull together what they were going to probably do anyway, which is organize themselves into competing groups, if you will.

Mr. Breul: We�ve talked about how the fund was set up to be as flexible as possible given the ever-changing environment in Iraq. Can you give us some more examples of when priorities changed and just how that changed the projects that were being funded?

Mr. Bent: Sure. Well, distinguish a little bit. The request would have had the fund be as flexible as possible. I think that Congress when they reviewed it said, well, we�ll give you essentially what you want, but we want to make sure you�re going to spend the money as you say you�re going to spend the money. And so they put restrictions on how you could move it around. In other words, they wanted to make sure that if you said you were going to train a certain number of police that you really trained a certain number of police, that you didn�t move that to a different area.

I think that tradeoff between flexibility on the one hand and accountability and oversight on the other, it�s kind of a creative tension, if you will. It forces people to decide what�s important and to think about if they want to move funding, you know, what it is that they�re going to be doing. What are you going to get if you move the funding?

Mr. Breul: How did you provide for that accountability? I mean, there wasn�t a large tracking system in place.

Mr. Bent: Not compared to what we have back here, no. Well, we -- Congress required quarterly reports, the first of which I worked on when I was in Baghdad that came back. It was well over 100 pages. It went through each of the major sectors, each of the line items, if you will, and talked about vocational training, micro credit, education, water, electricity, you name it, and explained what we were going to do with the money and how we -- the periodicity, the quarters, by which we were going to do the spending.

I think in some ways it was a good system. It was a useful discipline for thinking about what we wanted to do. And because the report is quarterly, you can change it over time. You can say, heck, you know, this is now less important than we thought it was three or six months ago. We need to spend a little bit more on another sector.

Mr. Breul: Tell us some more about the challenges inherent in managing such a fund. For example, how do you go about just estimating the cost of funding a project?

Mr. Bent: Sure. That�s a good question. The starting point was always working with the Iraqi ministries on what they wanted. And so, for example, if you were working in the water resources area -- and that�s hugely important in Iraq in a way that, you know, here you might, oh, well, that�s sort of water, that�s good, but there it�s dams, it�s irrigation, it�s canals, it�s, you know, essential to the functioning of the Iraqi economy.

And so the senior adviser for water resources would work with the Iraqi Ministry of Water Resources. They�d come up with a series of dams, canals, irrigation projects, and they would put a price tag on it. That price tag or that series -- that project would go over to the Project Management Office within CPA and they�d look at it and they�d say, well, how good are the estimates? They tended to add funding for uncertainty. You know, was it -- had it been engineered out? They added money -- or they added a cushion, if you will, for security costs. And so a project that might start off costing, hypothetical, $100 would cost $125 or $140 that same project when it was looked at by the PMO, not because the project itself had changed, but because they wanted to build in ranges for uncertainty. And the cost would change again when the actual contractor or construction company looking at it got in there and could say, oh, well, you know, we don�t have a road, we can�t get this particular piece of equipment, we�ll need to do something different here.

So all the way through there was kind of almost a loop in which you�d start with the Iraqi ministries, go to the PMO, and then as they call it, task orders get written and the construction firms begin looking at things.

Mr. Lawrence: Give us a sense � earlier, you talked about just sort of the different things that are going on. As you were describing developing the price estimate for the Iraqis for the first part of that, I just began to think about data collection and how that�s done in an environment that�s so very different.

Mr. Bent: Yeah. Well, good point. We were always operating in a -- like being a ship�s captain where you don�t have radar and you�re not entirely sure where you are. For example, when I got to Iraq, the common estimates of unemployment or underemployment were sort of in the 50 to 60 percent range. When we left, the Ministry of Planning, which was responsible for pulling together the statistics, said, well, they kind of reckoned the unemployment rate was, you know, around 20 percent and the underemployment rate was about 28 -- 25 to 30 percent. So -- but how did they get those statistics? Where did they come from? How good were they? How were they, if you will, annualized? All of that was sort of a work in progress. So you were -- we were forever hoping that we�d kind of gotten the basics right without really knowing if we had.

Mr. Lawrence: And also, how do you manage? There�s multiple sources of money, so we have multiple projects and multiple sources of money. I can�t help but think about duplication and just accounting.

Mr. Bent: Sure.

Mr. Lawrence: How did all that work?

Mr. Bent: Well, I think the primary emphasis was on getting stuff done. And so if you were looking -- if you were working with the Minister of Electricity on power projects, you clearly had a finite set of projects that you were dealing with. And whether those projects were going to be financed by Iraqi resources, by the development fund for Iraq, or by the supplemental, you�d clearly talk about it and you could work out that part of it.

But the follow-on part, and this is where I think the advantage of having people who�ve worked on budgets was important, the real question was not could you build more power plants or fly in generators, if you will; it�s the fuel for those generators and the pipelines and whether you�re going to use treated crude or whether their refined product was available. Those are the kinds of follow-on questions that we were struggling with.

And because I think the Iraqi body politic had been so dominated by Saddam and by the Baathist Party for 35 years, it was a top-down process. And so people we just used to getting orders and essentially following them without really talking about the dynamic. And so, you know, it was a little bit Stalinistic. I mean, if the Minister of Electricity was told build power plants, he�d build them. That didn�t mean that the Minister of Oil, for example, knew that he, therefore, had to supply, you know, how many thousands of metric tons in order to fuel those power plants.

And that�s the kind of give-and-take that, you know, we were sort of working towards, bringing that together. That was part of the challenge of the Program Review Board and part of the challenge of my job, and certainly that of Ambassador Bremer.

Mr. Lawrence: Was it hard for these folks who had not operated on that sort of system of learning and collaboration to get to that point?

Mr. Bent: Well, yes and no. I mean, there�s clearly, because of the, you know, the back and forth in Iraqi society, you know, a real tendency to talk about everything. On the other hand, you know, I think they were so used to following orders, there was sort of that tension. One of the things I�m proudest of was a moment in the Program Review Board, which used to look at all of the spending proposals. And the Minister of Finance had always been a member of the board, but we succeeded in getting the Minister of Planning to come and the Board of Supreme Audit to look at it. And I began to have ministries that wanted to do projects, like the Ministry of Electricity come in and give their proposals essentially directly. And then the Minister of Finance or really his staff would challenge, well, what about this? Did you consider that? It was really great. I mean, you could sort of see essentially how people were arguing over actual spending. They had some control, some empowerment over what they were doing in a way that, you know, would have been inconceivable five years before.

Mr. Breul: Rodney, who comprised the members of the Program Review Board and how did it sort through all the competing demands?

Mr. Bent: There were probably 10 or 11 different groups represented on the Program Review Board: Australians; the United Kingdom�s Department for International Development; members of the CJTF-7, which was the multinational force, if you will; various members of CPA; and then obviously the Minister of Finance, and then, as I say, we succeeded in getting other Iraqis to participate in the meetings of the board.

It would meet once a week, typically Saturday mornings, but there�d be staff meetings. There was a lot of interaction back and forth. We�d put the minutes up on the web so that if you had access to the Internet, you could at least see what was there. We arranged for translators to be there to make sure that we were really having, you know, full and open consultations.

Mr. Lawrence: That�s a fascinating point.

When the funds were provided to Iraq, quarterly reports were prepared, as Rodney described. He�s been one of the people who�s been there when the first reports were prepared, and now he receives them on the Hill. We�ll ask him what it�s like to review this reporting requirement from both sides when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I�m Paul Lawrence, and this morning�s conversation is with Rodney Bent. Rodney is on the professional staff on the House Appropriations Committee.

And joining us in our conversation is Jonathan Breul.

Mr. Breul: Rodney, what role did Congress play and does play in the distribution of the funds and the reconstruction efforts?

Mr. Bent: Huge role obviously in terms of the initial appropriation, but then also the subsequent oversight, both getting the reports from CPA, and presumably in the future, it�ll be the State Department on what�s being done, asking questions, looking at the components of the spending, making sure it all adds up.

Mr. Lawrence: You talked about the reports earlier and that you were there pulling together the first one, and now you receive it. Can you reflect on the process of pulling the report together and interpreting it from the different points of view?

Mr. Bent: Sure. When I got out to Baghdad, I thought that I�d get out and find, you know, well-established routines, people who had clearly put together the first report and done I thought a very good job and could explain what was behind all of the assumptions. When I got out there, a lot of those people had already moved on in some sense. And so we were starting from not ground zero, but we were, in a lot of cases, reinventing what had been done. Who was going to carry something out? Why did we make these assumptions about the number of power plants or the number of police who were going to be trained or the number of staff? And you have to adjust that.

There was clearly, I think, as an example, a desire to spend more on security because that was more important. And so the Iraqi armed forces, which were initially conceived of as I think an agent against external aggression, sort of in the change I think became less relevant than, say, standing up the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps, which was part of the internal group that was helping the multinational force deal with the insurgencies.

Mr. Lawrence: When we think about reporting, of course, you get lots of money, you need reporting. And some would argue reporting is sort of this bureaucratic thing and it slows things down and causes more layers. What was your perspective?

Mr. Bent: Well, it -- I think it�s a useful discipline. It forces people to ask the questions that need to be asked. What�s the structure? Who�s going to carry it out? What are the reasonable expectations? What�s not? It�s what people do with the reports where I think that, you know, you can ask questions about, okay, do they have a role in asking tough questions. If you get to a level of questioning that really does slow things down, gee, you can�t answer who�s going to carry out this project in this governance, and so, therefore, you ought not to do it. Then you�re clearly impeding progress. But to ask questions about, well, who�s going to carry it out and what do you hope to achieve, that�s entirely legitimate.

Mr. Breul: Given the fact that Iraq has recently emerged as a sovereign nation, what are some of the challenges that you foresee for this new country?

Mr. Bent: Oh, huge challenges. One is going to be security, clearly. Second will be corruption, which under Saddam flourished at all levels. And Iraq, I think, previously was, and these are relative, a secular, humanistic culture in which honesty was prized. And yet, over the last 35 years or so, it�s moved to a period in which all sorts of rake-offs and kickbacks and corruption and influence-peddling is all part of the norm of doing business. I think, at least I hope, that more transparency, more accountability, more -- it�s not honesty, because that gives a value-laden term that I don�t think is appropriate here, but more transparent way of doing business, I guess, so that people can see that they�re getting full value for their dinars.

Mr. Lawrence: I�d be curious how you reflect on your time in terms of the expectations that have been placed on this whole process.

Mr. Bent: I think you can -- looking back on it now, the expectations of a year and a half ago were clearly way too high in terms of building a liberal democracy and a free market economy that was going to, you know, maybe not be on a par with Switzerland, but certainly up there. And I think those were absolutely unmeetable expectations. And so much more realistic would be to say can you get a functioning economy? Can you start a banking system? Can you get a government that makes essential decisions on behalf of its citizens? I think that�s possible.

I think the violence and, you know, the coming together that I hope will happen would prevent what would be a disaster, which would be a civil war and warring groups and everybody thinking that they�re entitled to take what they can take by force of arms.

Mr. Lawrence: In another aspect of your very unique experience has been working with people of different cultures, but also the military, the State Department. I wonder how you sort of reflect on all that.

Mr. Bent: Sure. I -- out there, I have just the utmost respect for the military. It�s -- setting aside Abu Gharib and whatever you think of that, I -- you know, coming back from meetings at the Ministry of Finance, and you�d see kids standing at checkpoints absolutely exposed and not knowing whether there was a sniper or whether they were going to be killed doing their job. But there was really a degree of professionalism that was -- I just found incredibly impressive. People were thrown into doing things that they had no training for. Civil affairs officers were working with the Ministry of Social Affairs on things like vocational training programs, and they kind of plunged into it. It was sort of a think outside the box, be innovative, what works, and, you know, they were sort of, you know, we�re in this. You know, we got to do something. What can we do? You know, what works? Well, if that doesn�t work, okay, let�s try something else. There was a real entrepreneurial kind of get-it-done feeling out there.

Mr. Breul: What about members of your budget team? How did they perform and how was their work environment?

Mr. Bent: Well, it -- we would leave the Green Zone probably six days a week, Friday being the holy day, and so people got out there. When I got out there, I think staff were young and talented and hard-working, but they didn�t really have a lot of experience in budget matters. And so, you know, part of it was throwing them into it and helping them as best you could. But it, I think, gets a little bit to, well, what kinds of skills were required and what kinds of folks should be out there.

The British and the Australians sent mid-level employees who worked for five or ten years on things like financial markets or budgets. And, you know, what is a little missing in the discussion back here is the contribution of the other countries to the civil reconstruction, if you will. And I will say that my Australian and British colleagues were absolutely invaluable, and they were huge important parts of whatever successes we did have.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, with that as a perspective, I�d be curious what advice, based on your career as well as your recent experience, what advice would you give to someone interested in a career in public service?

Mr. Bent: The challenges of public service are that you�re going to find a kind of a commitment and a desire to get things done that -- well, I�m not putting this very well, but I think what -- you�re going to find challenges that you�re just not going to find in the private sector. You�re going to be given awesome levels of responsibility that are going to be well beyond anything you might do as a 25- or a 30-year-old in a company. It�s on the one hand daunting and, on the other hand, it forces you to grow.

I think that if I were looking back on sort of, you know, my own career, I think that a lot of what you learn in the public sector, sort of analyzing choices, trying to bring a neutral, turn the coin and look at both sides perspective to issues, that�s important. You can�t go in and be a moralist and try to judge people�s motives. You�ve got to deal with the world as you find it. And I think that that and the camaraderie and the sense of purpose were what I most enjoyed about CPA.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, I know Jonathan and I could ask you many more questions, but I�m afraid we�re out of time. Rodney, we want to thank you for being with us this morning.

Mr. Bent: Thank you.

Mr. Lawrence: This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Rodney Bent. Rodney�s a professional staffer on the House Appropriations Committee, but for the past six months, he�s been the director of the CPA�s Office of Management and Budget a senior adviser for the Iraqi Ministry of Finance.

Be sure and visit us on the web at businessofgovernment.org. There, you can learn more about our programs and get a transcript of today�s very fascinating conversation. Once again, that�s businessofgovernment.or

This is Paul Lawrence. Thank you for listening.

Rodney Bent interview
08/28/2004
"One of the best pieces of advice I received was to listen to what the Iraqis wanted, not just jump ahead and assume that they wanted the same things that we wanted."

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