by Diana Ohlbaum
If nothing else, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson seems determined to retool the mechanics of the State Department, a process he calls “redesign. There’s a full head of steam behind reform efforts, with more than 60 reports offering recommendations for strengthening diplomacy and development. But far more attention has been paid to reform’s destination than to the landmines strewn across its path.
Tillerson has shared little with the public about the proposals he submitted to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) earlier this month, and OMB has shared even less about its plans “to reorganize the Executive Branch and eliminate unnecessary programs within government agencies.” The administration can avoid crashing into a wall of resistance, delay, and obstruction by heeding a few simple warnings:
- Focus on policy and process, not structure. Many a congressional oversight committee, think tank, and blue-ribbon panel has tried to streamline an organizational chart. But in the real world, moving boxes around is both an overly simplistic solution and a surprisingly difficult task.
First, it ignores that new offices, agencies, and positions were created because the old ones lacked the will or capacity to carry out key tasks effectively. Unless the responsible parties have adequate resources, appropriate tools, and a supportive culture to take over these functions, the earlier problems will recur. That’s why, nearly two decades after the U.S. Information Agency was absorbed into the State Department, observers are calling for its restoration as an independent body.
Second, formal reporting lines on a diagram don’t always correspond to real authorities in practice. Legislation can assign responsibility for coordinating policies, approving actions, or setting budgets to a specific office-holder, but it can’t force higher-status officials to comply. Although the secretary of state by law is responsible for “the continuous supervision and general direction” of military assistance and military education and training programs, the Defense Department provides more than half of all security assistance—over $10 billion per year—and is not subject to meaningful supervision or direction by the State Department.
Third, reorganizations tend to produce heavy political and institutional backlash, severe losses in productivity, and sometimes lengthy lawsuits that hamper reform efforts. Not knowing whether you will continue to have a job, what your responsibilities will be, who you will report to, or how much you will be paid is extremely disruptive and damaging to employee morale. It took more than a decade for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to recover from the staff cuts of the mid-1990s, even though the agency ultimately won its battle to remain independent—on paper, at least.
For all these reasons, changing job titles and reporting lines is a poor substitute for changing the policies that fail to serve U.S. interests, and for changing the rules and procedures that impede effective policy implementation.
- Don’t substitute individual capacity for organizational capacity. Nearly everyone agrees that investing in human capital is essential for improving organizational performance. Most of the recent recommendations for reforming the State Department include expanding training programs and professional development opportunities for civil service and Foreign Service personnel. Yet more and better training won’t solve the State Department’s problems unless staff are able to access and apply it.
Educational, exchange, and training programs are of little use, or even counterproductive, if there is no one to cover essential functions while employees are in training, or if employees are prevented by security or workload constraints from putting their training into practice. The State Department desperately needs to plan for a significant level of “float”—employees who are between job assignments and thus can participate in medium- and long-term training, serve on fellowships and details, deploy rapidly to emergency situations, or remain at post long enough to overlap with their replacements to ensure a smooth transition.
President Trump’s proposed budget cuts and Secretary Tillerson’s hiring and promotion freezes only exacerbate existing staff shortages. Closing embassies and consulates may save some money over the long run—assuming they don’t need to be reopened in the interim—but the duties they performed won’t go away. The work will simply be transferred to other embassies and consulates, which are facing growing personnel and space limitations of their own.
- Streamlining isn’t a panacea. Several of Tillerson’s “workstreams” on reform flow from the principle that sharing platforms and services—such as information technology, management systems, and overseas housing, transportation, communications, and procurement arrangements—will save money. No doubt there are economies of scale to be realized. However, any consolidation must recognize the differing needs and clout of users. For instance, U.S. embassies generally hire local staff as drivers, gardeners, security guards, and manual laborers, while the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) hires local Ph.D.’s and other professionals as economists, health and agricultural specialists, and program managers. It makes no sense to try to squeeze these different categories of workers into the same rigid pay scales and caps.
Likewise, having a unified motor pool in foreign posts means, in practice, that the needs of the embassy staff will be placed ahead of the needs of the USAID mission—with fewer opportunities for USAID staff to conduct site visits and meetings with local partners. The computer systems of the State Department and USAID need to be interoperable, but they are designed for different purposes (policy formulation and reporting vs. program and financial management), and it is highly unlikely that a merged system could successfully fill both needs.
- Transparency and consultation are essential. As the State Department team has discovered, secrecy breeds suspicion, distrust, and worst-case-scenario thinking. The time they have spent dispelling rumors and quashing fears about merger could have been more productively spent by sharing more information about their process and their thinking. But informing Congress and the public about decisions already made and recommendations already submitted is too little, too late. Meaningful consultation doesn’t end with listening sessions about what’s not working. It must continue with preliminary ideas about possible solutions to which stakeholders can react and respond—and a process for incorporating the improvements that surface. Although the State Department and USAID can make certain reforms on their own without congressional approval, Congress has plenty of ways to gum up the works.
There’s nothing wrong with deciding where you want to go before figuring out how to get there. But the best path may not be the shortest, simplest, or cheapest one.
Photo: Rex Tillerson (State Department via Flickr).