Unfrozen: How the State Department Has Reversed Its ‘Draconian’ Cuts in Just Two Years
Biden promised to revive a "hollowed out" federal workforce, and at one agency, he has.
Two weeks into President Biden’s presidency, he took a trip to the State Department’s headquarters in Washington’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood and told the employees there he needed them. Badly.
“The main message I want to communicate to you all is whether you're part of the newest class of foreign service officers or you’ve been here for decades in the civil service or foreign service, or you’re locally employed staff, you’re vital and the strength of our nation depends in no small part on you,” Biden said. “You are the center of all that I intend to do. You are the heart of it.”
Vice President Kamala Harris joined Biden on his cross-town field trip and acknowledged State had endured a “difficult” four years under President Trump. Under his administration, Biden added, the department’s workforce would be “entrusted and empowered to do your job.”
“I believe in you,” Biden said. “We need you, badly.”
The civil service at State had suffered the second largest losses of any department under Trump, with more than 10% of employees heading for the exits without replacements. Under Secretary Rex Tillerson, State implemented a hiring freeze that extended well beyond the one Trump issued across the rest of government. Tillerson’s successor, Mike Pompeo, lifted the freeze, but the department never recovered. The workforce processing refugees was “decimated,” a Biden administration official said. Employees working on climate issues felt so neglected they left in droves. Passport services were overwhelmed, leading to an unprecedented backlog.
“The impact on the civil service was draconian,” said Ronald Neumann, a long-time State executive and former ambassador who currently serves as president of the American Academy of Diplomacy.
From a numbers perspective, at least, Biden has delivered on his promise. State has grown its civil service by 10% since the president’s inauguration, according to data provided by the department, restoring the workforce to its pre-Trump level. The department has “maximized the use of available hiring flexibilities,” a spokesperson said, including by converting those brought on in early-career programs to full-time positions, utilizing direct hiring and tapping into special authorities for Peace Corps volunteers and others. It has ramped up its use of cross-government certificates to quickly hire “a high volume” of employees at high-priority positions, such as foreign affairs officers and data scientists.
Still, with current Secretary Anthony Blinken looking to create new bureaus and launch new initiatives, the department has been forced to tread carefully.
“Like any organization facing reduced staffing, the State Department had to carefully allocate its resources based on priority,” the spokesperson said. “The department did so by prioritizing the most pressing foreign policy and security issues.”
The shortages were widespread and the Biden administration was forced to spring into action to address critical issues. It launched a staffing surge initiative at the Bureau of Consular Affairs, for example, to address the passport backlog as Americans began traveling again amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It has also focused efforts on key administration priorities, such as global health, climate change, cybersecurity and competition with China. Blinken has launched the Bureau of Cyberspace and Digital Policy, as well as the Data Diplomacy Initiative, which required a further infusion of personnel.
“Modernization is about ensuring that we’re organized, staffed, and equipped to take on the challenges of the 21st century,” the spokesperson said. “This requires recruiting and retaining a diverse workforce and creating an inclusive environment where everyone can thrive and deliver on the mission.”
For Julie Nutter, the director of professional policy issues at the American Foreign Service Association, that commitment marks the beginning of State moving in the right direction.
“We have been asking for more positions and funding for a number of years,” Nutter said. The growth under Biden within the civil service “reflects not just the need for more people but the type of topics State has been focusing on.”
Unlike Foreign Service positions, civil servants are hired for specific roles. That has enabled State to focus on refilling its climate expertise and growing its cyber capacity. Hiring for the more generalized Foreign Service, however, has lagged and remains a priority for AFSA.
The Foreign Service rolls have remained almost exactly unchanged since Biden came into office at around 13,500 employees. The State spokesperson noted that while hiring has grown, so too have retirements spiked. The department has received funding for more positions and expects to finally grow its diplomatic corps in 2023.
Neumann and Nutter agreed State remains chronically understaffed within the Foreign Service and have for years called for a “float” within its ranks—a cadre of employees not actively deployed who can focus on training and filling in as needed, similar to how the military operates. State is a “fully deployed organization,” Neumann said.
“When you had Ebola, when you had COVID and you had thousands of Americans trying to get home, they had to cut other work that still goes on to find people,” the former ambassador said.
Blinken has vowed to grow the Foreign Service, but the employees State has hired elsewhere are making an impact. With the staff that State has already added, it has launched the Office of China Coordination, stood up a paid internship program and spearheaded new diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility initiatives.
State is “leveraging its human resources to further its mission of leading America’s foreign policy to advance the interests and security of the American people,” the spokesperson said.
The department is working to define the skills and expertise it will need in the future to better target its recruiting and workforce development efforts.
“We need to ensure that the department is organized and resourced, and that our workforce is equipped with the skills and abilities to develop and execute U.S. foreign policy,” the spokesperson said.
Advocates for the department’s mission and workforce will continue to push for more, especially as emerging crises ranging from Ukraine to Turkey continue to put additional strains on its employees.
“We think they’re going in the right direction,” Neumann said. “We’re not satisfied.”