The existential crisis at the State Department is overblown

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For months, former and current Department of State employees have authored op-eds or been quoted describing the “hollowing out,” “dismantling,” “destruction” and “decapitation” of the agency under Secretary Rex Tillerson.

They argue that the Trump administration’s failure to nominate and confirm personnel for the department’s highest-ranking positions, pledging to cut the workforce by 8 percent, pledging to slow recruitment of new hires, and proposing to reform (or “redesign”) the bureaucracy collectively represent an existential threat to the agency.

{mosads}This hyperbole is understandable from career employees who are emotionally invested. However, a deeper analysis shows that while there is cause for concern those who care about effective diplomacy should continue to try to work with the administration to implement much needed change at the department.


The American Foreign Service Association (AFSA), the union that represents the foreign service officers of the Department, recently released data on the number of senior officials that have left the department since Trump took office. AFSA calculates that the number of career ministers — three-star general equivalents — has declined from 39 to 19. The number of minister counselors — two-star general equivalents — has declined from 431 to 369. 

While these numbers may seem stark, the numbers alone are misleading. What we can’t tell from this data is how many of those senior officials would have retired regardless of who occupied the White House. Undoubtedly, some share of these resignations was inevitable and therefore cannot be solely attributed to this administration.

More important than the volume of resignations is the quality. Here again, the AFSA numbers may be misleading. As in any organization, not everyone in senior leadership was great at their job — there is deadwood even at the top.

Pushing out some of the least effective is a good thing. We cannot tell if those that have left are the best and brightest or the lowest performing. More likely, it’s a combination of high and low performers but the assumption by many is that only the best are leaving or being pushed out.

Public perception is that senior leadership resignations have resulted in chaos inside the department; the inmates are running the asylum. That’s simply not true.

In positions where a new nominee has not been confirmed and installed, there is a person acting in that role day-to-day. True, an “acting” is not empowered by a Senate confirmation process but that person likely has decades of experience working at State and should be fully capable of running an office and performing his or her duties with some level of skill — it is not as if last-year’s interns are now making foreign policy decisions.

Today, the State Department employs approximately 25,000 full-time American citizens, virtually the same number that were employed by the department before Trump’s election. Tillerson has pledged to reduce that total by 1,982 of which 1,341 will come through regular retirements without replacement and 641 through buy-outs.

As in any federal bureaucracy, the department is bloated with redundancy and inefficiency. Cuts to the workforce are necessary and many would argue that 8 percent is not enough. Without greater clarity on who is leaving, we cannot definitively say that the minor reductions in staff constitute a “hollowing out” of the department.

Recruitment to the department continues to be a misunderstood problem. Today, State judges the success of its recruitment strategy solely on the number of applications it receives each year. AFSA especially likes to tout the numbers of applicants as an indication of the health of the workforce.

In reality, the number of applications received is totally meaningless because it tells us nothing about the quality of the applicant. Each year, the Foreign Service takes in approximately 370 new foreign service officers most of whom are hired as “generalists” hired without respect to a specific skillset or department need.

The department’s hiring philosophy is get smart people who can then be trained to do anything else. But the Department’s recruitment is passive: The oral examination for entry to the service is administered in only two cities which limits who can apply; on-campus recruitment for the Foreign Service is almost non-existent; and recruitment from the private sector is exclusively based on word of mouth. 

In short, the department does not competitively acquire highly skilled people, it waits for them to fall into their lap. In such a system, it would be unreasonable to assume that State is getting the best and brightest especially when international private sector companies are feverishly working to draw from the same talent pool. Department watchers should stop focusing on the number of applicants and start worrying about their quality.

Tillerson’s redesign effort, thus far, has produced few reforms. The biggest improvement has been the reduction in the number of special envoys. The downside to the redesign has been its impact on workforce morale. Anecdotally, the Department’s workforce is completely demoralized — anxious about the security of their own jobs and confused by Tillerson’s bunker-mentality governing style. This is a problem but it can be resolved through Congressional action.


A complete overhaul of the department, similar to what the Goldwater-Nichols Act did for the Department of Defense, is long overdue. And if Tillerson cannot (or will not) push an aggressive reform agenda that is informed by relevant stakeholders and new ideas then Congress needs to lead.

This means the committees of jurisdiction need to hold regular hearings on how best to reform the Department and ultimately introduce a bill the updates both the 1980 Foreign Service Act and the 1961 Foreign Assistance Act — the legislation that serves as the foundation for all State Department operations.

Reforming the Department of State, including its workforce, is critical. As AFSA President Barbara Stephenson said, “a strong, effective American foreign policy rests on the shoulders of a strong Foreign Service.” 

Those that warn about the death of the department are endangering the best opportunity for agency reform we’ve had (or will have) in decades. Sure, raise alarm bells when Tillerson or others are taking the wrong steps but don’t kill the reform effort altogether. To do so would allow State to continue on its downward trajectory and only postpone — not prevent — the agency’s failure. 

Thomas Hill is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Previously, he served as a senior professional staff member for the majority staff of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs covering State Department operations. He also served for nearly 10 years at the Department of State, in both domestic and overseas assignments. Follow him on Twitter @seatodca.

Tags Rex Tillerson Rex Tillerson State Department Thomas Hill

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