Can You Hear Me Now? Obama’s Global Development Council Listening, Not Yet Talking

July 01, 2013

Will President Obama's Global Development Council ever meet? It was created in Obama’s 2010 US global development policy directive to offer high-level, independent advice to the president on development policy, including through active engagement across and outside the US government. I was excited to see the council’s first official meeting back on the calendar for July 9th. But I'm hearing even this rescheduled meeting will be rescheduled. The three year wait for the first meeting risks losing an opportunity to elevate development alongside defense and diplomacy at the highest levels of US policymaking. The administration and the council should move fast to get a new date on the calendar—and stick to it.  

Here's a quick recap of the Global Development Council's timeline so far:

  • September 22, 2010: Presidential policy directive promises to create a US Global Development Council
  • February 9, 2012: Executive order establishes the council and calls for nominees
  • December 21, 2012: Nine of twelve council members nominated
  • March 26, 2013: Council holds Washington, DC listening meeting
  • May 17, 2013: First official meeting scheduled, but cancelled
  • June 6, 2013: Council holds Berkeley, CA listening meeting
  • July 9, 2013: Rescheduled first official meeting....but cancelled again? (See update below. Meeting canceled) 

Process is hard, but the delay in getting the council up and running exposes three risks in execution:

1. Missing the people. It took two years to nominate nine of twelve possible council members. One nominee, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, was later nominated to head OMB, so the council has eight members today, all of whom are advisers in their individual capacity, but on top of important day jobs.  For this reason, the bigger issue is staff support inside the administration and for the individual members.

2. Missing the moment. Obama is in Africa. What better time to have the input and advice of a high-level, presidential advisory group on global development policy? But as far as I can tell, the council wasn't up and running in time to inform the trip, or possible deliverables, nor are any of the members on the trip itself. The council could have debated and come up with its own list of policy ideas—like those my colleague Charles Kenny raises on everything from trade and investment to migration policy—before the president’s trip. There will be other opportunities during this presidential term, including Obama’s promise of a 2014 summit in the United States with African heads of state, but the administration and council will need to move quickly to avoid missing any more key moments.

3. Missing the point.  The council is supposed to be a tool to elevate global development, ensure coherence in US development policy across the US government, and engage the public. To do this, the council has to be high-profile not just based on its members, but in visibility across and outside the government. The White House should encourage US government agencies—including State, Defense, Commerce and others—to engage the council, and the council should reach out early and often to people inside and outside the government.

Here are three ideas that might help:

1. An executive secretariat, not just an executive director. The executive order puts USAID in charge of funding, administrative support and appointing an executive director for the council. To live up to the full vision of the council, the executive director should be a full-time, senior staff member in charge of a small but efficient secretariat to support the council. The secretariat would manage communications, policy outreach and public engagement including through a public website with council meeting details and tools to share ideas, solicit feedback and interact with the development policy community, Capitol Hill and beyond. While I initially applauded USAID as the administrative home for the council, independent staff dedicated solely to the council could help raise its profile, work outside one agency’s structure, and be especially creative about public engagement. The President’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness seems to be a good model.

2. Plus ones for everyone. The plus one model is common in the US government in which an agency principal appoints a plus one to support him or her during White House and interagency meetings and do a lot of the work. The plus ones are often technical staff and gather information independently and among the other council staff or plus ones to inform and drive the work flow. The executive order outlines this model for the governmental members of the council but the non-governmental members should be encouraged to set up the same formal system. The MCC board of directors is a great example of using governmental and nongovernmental plus ones, all of whom have security clearances.

3. Fill 'er up. The current council members are ready to go and shouldn’t delay, but four slots remain open. Why not fill them up with members who would bring additional expertise and political affiliation? The White House could opt for members with expertise on trade, migration, climate, security, congressional affairs, government management or public engagement. And a few more Republicans or Independents could increase the council's credibility as an independent body that will call a spade a spade when necessary and help make the case, as I believe originally intended, that the council exist beyond this presidential term.

I'm trying to keep hope alive that the Obama administration will use the council—and the excitement around it—to promote smarter US global development policy, but hope is waning. 

**Update 7/8/13: Just got my official notice. The July 9th Global Development Council meeting has been cancelled.


CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.