Ten months after taking office and seven months after beginning a “redesign” of the department that critics say has hollowed it out, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is making a push to be more transparent and open and boost sagging morale — starting with the first of what will be many town halls on where the agency stands.
The push described by a senior State Department official comes as questions about his future continue to haunt Tillerson, after a White House plot to oust him was leaked to the press two weeks ago.
But Tillerson doubled down on his plans to revamp the nation’s foreign service agency and pushed back on continued reports that it was being dismantled.
In particular, after a months-long process that included 35,000 State Department and USAID employees taking an online survey, 300 in-person interviews, and employee-led teams narrowing those ideas down with the help of two outside consulting firms that cost millions of dollars, Tillerson’s big reveal today was six changes to IT systems and personnel policy.
Some of the ideas generated applause by the audience in attendance in Washington, including an end to the hiring freeze for employees’ spouses at posts around the world. But the freeze was implemented by Tillerson himself, and a broader one remains in place for department employees. It’s been the cause of much frustration for missions and diplomats, although the State Department counters that Tillerson has signed 2,400 exemptions and only denied a dozen or two.
Tillerson also got applause for announcing a streamlining of the security clearance process, which “was frustrating for me,” he said to laughs; and for changes to personnel policy that allow employees on medical or maternity leave to telework, instead of burning leave time.
But after months of planning that was seen as secretive by Capitol Hill and cuts to staffing through attrition, resignations and retirements, and buy-outs, critics called it a small pot to show for his efforts.
“These are drops in a bucket compared to the magnitude of issues facing this Department,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “These problems have been needlessly inflicted by this Administration… It will take a lot of hard work to help State and USAID recover from the damage the freeze and rudderless ‘redesign’ have done.”
Tillerson did forecast some bigger future changes coming down the line, including upgrading and integrating the IT and HR systems, streamlining the process for policy to be created and raised to his attention, and eliminating duplicative systems and processes.
He said there will be no embassy or consulate closures, but that there will be a reevaluation of how many people were needed at different posts — specifically citing London, Paris, and Rome as missions that could likely be cut down.
These new projects are two or three years in the future, he said –- implying that he was sticking around to see them through.
In the face of those reports that he was being ousted, the nation’s top diplomat was at his most passionate talking about organizational performance, saying finding ways to increase it has been “one of the things I’ve gotten the greatest satisfaction from” in his career –- and that he did not necessarily enjoy the diplomacy itself.
“The actual task at hand of dealing with North Korea? I don’t enjoy that,” he told the room of employees and those watching at posts around the world. “But I enjoy working with Susan Thornton on it,” using the acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs as one example of a colleague he’s gotten to know and enjoys working with.
“Unleashing” the talent of the department’s personnel seemed to be his top priority.
“It is all about our greatest asset, you the people –- how do we develop the talent that resides inside of you, the capability inside of you, and then do we enable you to put it to work on behalf of the American people,” he added. “That’s what the redesign is about, nothing more, nothing less.”
A senior State Department official said that Tillerson acknowledges, understands, and respects how people feel, but blamed the low morale on a messaging problem: “We have to do a better job to communicate to internal and external audiences the accomplishments and achievements, his vision for the US’s position in the world, and he is committed to doing that.”
To that end, Tillerson’s senior aide R.C. Hammond, who worked with him through the transition and became his de facto spokesman, is out. Tuesday was his last day at the department after a tsunami of bad headlines for his boss over his first 11 months in office.
Steve Goldstein, the new Under Secretary of State, was confirmed this fall and started last week, and sources say Goldstein wanted Hammond out of the way after he could not combat the narrative that had set in about Tillerson and the department.
Tillerson himself will play a bigger role now in that combat, including his own charm offensive.
He praised the work of Foreign Service officers and civil servants, especially those who have been filling roles in acting capacities and against attacks from conservatives who see them as “holdovers” from the Obama administration. At a speech later in the day, Tillerson acknowledged that there are “lots of open positions. I’ve got nominees for them, I’d love to get them in place. It makes a big difference.” But he thanked those who had stepped up in the interim — and tried to offer a bit of humor over the delays, often the result of in-fighting with the White House.
“Some people seem to want to observe that there’s nothing happening at the State Department because I’m walking through this hollowed out building and listening to the echoes of the heels of my shoes as I walk down the halls,” he said to laughs at that speech before the Atlantic Council in Washington.
In addition to the speech, the public push will include an editorial planned for some time in the next week.
But some of what Tillerson said in the town hall didn’t seem to help the new push. He recounted how he did not know any State Department employees or diplomats in his previous career, shrugging his shoulders with a laugh and saying, “Sorry.”
When asked whether he enjoyed his job or not, he laughed for a bit before saying, “I am learning to enjoy it. Look, it’s – this is a hard job.”
But Tillerson also tried to open up and show a different side of himself, including his admiration for the culture of the American West, where “your word is your bond,” he said. He added that that’s a philosophy he’s carried with him throughout his “global diplomacy in the private sector,” in oil deals with foreign heads of state.
Critics point out Trump has backed away from deals America previously pledged its support to, like the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, and the Trans Pacific Partnership.