At US missions in Europe, Tillerson pitches State Department overhaul
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, between meetings with European officials, sought to pitch his much-touted overhaul of the State Department to U.S. Embassy staffers and diplomats as he crisscrossed Europe this week.
During remarks to U.S. tri-mission personnel in Brussels, Vienna and Paris, Tillerson sought to make clear that much of what State Department employees had heard — in the media and elsewhere — about the “redesign” was inaccurate.
“A lot of other people seem to want to say a lot about it, whether they know anything about it or not,” he said in Vienna on Thursday.
Instead, he emphasized that it was an employee-led effort, and that the process had moved through its initial phases of collecting input from State Department personnel and strategizing. The redesign, Tillerson said, had moved into phase three: execution.
Tillerson’s pitches to State Department employees abroad appeared to be a concerted effort. His remarks in each city were slightly different, but the message was consistent, emphasizing his hope to simplify the agency and energize its workforce.
“One thing I do know is I have a quality of people that if you unleash their talents, the quality of what we do moves up, and I don’t have to have a bunch of consultants tell me that,” he said in Vienna. To be sure, Tillerson has hired two consulting firms to head up the overhaul.
But while Tillerson has spoken enthusiastically about the redesign, which he has called his most important objective at the State Department, a string of media reports has painted the agency’s employees as wary of the effort and its long-term implications for U.S. diplomacy.
Morale among the State Department’s career officials has also dwindled amid proposed budget cuts and a hiring freeze imposed by Tillerson himself. Heather Nauert, a spokeswoman for the department, acknowledged a “morale issue” among career officials during a press briefing last month.
Tillerson addressed that hiring freeze during stops in Vienna and Paris, saying that he was open to authorizing exceptions in certain cases. Since implementing the freeze, he said, he has signed more than 2,400 such exceptions.
But the hiring freeze, he explained, was put in place to encourage officials to be more cautious in filling open jobs.
“What it’s done was just a little bit of a blunt instrument to have everyone be a little more disciplined about filling their positions,” he said.
As for unfilled appointments at the State Department, Tillerson said there was no reason to believe that the agency’s work was hindered, though he noted that he was “still awaiting a lot of nominees to clear processes and to be confirmed.”
“The State Department is not missing a beat just because we’ve got some nominees that are still working through the process,” he said, noting the career officials serving as interim leaders in the agency.
Among the nine ambassadors that serve at the U.S tri-missions in Brussels, Vienna and Paris, President Trump has only nominated two. Overall, there are 20 ambassadorship postings open across Europe.
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