01/09/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Washington Network Watch: Learning from Bill

It isn't clear yet exactly how much Bill Clinton will have to curtail his involvement in the Clinton Global Initiative as a result of Hillary's nomination to be Secretary of State. It's certainly no surprise that Bill would agree to whatever was necessary to further Hillary's trajectory. But there is a certain fighting-the-last-war irony to the timing of the tradeoff. It's a bit like someone agreeing to step down as the CEO of Amazon so his wife can become CEO of Sears.

The State Department, of course, with its 30,000 employees and dozens of bureaus and offices, is the epitome of a traditional, hierarchical organization. Staffed by career Foreign Service officials, its senior leaders are subject to a lengthy and often charged confirmation process and its movements are constrained by innumerable political, economic, and military factors. It is not, historically, a model of entrepreneurial innovation and out-of-the-box thinking, regardless of who is secretary. It isn't designed to be, given the layers of meaning and analysis that are attached to its every move. Consider the heated hairsplitting that went on during the campaign about the level at which various candidates would send delegations to establish talks with Iran.

The Clinton Global Initiative, on the other hand, is not bound by any such constraints. Only three years old, it is highly adaptable and organic, relying on catalyzing truly diverse networks rather than working through traditional hierarchies. Essentially it establishes a marketplace that matches problems, problem solvers, and funding sources. The vibrancy of this market is due to the range of people involved: an ever-shifting network of government and NGO officials, social entrepreneurs, scientists, business leaders, and high-wattage global citizens. Because each group represents significantly different ideas, resources, and contacts, the resulting network is far more likely to generate innovation than any one group meeting alone.

In this marketplace network, authority depends not on your seniority or your position in a hierarchy but on the extent to which you can make your case, marshal support, and show results. There's also likely to be less infighting and more help all around: Both scientists and NGO officials, of course, have more than their share of internal politics, but that matters less when they are talking across boundaries to other groups rather than just among themselves. Indeed, this type of marketplace addresses one of the characteristic weaknesses of the not-for-profit world--the massive inefficiencies caused by lack of coordination.

CGI is one of several entities on the global stage, like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, that constitute a new type of transnational force for setting agendas and allocating substantial resources. Of course, CGI, the Gates Foundation, and similar organizations have certain intrinsic advantages, like being able to decide which challenges they'll tackle and which to leave to someone else. The State Department and the postwar multinationals like the United Nations don't have that luxury; like public schools, they have to take the problem kids no one else wants. At the same time, it's pretty clear where the action is. Since 2005, with no more authority than its founder's charisma, CGI has generated more than $30 billion in philanthropic investment. And when the United Nations General Assembly held a review of its Millennium Development Goals this past September, it was Bill Gates who was asked to give one of the keynote assessments.

Rather than put constraints on Bill, Barack Obama should be picking his brain, trying to figure out how to steal as much as he can from the former president's approach. Obama's State Department needs to have a core of career diplomats, yes, but it should also draw heavily from the new generation of bottom-line entrepreneurial leaders who are blazing innovative trails in global health, economic development, sustainability, and other portfolios that increasingly determine global security. With a wide spectrum of problem solvers from outside of government around the table, the State Department can draw upon a wider network of knowledge, contacts, and influence as it addresses the challenges before it. It should look, in other words, more like a twenty-first century organization than something appropriate for the Congress of Vienna.