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6 ways to know if State Department reform is real or fake

Keren Carrion

We’ll know within a month whether the Trump administration’s “reform” of the State Department is real or fake.

A real reform plan would mobilize the department to confront the dangers of the 21st century. It would remedy organizational weaknesses and inefficiencies. It would clarify State’s role in formulating foreign policy and define its relationship with other U.S. government agencies. It would provide a sense of purpose to State’s dedicated but downtrodden employees. 

But that might not happen. State has endured waves of ineffectual “reform” efforts in the past. Because organizational overhaul is time-consuming, tedious and conflict-ridden, most recent secretaries have neglected it. 

Furthermore, President Trump seems inclined against a robust foreign policy role for the State Department (or even defending our overseas diplomatic presence). So far, the White House seems intent on reducing the State Department’s functions and authorities in a manner that suggests a “going out of business” sale. 

Here are six ways to know whether Secretary Tillerson’s reform proposals are real or fake:

Will reform devolve authority? 

In recent administrations, the State Department’s structure has been more hourglass than pyramid. Senior officials and their staffer remoras have been over-abundant and have consumed a disproportionate amount of the department’s workload. Real reform would cut senior positions and reduce the number of staff officers who don’t originate work product.

Decision-making authority should be devolved down to those with the greatest expertise and bandwidth (in the bureaus, for example). But responsibility should accompany authority, and there should be accountability for mistakes and misjudgments.

Will reform change state’s frame of reference? 

Too many otherwise smart people believe diplomacy is something separate from other elements of national power, e.g., that the Department of Defense does national defense, the Treasury Department does international finance and sanctions, the Commerce Department helps U.S. business abroad, the Department of Justice does international law and State carries messages back and forth to other governments like an Amazon delivery drone.

Diplomacy without foreign policy content is irrelevant, and there’s no such thing as short-term strategy. Real reform would reassert State’s role as lead strategist and coordinator of U.S. foreign policy, including the current actions of other cabinet agencies and America’s role in the world over the next several decades. 

Will reform streamline but also mainstream?

There is widespread agreement that the weedy proliferation of special envoys (not just those with that specific title, but also other powerful single-issue envoys outside State’s regional and functional bureau chains of command) must be pruned. Real reform will substantially reduce their number but also ensure that important responsibilities are incorporated into other parts of the department (double-hatting officials with a special envoy title, when its termination would be politically or diplomatically problematic).

Envoy proliferation has had two pernicious consequences — disempowering regional bureaus (which should rather be reinforced) by removing important diplomatic issues from their control and ensuring regional bureaus don’t in practice follow “special envoy” issues as closely. Real reform will mainstream as well as streamline.

Will “reform” rearrange the sinking ship’s deck chairs? 

The department has had baleful experience with fake reform that shuffles offices back and forth across the organizational chart, yielding few efficiencies from economies of scale, compressed reporting chains, task elimination, or amalgamation of outfits with shared purpose. Offices have been periodically renamed, then renamed back; combined and then separated again, in the bureaucratic equivalent of Brownian Motion.

Such efforts provide senior officials with the illusion of influence, but camouflage underlying problems. Where there is real task overlap, consolidation can yield benefits. But if the problem is communication, for example, senior managers should fix that and avoid gratuitous “organizational chart shuffleboard.”

Will “reform” reinforce the cocoon? 

Secretary Tillerson has been criticized for being aloof from his own department employees, but that’s been said of every recent secretary. Maybe it is partly a result of Tillerson’s natural reserve, but the structure of the department does him no favors. Each secretary of state has to fight to avoid being cocooned in the seventh floor offices of “the suite,” where they meet with foreign diplomats, hold staff meetings, consult with their inner circle and are catered to by the staff secretariat.

Constantly pressed for time, secretaries never have to even see the parts of the building where most department employees work. Real reform will reduce offices and procedures that reinforce this isolation. In particular, efforts to expand the Office of Policy Planning (S/P) or Secretariat will be signs the cocoon is winning.      

Will “reform” pursue savings, but not strategy?

As frustratingly slow as Tillerson’s internal deliberations have been, he deserves praise for acknowledging management reforms must derive from a strategic vision of the department’s purpose. If, however, his metrics of success are offices consolidated, or staffing cuts, or transfer of responsibilities to other agencies and not on how to revitalize the State Department to pursue forcefully America’s interests abroad, Tillerson will have missed an opportunity.

What’s more, he will have done the department harm. There are surely administrative practices at State that can be improved, hiring and retention procedures that can be amended, efficiencies captured and money saved. But real reform of the State Department requires an understanding of what’s wrong with American diplomacy in the broadest sense and how the department could be made right.  

Joseph Cassidy is a fellow in the Global Sustainability and Resilience Program at the Wilson Center. He is the former director for policy, regional and functional organizations for the International Organizations Bureau at the U.S. Department of State. 

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

Tags Donald Trump Foreign relations of the United States Government International relations Rex Tillerson United States Department of Defense United States Department of State United States Secretary of State

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