State Department Reorganization: Little to Show, Much to Worry About
by Ronald E. Neumann
The State Department reorganization process has led to dysfunction, loss of critical experience, and reduced capability for the department. Something better is promised but actions to date leave little room for optimism.
Like any large, long existing organization the State Department has added bits and pieces over time so that reform is justified. In the 2015 study American Diplomacy at Risk, the non-partisan American Academy of Diplomacy, which I head, called for a complete review of the department’s personnel regulations as well as a large scale reduction in the number of special envoys. We also suggested reductions in some leadership positions and the consolidation of some bureaus. In short, we are neither against reorganization nor trimming. However, the effort to date lacks visible logic for many actions and is causing a long term weakening of America’s diplomatic capability.
Current efforts are proceeding along two different tracks. One is personnel reduction with an announced goal of cutting staff by 8%. The other is to be a broad reorganization but ten months into the efforts only vague general intentions have been spelled out and many observers doubt that there is yet a plan.
The staff reduction appears to be connected to the White House dictated goal of a 30% State Department budget cut, but no specific logic has been described and the number appears disconnected from the unfinished reform effort. Since the lowered budget has been twice rejected by the Congress, funding for current staff is available. To date the process is destructive. Steps to encourage attrition have included refusing new assignments for senior officers who are due to transfer, assignment of senior offices to trivial tasks including document declassification (a sudden priority after the Department got rid of its retired employees who were doing the work as contractors) and abrupt removals from senior positions. I know of at least three acting assistant secretaries who received calls on a Wednesday or a Thursday telling them to be out by Friday even though no replacement was ready to go or had even been named. It is a management style characterized by pointless rudeness and a singular lack of feeling for those they lead. The result is a hemorrhage of experience.
Sadly, we have seen this picture before. In 2008 the Department of State was suffering large scale personnel shortages abroad and at home as a result of post-Cold War cuts made by administrations of both parties. As the Academy showed in its 2008 study, A Foreign Affairs Budget for the Future, positions all over the world were empty. Now we are replicating that situation except that the cuts are concentrated at the top; the level from which voluntary retirement is easiest. As a result, officers at the level of Career Minister (the equivalent of a three-star general) have been reduced from 33 to 19 and Minister-Counselors (the two-star equivalent) from 431 in 2016 to 369 in 2017. Promotions have been slowed. Positions are left empty as officers depart. Without any plan for how work is to be reorganized the result is more work for fewer people.
Perhaps the long-promised reorganization plan will somehow repair today’s problems. That is the goal of the second track announced by Secretary Rex Tillerson. It was announced as a bottom up process driven by the employees. It began with a survey of employee opinion that was fed into a number of subject specific working groups. The survey showed a work force frustrated by outmoded technology and some bureaucratic obstacles but proud of its service to the nation. Some parts of the survey suggested that the consultants hired to run it had only a vague idea of what the Department does and some of the consultants’ recommendations, such as moving the consular function out of the State Department, had no basis in the opinions of employees. A reorganization plan sent to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) at the end of September has not been publicly released. From the briefings given to Congress it appears to have been aspirational rather than specific. The one step of significance to date was cutting about half of the special envoys, a step we had recommended.
In the end, the reorganization is intended to produce a more effective and efficient Department. But to what end? More efficient at doing what? At what price, since some current work will go undone (unless the new efficiency is supposed to allow all the old work to be done by a reduced staff)? How State's purpose is defined is complex. Unlike a business with a clear bottom line in dollars made or lost, diplomacy is less clear and more multifaceted. The State Department is the essential place where all the foreign policy interests come together. Should an arms sale pay more attention to domestic repression or anti-terrorist assistance in a given country: CIA, Defense, Treasury and others will have different views. Trade issues will involve multiple views from different cabinet departments. State’s job is to see the whole picture.
For example, is a recently eliminated sanctions office in State duplicative because the Treasury Department handles the implementation of sanctions? Or is State's view vital because the imposition of sanctions can involve conflicts with other policy goals that Treasury isn’t concerned with? One senior official told me that State’s voice has become particularly muted at interagency sanctions meetings recently. This is the cost of one of hundreds of such decisions impacting complex, cross-cutting issues.
Perhaps these questions will be correctly answered. Perhaps the new technologies desired by numerous previous secretaries will be acquired (and paid for despite budget cuts) and the work load sized to the work force.
But nearly a quarter of the way through the administration's term there are no answers. The world does not stand still and many in the State Department complain of an inability to get timely guidance, of procedures that have become more cumbersome than before and of an opaque and uncommunicative senior leadership. The work of diplomacy is still worthwhile. The desire to serve the nation is still strong in Foreign Service and Civil Service employees alike. Maybe it will all work out somehow. But to date there is little to show from the reform and much to worry about.
Image "Secretary Tillerson Delivers Welcome Remarks to State Department Employees on his First Day" Courtesy U.S. Department of State/United States government work
About the author
Ronald E. Neumann was US ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan. He is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy but his views are his own.