State Department Reform: How to Avoid a Train Wreck

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:

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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).

Diana Ohlbaum

Diana Ohlbaum is senior strategist and legislative director for foreign policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, and chairs the board of the Center for International Policy. She previously served for nearly 20 years as a senior professional staff member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr. Ohlbaum holds a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University and a B.A. in Russian studies from Amherst College. Follow her on Twitter: @dohlbaum



  1. Because of Trump’s way of pushing people away Tillerson will not give anybody any reason to have anything to do with the State Department. Heil Trump.

  2. Anne-Marie Slaughter, Clinton’s policy chief at State, saw the rise of global networks as the most significant international shift of the 21st century, and she urged the United States to position itself close to the center of the political, military, economic and other networks that most affect its interests. That makes sense, unfortunately the country seems to be going in a different direction especially with general officers making political decisions, which they are not qualified to do.

  3. Foreign Service Reform

    The views of senior foreign service officers, while thoughtful, may be mistaken. They represent and reflect the views of the profession whose role and importance has been affected by circumstances, and technology, not just now but for a long while. Diplomatically speaking, the career may be being “overtaken by events” – the classic excuse for foreign policy failure.

    A couple of quick points. Outstanding foreign service professionals, like Kissinger, Clifford, MarshalI and Acheson’ were not products of the career foreign service. They had more telling backgrounds and education, as well as savvy, that came from the trenches of political combat, not necessarily postings in embassies or the Department. Another point. The marginalization of the foreign service may not be because of political appointees being placed in positions of authority within the service. It has probably more to do with favors for campaign financial and political support. The framing of foreign policy occurs elsewhere, not in embassies. Its execution does as well.

    The role of embassies, and even the layers of foreign service officers overseas, is exaggerated.. A Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) once opined that the embassy was largely a PR operation and it’s success could be gauged on the degree it, and Americans in general, established and maintained friendly relations with the nationals. He was more right than wrong. Beyond PR, the functions of the embassy and it’s staff are largely the care and feeding of U.S. nationals and commerce in-country, the administration of a visa program, and the gathering of intelligence. The latter function is largely diluted by in-country CIA staff, as well as military.

    Take PR. Most of good relations is beyond the control of embassies. U.S. corporations have more PR cache than those bright bodies moving about in the beehive of sovereignty overseas. While personal friendships with the nationals are useful, this value is not dependent on living in-country. A public relations operation staffed by a cadre of nationals can do well, if not better, than itinerant foreign service officers on two to four year tours struggling to speak the language in the hope that they can become culturally attuned. Corporations are moving in that direction more and more. The need for “good feelings’ administered by a foreign service can actually be handled, when necessary, through periodic visits of staff from Washington, especially when coupled with material benefits – loans, trade agreements, technical assistance, or an invitation to a visit with the president.

    OK, an occasional big event locally to waive the flag, or hand out awards to nationals is useful. I like scholarships. The costs of one the foreign service staff could cover the costs of ten tuition grants….with, potentially, a lifelong advocate of American interests.

    It doesn’t take much to extend this model to the care and feeding of Americans having difficulties with local authorities and institutions. A good native lawyer, well connected to the power structure of a foreign country, would probably – no, would – be a major improvement over the machinations of an American consul. That also applies to the administration of the visa section. Nationals already do most of the work there anyway under American supervision. The implied distrust structurally evident in this existing management model with American overseers, can be having a negative impact on competent nationals. Better an efficient and customer-oriented visa service than the policing of requests by management governed by questionably effective procedures dictated by obtuse laws and regulations established in Washington.

    Then there is intelligence gathering. One wonders how reporters like Tom Friedman, who parachute in for a week or two, leave with all the interstices of a country’s status laid out in a 500 word op-ed piece. Of course, he might go to the embassy for a briefing…….come on!!! No, he goes to a bar or office, or home of someone of influence that he has met wherever…in college, at a conference, through a friend. Bingo! The “insight” is born.

    OK, there is some “intelligence” that can “only” come from U.S.agents in deep cover, or working the soil 24/7. I take the point. Guess what? That guy, or gal, isn’t likely a foreign service officer. Probably the better “agents” are nationals. What they probably need is anonymity, a “drop” mechanism, and a secure Swiss bank account.

    So, what do we do with the embassy, that massive defensive fortress layered by physical security barriers and cordons of Marines? Back out and sell it? That probably makes sense. As we withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan, we might even consider allowing their English-speaking skilled and educated workforce to migrate here. Our land and economy can use them. We can then call them “Americans” soon enough, and use their cultural and linguistic skills, much needed in the corporate world, as well as in a reduced foreign service.

    Jaime L. Manzano

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