State Department Still Has a Lot of Vacancies: Pompeo's Mixed Success

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the Indo-Pacific Business Forum at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on July 30. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the Indo-Pacific Business Forum at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on July 30. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “is building a great culture at the State Department and bringing on people who are truly exemplary.” So declared Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., at a July 25 hearing otherwise fraught with tensions over issues like President Trump’s tweets and his secretive meeting in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Pompeo, having inherited a department riddled with purposefully unfilled vacancies from predecessor Rex Tillerson, set to work interviewing job candidates his first weekend in May, according to State spokeswoman Heather Nauert. But as he told senators during his April confirmation hearing, “I’ll do my part to end the vacancies, but I’ll need your help.”

Three months later, the numbers present a mixed picture.

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A State Department official said by email to Government Executive

Addressing and filling vital senior leadership positions at the State Department is one of the secretary’s highest and most immediate priorities. As of July 19, there are 163 presidential appointees currently holding senior leadership positions (including overseas ambassadors, assistant secretaries, and ambassadors at large) with an additional 40 nominees pending in the Senate. Since the secretary lifted the hiring freeze for Foreign Service and Civil Service department personnel on May 15, 2018, we have authorized a total of 1,340 (Civil Service and Foreign Service) hires that, once fully on-boarded, would bring us to 454 employees above the December 31, 2017, staffing levels that was specified in the 2018 Appropriations Act and accompanying Statement of Managers.

In addition, the department is using “all flexibility and latitude possible to ensure that all critical priorities are met within the fiscal 2018 funding levels provided by the Congress.”

Pompeo faces special obstacles, however, given the Trump administration’s insistence on greater than usual White House say in agency hiring. “Look at the civil service posts since the hiring freeze,” retired Ambassador Ronald Neumann, president of the Academy of Diplomacy, told Government Executive. “There are huge numbers of vacancies in lots of places since the freeze, but budget authority doesn’t permit him to just go hire everyone back.”

What Neumann called a “structural distortion” means that individual bureaus and in-house organizations can get only so much of the budget pie. “They must figure out what the priorities are,” he added.

The other problem that “is not in Pompeo’s hands is that this administration appears quite negative toward any career professional in the federal government and Foreign Service,” Neumann said. “Right now, almost no active Foreign Service officer has been appointed to any senior policy position in Washington.” Exceptions Neumann mentioned include David Hale, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan whom Trump in July nominated to run State’s political affairs, and Tibor Nagy Jr., who in July took over as assistant secretary of State for African affairs.

 “Not all nominees have to be career people,” Neumann added. “But people who’ve never had to make foreign policy overseas with foreigners—even if they know their subject—face a steep learning curve.” Most administrations, he said, have had a combination of career and non-career appointees that provides a “mix of perspective.”

An example of a slot that is traditionally career, he said, is the assistant secretary for consular affairs, in charge of passports. (The job is currently held by Trump-appointed Carl Risch, a Foreign Service officer with an immigration enforcement background.)

A look at the deputy and undersecretary levels on the department’s website shows the current holes. Vacancies include the deputy secretary of management and resources (where Deputy Secretary John Sullivan is doubling).

Of the six undersecretary slots, only the undersecretary for arms control and international security (Andrea Thompson) is permanent. The undersecretary for management slot is empty (President Trump in June nominated Texan and Army officer Brian Bulatao). William Todd continues as an acting official in the director of the Foreign Service slot (traditionally a career Foreign Service officer), and Heather Nauert retains the acting title as public diplomacy and public affairs undersecretary.

The undersecretary for political affairs position has been occupied by acting officer Stephen Mull, the last remaining career ambassador in the active Foreign Service, who left this week.

Of the list of 100 major management jobs, there are 40 vacancies, many for apparent policy reasons. Among them are the slots for undersecretary for economic growth, energy and the environment as well as for assistant secretary for oceans and international, environment and scientific affairs.

There is only an acting assistant secretary for South Asian Affairs (Susan Thornton), and, even with the major initiative underway to denuclearize North Korea, there is no special representative on North Korean affairs, or a special envoy on human rights in that closed country. Also vacant are slots for U.S. representatives to international bodies such as the Organization for Islamic Cooperation.

According to data adapted for Government Executive by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service (which tracks governmentwide top vacancies with The Washington Post), out of 68 top State Department positions (excluding the chiefs of mission), 20 (or 29.4 percent) have no nominee. Two more have been announced but await formal nomination. (They are Lloyd Claycomb and Carlos Trujillo, both announced last August to be deputies to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.) And 15 await confirmation votes (five of whom have cleared committee and are headed for a floor vote). 

Among 188 available ambassadorial appointments (tenures for which can overlap administrations), 39 are vacant, according to the tracker kept by the American Foreign Service Association. Trump had named 100 as of July 31, with 32 nominations pending.

Pompeo is also facing criticism that some of the Trump nominees under Tillerson were ill-qualified and laxly vetted. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee and an antagonist to Pompeo, wrote him a letter in early June complaining of vacancies in key jobs.

“Over the course of the 115th Congress, the nominations process has been unnecessarily lengthened for some nominees because of poor vetting on the part of the administration,” Menendez wrote. “Nominees have failed to adequately fill out their questionnaires including, for example, accurately listing the groups, boards, and corporate entities of which they have been a part as well as their financial contributions to political campaigns.  Other nominees have failed to disclose their involvement in multiple lawsuits or administrative proceedings, offered misleading answers to questions about knowledge of contacts with Russian officials, or made insulting and inaccurate claims about the country to which they have been nominated to serve as ambassador. “

Pompeo did show progress with the June nomination of Ellen McCarthy, a veteran of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and now vice president at the technology firm Noblis, to be assistant secretary of State for intelligence and research. And on July 31, the White House announced the nomination of career Foreign Service officer and ambassador Carol Perez to lead the Foreign Service as director general. 

Another positive, said Neumann, is Pompeo’s plan to “increase the number of hires of entry-level Foreign Service officers, a critical area. You have to keep the flow coming, like the military does, in bringing in people at the bottom or you won’t have enough who can become senior officers later,” he added. But Pompeo “can’t do anything overnight to fix the loss of senior experience” from all the recent “bleeding.”

Morale at State took a measurable dive last year under Tillerson, noted Mallory Bulman, vice president of research and evaluation at the Partnership. It was one of the few agencies to go down (almost three points) from 2016 to 2017 in the nonprofit’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” study, as indicated in questions about whether senior leaders are effective. “Pompeo has a ship to turn around,” she told Government Executive. “The employees said they really distrusted senior leaders.”

CORRECTION: The original version of the story had the wrong first name for David Hale, the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan whom Trump in July nominated to run State’s political affairs

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