Report

A Year Later, Tillerson Rolls Back ‘Self Inflicted Wound’

The secretary of state’s freeze on hiring diplomats’ family members at understaffed embassies is ending, but it left resentment in its wake.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at Stanford University on Jan. 17, 2018 in California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks at Stanford University on Jan. 17, 2018 in California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Of all the decisions taken by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson over the past year, perhaps no other has caused so much resentment among U.S. diplomats abroad as the freeze he imposed on hiring employees’ family members.

The freeze hampered the day-to-day work of embassies, which rely heavily on diplomats’ family members for a range of tasks, and undermined morale for foreign service officers.

Twelve months later, Tillerson is only now rolling back the freeze, but current and former officials say the suspension and ensuing confusion caused lasting damage, and the freeze was never really needed in the first place.

When he first introduced the freeze, Tillerson maintained it was necessary to hold off on hiring until he reorganized the department. A year later, however, he has backed off of the more drastic ideas that his aides floated at the outset of his reorganization effort, including merging the U.S. Agency for International Development into the State Department. Instead, he is touting minor tweaks such as using cloud computing, expanding teleworking, and scrapping some special envoy positions.

Critics in and outside the department now question why a freeze was necessary in the first place, given the small-scale nature of the reorganization. The secretary has steadily retreated from the idea of a grand overhaul of the department. Once presented as a “redesign,” the more modest approach is now called the “Impact Initiative,” and some of the incremental proposals were outlined in the administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 on Monday.

Internally, Tillerson’s aides trumpeted the lifting of the freeze as a win. But some diplomats weren’t buying it. The move “still left the department worse off than it was before the hiring freeze,” said one former diplomat who recently retired. “You don’t get to call a partial fix of a self-inflicted gunshot wound a win.”

Tillerson first announced the hiring freeze on family members would be lifted at a State Department town hall on Dec. 12 last year, and it was greeted by a round of applause. But in what has become emblematic of Tillerson’s efforts to reform the department, there has been virtually no subsequent communication to employees on how or when the hiring freeze on eligible family members, often referred to as EFMs, would be lifted, sowing confusion and frustration.

“It’s been months,” said one department official speaking on condition of anonymity, “and still no one understands what is going on with EFMs.”

The confusion could be cleared up soon with concrete steps Tillerson is expected to take this month. Tillerson has authorized an additional 2,449 EFM positions to the State Department payroll, effectively lifting the prior hiring freeze, a department spokesman said. He also plans to expand a selective pool of jobs for highly educated family members, known as the Expanded Professional Associates Program, from some 200 to 400 positions.

“This should put us back to normal hiring levels” for diplomats’ family members, the spokesman told Foreign Policy.

The official, however, said the wider State Department hiring freeze remains in place.

Far from a cushy jobs program, the EFM program is the “lifeblood” of U.S. missions abroad, as one senior foreign service officer put it.

From clerical jobs to visa processing to assisting economic and political desks, EFM workers perform vital tasks in overworked embassies and consulates, often on the cheap. In some embassies, they help manage programs directly related to national security, such as the vetting of foreign police units slated to train with other U.S. federal agencies.

The freeze prevented embassies from filling vacant positions as diplomats and their family members rotated to new posts, creating a cascading backlog of unfinished work at embassies while a growing pool of family members waited to be hired without any clear direction from Washington. As a result, morale deteriorated among a workforce that already perceived a marginalized role for diplomacy in the Trump administration.

“Routine bureaucratic processes just got entirely sucked up,” said one U.S. diplomat of ambassador rank, speaking on condition of anonymity. The diplomat said it caused a knock-on effect of “mayhem” all over the world.

Restrictions on hiring family members also discouraged some qualified diplomats from applying to posts in difficult locations, said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who recently retired after 35-year diplomatic career, including a stint as the department’s director general of the foreign service.

“I think it’s really damaged our ability to get employees, particularly for hard-to-fill assignments,” she said of the EFM freeze.

The number of EFMs, which fluctuates from year to year, dropped from 3,501 in the fall of 2016 to 2,373 in the fall of 2017, according to publicly available data from the State Department.

Tillerson vowed to lift the freeze, but a memo obtained by FP, dated Dec. 5, 2017 — days before Tillerson’s speech — shows that wasn’t always the plan. State Department leadership initially pushed to lift the hiring freeze on no more than 50 percent of the 3,129 EFM positions regional bureaus identified as “top priority vacant positions.”

Widespread backlash within the department may have caused him to change his tune, officials say. As problems arose from the hiring freeze, Tillerson and his team concocted a workaround, but it proved equally cumbersome.

Five current and former officials told FP that throughout 2017, embassies were instructed to send a list of EFM positions and the justification for hiring them to Tillerson’s office for approval. That process meant an issue typically dealt with at the bureau level started being channeled through the secretary of state himself.

In a speech in Washington in late November of last year, Tillerson said he personally signed off on more than 2,300 exceptions to the hiring freeze (884 of which were EFMs, according to the State Department spokesman).

Tillerson’s new directive this month walks back that practice and restores the power to hire family members back to the regional bureaus, instead of channeling every decision through his office.

But his handling of the issue has shaken the confidence of many foreign service officers and possibly done irreparable damage to his relationship with the workforce.

It was “a staggering waste of management bandwidth,” said one senior official. “This is what happens when people who have no idea how the State Department works are put in charge.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy@RobbieGramer

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