Not everyone is impressed. “It’s fluffy, meaningless B.S.”
- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson offered an initial glimpse into his plans to overhaul the department in an email sent to department employees on Wednesday evening, saying his proposal could save taxpayers some $5 to $10 billion in the next five years.
The email, reviewed by Foreign Policy, outlines his ideas on redesigning America’s diplomacy and foreign aid to trim down bureaucratic waste and ramp up efficiency, though it offers few specifics.
The plan “includes seven ambitious proposals with investments that will generate a minimum deliverable of 10 percent ($5B) in efficiencies relative to current (FY2017) spending over the next five years, with an aspirational general interest target of up to 20 percent ($10B),” Tillerson wrote in the email.
Tillerson also said in the email he wants to overhaul the State Department’s outdated and oft-maligned IT system and better empower career employees. He will begin implementing changes on a rolling basis, the email noted, though some changes will first require congressional approval.
Tillerson emphasized work to better align the State Department’s and USAID’s missions and policies, but stopped short of saying he wanted to fold the aid agency into State entirely, a proposal that had been floated in months past.
For some diplomats, this is the first glimpse into the specifics of Tillerson’s controversial redesign process. Tillerson has said he tapped some 200 State Department and USAID employees to compile recommendations on how to reform the agencies.
Those employees spent some six weeks in a process that ended on Sept. 8. But there’s been little communication with the rest of the Department during or since outside of Tillerson’s email, five State Department officials told FP.
Some officials were put off by the buzzwords and corporate tone of the email. The missive was light on specifics, and emphasized cost savings and return on investment over the nuts-and-bolts of diplomacy, which they argue is inherently hard to monetize.
The plan “will align our foreign assistance and policy strategies, capabilities, and resources to meet the needs and capitalize on the opportunities of a rapidly evolving global landscape,” Tillerson wrote.
“It’s fluffy, meaningless B.S.,” one State Department official said.
While critics of the process say State Department has failed to consult with the NGO community or lawmakers, Foggy Bottom’s leadership has continued to publicly insist that the redesign is an “employee-driven process” with “no preconceived outcomes.”
Democratic senators used a confirmation hearing on Tuesday for Eric Ueland, the nominee for the undersecretary of State for management, to vent their frustrations about the silence from Foggy Bottom.
“We have gotten plenty of promises on consultation and no consultation,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, told Ueland.
“We just passed a State Department appropriations bill in which we just simply guessed what the State Department would look like,” Murphy added. “No one has consulted with us.”
For the NGO community, similar frustrations came to a head in a tense meeting with State Department and USAID officials in August, which NGO participants described as “patronizing” and likened to a “1950s sex ed class.”
Tillerson’s redesign plans still retain support from top Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Many diplomats and foreign aid officials agree that the State Department and USAID are in desperate need of reform, even if they don’t necessarily agree with Tillerson’s methods.
Addressing the U.S. embassy in London during a visit to the United Kingdom on Thursday, Tillerson said the redesign would be the key accomplishment during his tenure as secretary.
“The most important thing I can do is to make this organization to be more effective, more efficient and for all of you to take greater satisfaction in what you do day in day out because if I accomplish that, that will go on forever and you will create the State Department for the future,” he told embassy staff in one of his first public addresses on the issue.
He referred to his job on the redesign as removing obstacles to State Department employees doing their jobs.
“You tell me what you need to run down the field,” he said, “and let me go do some blocking for you.”
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