The Trump tweet heard round the world announcing the firing of the secretary of State vindicated reports leaked to the press last fall saying Rex Tillerson’s days were numbered. It also likely postponed further progress on his much-discussed but controversial plan to reorganize the State Department in ways that many employees—at least privately—resented.
The reorganization plan was criticized as vague and formulaic, and was bedeviled by a shifting cast of characters leading the charge.
“Tillerson was pretty much a cipher at State, relying on his small coterie of minders, rather than listening to the advice and expertise of senior State Department old hands,” retired State official Ray Arnaudo told Government Executive on Tuesday. “Most of the senior slots, those of undersecretary and assistant secretary, not to mention most ambassador posts overseas, remain unfilled, reflecting either Tillerson’s inability to attract, and get confirmed, good talent, or the unwillingness of many to accept posts.”
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As a successful businessman, Arnaudo added, Tillerson was “used to having his orders implemented, and never figured out how to get things done in Washington. And his hopes to streamline and reorganize the department did not get too much beyond the planning stage.”
Veteran diplomat and retired Amb. Thomas Pickering, co-author of a recent Atlantic Council study on reorganizing the State Department, told Government Executive the department’s pursuit of budget cuts, a hiring freeze and reorganization are unlikely to turn around given the tendency of Trump’s nominee as a successor, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, “to agree with President Trump on key things. One would expect those particular efforts to go ahead and [possibly become] even more egregious.”
Pickering said that he “didn’t find a plan” in what Tillerson called the “redesign.” The effort thus far has been “just a series of isolated steps dealing with minor questions within the department, none of which faced up to many of the longstanding and particularly challenging issues,” Pickering said.
Amb. Ronald Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, said Tillerson’s slow pace in filling positions had set the department back, citing an overloaded South Asia bureau with 24 percent of its civil service slots empty and a lack of posts for spouses that have become essential to recruiting for the modern diplomatic service.
“The reorganization plan is really two separate plans,” Neumann said. “One is the budget cuts and personnel reductions—which come straight out of the White House and was decided practically before Tillerson walked in the door.”
The other is the reorganization plan that in February’s Trump administration budget release was renamed the “Impact Initiative.” Neumann called it a “clunky, cumbersome process with a lot of employee input, none of which merits a year of pain.” But it also contained what his organization views as “good things” like the information technology modernization plan, the elimination of the secretary’s second deputy and the folding of special envoys into specialized bureaus.
But neither of these elements affecting an agency where “morale is lousy” may be under the control of Tillerson’s successor, Neumann added. Pompeo “has a good reputation, and what people have heard is that he has listened to the professionals” at his current agency. Because Pompeo is unlikely to comment before he is confirmed, “whether his listening will be the reality, no one can say.”
Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the ranking member on the Foreign Relations Committee who has criticized the plan, told Government Executive on Tuesday that “Tillerson was a good soldier to the Trump administration, and he took the numbers they gave him and tried to make it work. He used the reorganization to get to the numbers [the Office of Management and Budget] had given him, but it wasn’t going well,” Cardin added, mentioning a “mass exodus” of career staff.
Yet if Pompeo is confirmed, “it could get even worse,” the senator said, because OMB will keep the numbers at the same level. “I had confidence in Tillerson in preserving the department’s mission, but he couldn’t do it at the resource level.”
Tillerson’s slow-motion rollout of what he called the “redesign” plan hit some bumps. Last November, Maliz Beams, his hand-picked guru with private-sector experience in changing organizations, departed after just three months on the job. Efforts by outside stakeholders to obtain internal planning documents were rebuffed by the secretive secretary.
Tillerson deputy John Sullivan’s efforts last September to convince Congress that the reorganization was “bottom up” were met with skepticism about its rationale. In February’s budget release, State released more generalities and placed Daniel Smith, assistant secretary of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research, in charge.
“The Impact Initiative is the implementation of plans generated during the 2017 Redesign for modernizing work processes and tools and strengthening leadership in the department,” Tillerson said in a staff email. “The modernization projects will reduce impediments to more efficient operations, as identified during the redesign process; and the leadership component will focus on ensuring we build the skills, experience, and leadership qualities that we need in our Civil Service, Foreign Service and locally employed staff.”
Some in the diplomatic community have already declared the reorganization plan dead. “2017 redesign ends with a whimper as Tillerson announces start of the ‘Impact Initiative,’ ” wrote the blogger Diplopundit, who mocked the effort to remind employees that the initiative was “employee led.”
Tillerson said during a press briefing Tuesday afternoon that he was turning the reins over to Sullivan, but would remain on the job until March 31.
The outgoing secretary praised his colleagues in the Foreign Service and civil service, noting, "We all took the same oath of office and remain steadfast here Washington and across the world" in supplying the talent that is acquired not in think tanks or lectures but on the "front lines."
As for Pompeo’s prospective agenda, he took pride at CIA in boosting morale by devolving more authority out to the field offices. Whether that would be replicated at State is not yet known, as Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a Tuesday statement. “I sincerely hope he’s not being set up to fail, as so many others have been by this White House…. We need to learn whether he plans to continue the steep cuts to diplomacy and development that have hampered American leadership on the world stage.”
This story has been updated with comments from Tillerson's Tuesday afternoon press briefing, and from Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md.