For more effective diplomacy, fix the bureaucracy
© Getty Images

The Clinton campaign is preparing a short list of Secretaries of State, and Vice President Biden reportedly tops the list. As Biden reportedly advised Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineOvernight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants Kaine asks Shanahan if military families would be hurt by moving .6B for border wall Clinton on GOP promoting Trump 'stronger together' quote: Now copy my policies too MORE, “Understand the bureaucracy is gigantic. As well as you think you know it, take control of it, grab it by the throat.” I can think of no better advice for the next Secretary of State to bear in mind.

Whoever they are, the next Secretary of State will face a host of strategic crises and work with the President to set the vision for America’s foreign policy. But he or she must also not forget that strengthening our foreign policy will involve looking inward too.


There’s a little thing in the U.S. government called clearance, and it affects everything. Clearance means getting all of the other relevant offices within the agency to sign off on something. It ensures close coordination, so the agency speaks with one voice. But at State, it’s been out of hand for some time.

A paper that can be drafted in an hour might take most of the day, or even several days or longer, to clear. It’s often not getting better or significantly revised. It’s simply moving through the bureaucracy. And that isn’t how thoughtful policy gets made.

A key way to address this would be to streamline layers of oversight and duplicative offices. I began working at the Department in 2008 under Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It was already a crowded field then, but became more so under Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSanders expected to announce exploratory committee next week Bernie Sanders records announcement video ahead of possible 2020 bid Overnight Defense: Trump declares border emergency | .6B in military construction funds to be used for wall | Trump believes Obama would have started war with North Korea | Pentagon delivers aid for Venezuelan migrants MORE and the appointment of many new special envoys and advisors.

Under current Secretary John KerryJohn Forbes KerryWarren taps longtime aide as 2020 campaign manager In Virginia, due process should count more than blind team support Trump will give State of Union to sea of opponents MORE’s leadership, the high number of envoys has persisted. The State Department currently lists 18 Special Envoys, 15 Special Representatives, six Ambassadors at Large, 15 Coordinators, seven Special Advisors, and other positions, all on top of the existing regional and functional bureaus that should in theory cover all of these issues.

It’s a coordination nightmare. And yet the incoming Secretary will face enormous pressure to keep the bureaucracy as it is. After all, who doesn’t care about Global Partnerships? Global Engagement? Which should be first to go?

Special envoys and representatives raise the profile of important issues, which might not get enough attention on their own. But they should be used sparingly.

The proliferation of so many Special Envoys and Coordinators at the expense of the State Department’s traditional bureaucracy can help a Secretary achieve certain priorities in the short term, but the agency suffers in the long run as traditional bureaus and employees are sidelined.

Furthermore, lines of authority became blurred. Who bears responsibility for religious issues in the Middle East, for example? The country desk? The Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom? The Special Representative to Muslim Communities? The Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs? Yes, all of these actually exist. They are incredibly important areas, but more offices aren’t always better.

To be very clear, the solution isn’t to decrease the number of employees at State or to shrink its budget. The Department is already operating on a shoestring, with employees working as long and as hard as any place I’ve ever seen.

But if an office isn’t doing its job, the Secretary should fix it, hire more people, give them the resources they need, and listen – not create a duplicative office. State Department employees are already becoming sidelined by the growing National Security Council and need to be empowered to do their jobs.

Past Secretaries of State and the current Secretary should be commended for their tremendous work on policy issues. In fact, it’s a credit to the enormous talent, skill, and leadership at the Department that so much has been achieved. And yet the Department could be working much more effectively and saving time by solving its internal dysfunction.  

Congress can play a role too. In fact, legislation passed by the Senate last year would require the State Department to report on the number of special envoys, representatives, and others. And it’s not a partisan issue. Effective government is a goal shared by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Streamlining the State Department’s bureaucracy would help employees focus on the real issues and get more done. If we are going to be effective in addressing crises around the world, we have to get our own house in order first.

Lauren Kosa worked as a Foreign Affairs Officer at the U.S. Department of State from 2008 to January 2016. She is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.