Is Tillerson serious about modernizing the State Department’s workforce?

Camille Fine

This week, the president released the Joint State-USAID Strategic Plan (JSP) and the Congressional Budget Justification (CBJ) for 2019. In prior years, these documents devoted very little space to discussing workforce matters and any promised reforms were rarely implemented. However, it appears this year might be different.

President Trump has promised repeatedly to reform the “deep state” and issued an executive order in March “to improve the efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability of the executive branch.”

{mosads}The JSP and CBJ released this week include large sections on reforming the workforces at State and USAID but the details are buried in bureaucratic jargon like, “We will close the gap between current and desired workforce capabilities by adopting effective workforce planning tools and hiring programs with best practice metrics and targets.” So, what might Secretary of State Rex Tillerson really have in mind with respect to workforce reform?


First, Tillerson has indicated that the department will institute a merit-based system that rewards high performers and removes low performers. This is long overdue and desired by many within the department according to the recent listening session report. However, for years the unions and entrenched bureaucrats have fought against efforts to remove underperforming employees who are protected by a tenure system that thwarts termination.

In 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that “the time and resource commitment needed to remove a poor performing permanent employee can be substantial. It can take six months to a year (and sometimes longer) to dismiss an employee.”

Defenders of the status quo at State and USAID have argued that poor performers could be removed if managers invested the necessary time and effort. It’s a fair criticism. In 2014, the Office of Inspector General (OIG) reported that between 2007-2013 there wasn’t a single instance of a manager being held accountable for failing to identify employee misconduct and taking corrective action. However, under the current performance evaluation system, managers are discouraged from engaging in disciplinary matters out of fear of retribution that could undermine promotion potential. 

Second, the department will start to fill jobs with personnel that have the requisite skillsets and if those skillsets aren’t available within the existing workforce, the department will go out and recruit them. Again, this is a desperately needed change. Right now, there are too few opportunities for mid-career lateral entry in the Foreign Service.

In 2016, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) fought against a provision that authorized the department to initiate a pilot program to bring in mid-career personnel at a level commensurate with their experience rather than at the bottom, stamping passports, as is the Foreign Service model. (That provision was eventually signed into law President Obama over AFSA’s objections.)

The current workforce model assumes that each new hire will spend decades in the department and rise through the ranks starting from the bottom — mirroring the military services. Such a model does not reflect the actual churn of the American workforce.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers aged 25 and older spend a median of 5.1 years with their employers and men between the ages of 25 and 34 now spend a median of 2.9 years with each employer, down from 3.2 years in 1983.

Getting highly skilled people into the department and immediately deploying the skills they bring makes sense. If the department needs low-skilled laborers to process visas and passports, then they should hire low-skilled laborers rather than force over-qualified mid-career professionals into these positions.

AFSA and others argue that starting new hires at the bottom builds esprit de corps, creates parity between various staff at the embassy, and ensures that senior leaders have a complete understanding of embassy operations at all levels. Those reasons may all be valid; however, they do not justify keeping a system that has chronic mid-level staffing and experience gaps.

Third, Tillerson is promising to prioritize leadership training. Unlike the uniformed services, State does not value leadership development.

Kori Schake, author of “State of Disrepair: Fixing the Culture and Practices of the State Department” notes the department is “not investing in the kind of professional education and training that will make our diplomats successful.”

“The people who are successful in the State Department are people who can be thrown in the deep end of the pool and not drown; but the Department never teaches them to swim, and the successful ones even come to discredit the value of swimming lessons, because they succeeded without them,” she writes.

Recently, Congress has shown an interest in reforming the traditional career path progression of Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) acknowledging the need to address the agency’s lack of leadership training.

The bipartisan 2017 State Authorities Act mandated that all incoming FSOs serve in a so-called “functional” bureau as a qualification for senior level appointment. Congress should consider expanding that provision to include a mandate that all incoming FSOs complete multiple rotations outside the department at other national security agencies or the private sector.

In addition, Congress should finally establish a permanent training float so that long-term training opportunities are prioritized and mandate recurring leadership training as a part of all career development tracks.

It remains to be seen if Tillerson is serious about his workforce reform initiative which the department’s CBJ lists as “keystone project area 1: improve performance management.” While many inside the Department and Congress support reform, the greatest impediment may be the workforce protections that apply government-wide (commonly referred to by their U.S. code number “Title 5”).

Ultimately, the department has no ability to reform Title 5 without legislative action which puts the fate of Tillerson’s workforce reform initiative in the hands of the House Oversight and Government Reform and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committees — not the department’s oversight committees where Tillerson’s influence is greatest.

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 Twitte r@seatodca.

Tags diplomats Donald Trump embassies Rex Tillerson State Department Thomas Hill United States Foreign Service

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