130. Action Memorandum From the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (Sisco) and the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Lord) to Secretary of State Kissinger1

Towards a More Systematic Policy Planning Process

We have thought over our March 22 discussion with you2 and conclude that the evolution of a more systematic policy planning process within the Department rests largely on two fundamental principles—the need to “anticipate the emerging form of things to come”, and then to address them systematically in a comprehensive study framework.

The necessary preoccupation of the bureaus with daily decision-making absorbs their attention and often produces a spiral of short-term solutions to immediate issues raised by you or other principals. We think, however, the process is reversible. In this paper we will suggest a course of action in one area—that of policy studies—where a better organized system could serve to flag potential problems and assure that they are systematically addressed, not relying on you to identify them to us. The process could be christened with a not unfamiliar name—“conceptualization”—which we would define as the for [Page 453] mulation of a broader framework within which major issues are defined and policy recommendations put forward.

Since March 22 we have

  • —conferred with the Assistant Secretaries, INR, and other key Seventh Floor and Sixth Floor personnel,
  • —analyzed how the Department’s system can better produce the type of conceptual product you and others need and
  • —identified major additional issues on which we should now initiate study projects.

To carry out these projects, we propose a more systematic use of existing staffs within the Department, drawing on the experience of the NSC system. To avoid bureaucratic congestion, however, we would keep our procedures more informal.

In any event we recognize that fostering a more “conceptual approach” to policy here and in our embassies abroad is a fundamental intellectual challenge which only in part touches the type of papers which are written.

II. [sic] The Process

There are several types of policy studies which reach you.

  • —operational memoranda on immediate matters;
  • —papers directed at single countries or at relatively discrete problems;
  • —papers on impending events such as international conferences which require strategic plans of action; and
  • —broad studies of a whole region or of a functional issue (e.g., energy or food) which impacts on several regions and merits an effort to develop principles for general application.

At each of these levels there is clearly room for improving the quality of analysis. This paper, however, focuses on the broader types of issues (i.e., the latter three of the four categories) which we take to be your major concern.

An Alert System. To ensure that current priorities are reflected in the study agenda, S/P and INR will initiate a regular review process to include a look ahead by our respective staffs and a joint assessment of priorities. We will survey the future landscape for important political and economic landmarks, assess whether or not we have the right studies underway to address their policy implications, and add or defer studies as warranted.

To aid this process, every two or three months you could devote an Analytical Staff Meeting to reviewing with Principals, Assistant Secretaries and others as appropriate an alert list of events or trends for the next six months. This list would be compiled by S/P and INR after discussions with bureaus. It would be a carefully vetted compilation of the [Page 454] most important items, together with a brief description of events and what we are doing or intend to do about them. Designated Assistant Secretaries would be asked to speak to particular items at those meetings in order to elicit your comments and guidance.

These periodic meetings would provide a good forum for keeping you and the principals abreast of future developments and for assuring such developments do not catch us off guard. We can also brief you on major studies in progress and obtain your reaction to our planned future study agenda.

Preparation of the Studies. Once a topic for the “study agenda” is selected, S/P will convene a planning meeting, to include representatives from all interested bureaus and S/S. This ad hoc group will agree on an appropriate chairman, time frame, working group membership, and draft preliminary terms of reference which can then be promulgated by S/S in a formal study memorandum.

We want to draw more in the future on all possible Department and outside assets for policy studies. Key embassies will normally be asked for their contributions at the outset. The planning group should also decide early whether an outside contractor, consultants, or an “experts symposium” should be scheduled to contribute in a timely way to the final product. To make better use of these resources, we will need to schedule studies well enough in advance to provide them sufficient lead time.

The Review Process and The Analytical Staff Meetings. Although many policy papers are sent forward through the system, these staff sessions are the primary tool we have used to date to engage you and others in the direct review of some important studies. We still think this format makes sense although some of the papers and much of the discussion could stand substantial improvement. These sessions need not lead to short-term decision-making. They should, however, produce broad policy guidance reflecting your general orientation. In some cases a written record of that guidance should be drafted by S/S, in consultation with S/P and the bureau concerned, to help orient our Ambassadors and officers at lower levels, both here and abroad, to authoritative policy thinking.

Selectivity. Neither the Department’s resources nor your time permit the indiscriminate launching of dozens of studies. This would produce low quality products which you and others could never satisfactorily review in any event. We will, therefore, seek periodic guidance on your personal priorities among possible study areas.

S/P has worked out with S/S a better system for screening ad hoc study requests. We must spend more time on framing and elaborating your questions precisely, and assessing their priority in light of other [Page 455] studies already underway, if we are to obtain better responses within the building.

We also need from you a clearer notion of what types of study issues should be handled within State and which should be introduced into the NSC system.

Bureau Planning Capacity. With the heavy operational load carried by each of the major bureaus, it may be inevitable that the Assistant Secretaries’ time for reflection and creative thought will be limited. To improve their products, each Assistant Secretary could use a small one- or two-man planning unit attached directly to him which could also be a key point of contact with S/P. These officers must be of the highest calibre, closely attuned to their Assistant Secretaries’ views and concerns. While planning units exist in most bureaus, they are rarely of this nature. These officers must take the sort of global policy point of view for which you look to the Assistant Secretary. They can help make it possible for him to assure a higher standard of performance on papers of a policy nature intended for the Seventh Floor.

Your Personal Involvement. There are several other procedural aspects which should be mentioned. Given the tremendous demands on your schedule, there is the question of how much time you can spend in meetings on conceptual studies even though they contain major issues on which decisions are required during the next several months. One staff meeting a week of an analytical character would seem about right—but the basic pace should be determined by the readiness and quality of the products. In such meetings, it continues to be desirable to include the country director or working level officers most directly involved—both for the expertise they can bring and for their exposure to conceptual discussion.

In any event, however, your primary links to the Department remain at the Assistant Secretary level, as you yourself have observed. You and they must be on the same wavelength. They in turn bear the responsibility to lead their bureaus intellectually. In order for this process to work effectively, however, key officers will need to have as full information as possible. We believe this can be done while still protecting sensitive material.

There is the additional need for freer flow of information from meetings with foreign officials. This provides the essential grist of guidance for our ambassadors in the field. Many ambassadors now believe that they are inadequately informed in this regard. There is, therefore, a greater likelihood that they may not be taking precisely the tack desired. Nor are they in as good a position to contribute conceptually in relating their own activities to the overall purposes of our foreign policy. Here too, as within the Department, the Assistant Secretaries [Page 456] should bear the primary responsibility for relaying information and guidance to the field on a more systematic basis.

[Omitted here is a description of new studies undertaken by the Policy Planning Staff. Topics covered are: Food, Fertilizer, and Population; the Middle East; South and Southwest Asia; Foreign Aid; U.S. African Policy; the Third World; Brazil; Human Rights; Détente; Europe and the Atlantic Alliance; the Eastern Mediterranean; and Economic Relations with Communist Countries.]


That you agree to meet with your principal advisers as soon as your schedule permits to discuss points covered in this memorandum.3

  1. Source: National Archives, RG 59, Records of the Policy Planning Staff, Director’s Files (Winston Lord) 1969–77, Chronological Files, Entry 5027, Box 345, April 1974. Secret. Printed from a copy that Sisco did not initial. Drafted by S/P Deputy Director Samuel W. Lewis and Lord.
  2. No record of this meeting has been found.
  3. There is no indication of approval or disapproval of the recommendation.