Mr. Tillerson, please provide real answers

Mr. Tillerson, please provide real answers
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The State Department's purported logic for its continued staff and budget cuts makes no sense. Congress needs to press for real answers when Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonUS steps up its game in Africa, a continent open for business Matt Drudge shares mock ‘Survivor’ cover suggesting more White House officials will leave this summer 'Daily Show' trolls Trump over Pruitt's resignation MORE testifies next week.

The secretary of State is the nation’s top diplomat. He also is CEO of a cabinet agency with webs of programmatic responsibilities and a global workforce of 75,000 people. State is one of the smallest departments, with just above 1 percent of the total federal budget and 1 percent of federal civilian employees.  

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By way of example, the increase for Defense is larger than State’s total budget. When Rex Tillerson came on board, many inside and outside the department hoped his private-sector and CEO experience would jump-start sensible structural reforms. Their hopes were mislaid.

 

Rather than determining strategic goals, Tillerson first focused on process efficiencies. He initially accepted Office of Management and Budget’s 31 percent budget cut, made the president’s short-term hiring freeze indefinite, and embarked on a workforce reduction exercise that sapped effectiveness and morale. Now, OMB has proposed a 26 percent cut from fiscal year 2017-enacted levels to State’s core diplomatic and consular affairs (i.e., operational) funds, essentially rejecting strong congressional views on the importance of diplomacy.  

Budget and personnel facts can be boring, but need to be understood to push past the excuses offered for what is happening.

State’s personnel spurt after 9/11 was part of a general staff increase in national security agencies — CIA, Defense, FBI, DEA, DHS and others, all of which expanded their overseas presence. For all of these, State provides the administrative and logistics backbone through our embassies. State also needed to make up for deficits and gaps that the Government Accountability Office had identified as reducing its policy and management effectiveness even as demands in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere grew exponentially.  

Moreover, State’s growth was highly uneven; much faster in the support tail than in core diplomacy (political, economic and public diplomacy work) where funding has actually declined by 31 percent since 2008. Today, there are more security agents than political officers, for example.

On Nov., 28, 2017, Tillerson claimed, “The State Department budget is unsustainable.” The president’s proposed FY19 budget carries this forward but fails the test of logic when applied to only 1 percent of the federal budget. State's total budget has been flat for several years when adjusted for inflation. This may be too much or too little to realize our national goals. That is worthy of debate. But unsustainable it is not.

Tillerson settled on an 8 percent personnel cut by the end of fiscal year 2018. No explanation for the cuts has been given. It needs to be demanded. No relationship between the personnel reductions and the budget cut has ever been explained, perhaps because there is none. Applying a 26 percent budget cut would impose additional constraints on, not generate flexibility for, achieving America’s national security interests. And it would be a gift to the Russians and Chinese who are expanding diplomatic activity to fill our void.

What is the reformed workforce supposed to look like, beyond citing gross numbers? The biggest growth in the Foreign Service has been in support staff — primarily security and information technology personnel. Yet the pressure for departures has fallen heavily on senior personnel performing core diplomatic functions where the top four ranks have been cut by 152 officers since 2017.

The department refutes criticism by noting that the total employee numbers are not much changed. But they do so by including low-level visa examiners who, by regulation, cannot join the regular Foreign Service. This is like saying that the Army has fired generals and replaced the numbers with privates, so the Army is still the same.Worse, State has either hidden or has no idea about an optimal distribution of its workforce and has offered no justification for how less than its current officer strength of only 7,940 will handle America’s most urgent diplomatic responsibilities. Generalities about needing less staff after unnamed problems are solved shouldn’t be accepted.

Some answers are supposed to come from the “employee-led” “redesign” — now rebranded as The Impact Initiative — to make the department “more efficient, effective and accountable.” A well-designed and executed program can indeed make improvements. But, to date the workforce reductions, hiring freeze, displacement of employees to lower-level clerical tasks, the precipitous loss of senior officers, and budget uncertainty have combined to degrade State’s capacity and delayed initiatives already under way.   

Thus far, State has relied on management jargon talking points. It must be pressed to show in detail how its “Initiative” will strengthen its effectiveness. Congress should look for a budget that supports:

  • diplomatic forward presence that advances strategic goals;
  • intake of Foreign Service and Civil Service personnel at levels no less than attrition;
  • structural reforms that yield state-of-the-art performance management systems for the Foreign and Civil Service;
  • new information technology architecture, and highly secure information/data systems;
  • and streamlined, high productivity talent acquisition, education and training.  

Each requires infusion of new capital, not cuts — and tapping into, not sidelining, State’s experienced professionals.  

Diplomacy, for all the false imagery of genteel conversations and fancy receptions, requires relentless energy, quick thinking, tough-minded judgment, goal-oriented initiative and determined hard work to convince others to work for, and with, America in common cause. Tillerson must answer to how the budget and “Impact Initiative” will meet these needs.    

Ronald Neumann is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and former ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan.

Alexander Karagiannis is a former Foreign Service officer who was senior advisor to the director general of the State Department.