Report

The Quiet Death of Tillerson’s ‘Redesign’ of State

Overhauling Foggy Bottom was once a centerpiece of the Trump administration’s reforms. Where did those plans go?

Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement on his departure from the State Department March 13. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Outgoing U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement on his departure from the State Department March 13. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson staked his reputation on a grand plan to redesign the State Department. The last vestiges of that year-long, multimillion-dollar scheme can be found buried in an appendix at the back of a new White House report.

A few paragraphs tucked at the end of the report, “Delivering Government Solutions in the 21st Century: Reform Plan and Reorganization Recommendations,” mark a quiet and unassuming obituary to what became one of the most controversial elements of the Trump administration’s handling of America’s diplomatic corps. And it underscores how his successor, Mike Pompeo, has largely swept the entire process back under the rug as he seeks to boost low morale in Foggy Bottom and restore his employees’ “swagger.”

Much of the rest of the report released this week proposes massive shakeups to the structure of the federal government, including a proposal to merge the departments of Education and Labor and a chapter on reforming U.S. foreign aid under USAID. (Read more about the USAID redesign here.)

In contrast, the language for shaking up State is vague and modest: five brief paragraphs on streamlining the State Department folded into the appendix at the end of the report, including efforts to “enhance operational efficiencies” and modernize its outdated information-technology systems. The section also touts one of Tillerson’s most tangible legacies: eliminating many special envoy positions that had overlapping roles with other department bureaus.

The State Department initially held high hopes for Tillerson, a former oil executive keen to bring a private-sector sensibility to what he saw as bloated government. Tillerson once called efforts to redesign the department “the most important thing I want to do during the time I have.”

Shortly after he started his job in early 2017, Tillerson vowed to overhaul the State Department’s vast bureaucracy, enlisting career employees and outside consultants to craft options ranging from merging the U.S. Agency for International Development’s functions with State, to modernizing its IT systems and human-resources structures, to eliminating entire offices and divisions. Most of the proposals fell through, facing a mounting wave of opposition from both State Department employees and congressional overseers.

But those high hopes faded quickly as Tillerson alienated the rank and file of the department — and lawmakers on Capitol Hill — by gutting the top ranks of the diplomatic corps, cutting career officials out of deliberations, and botching the implementation of his proposed redesign. Under Pompeo, it’s as good as dead and buried.

The new federal government reform report makes no mention of the plan to redesign the State Department, which was dubbed the “Impact Initiative” toward the end of Tillerson’s stint. And the price tag for those five paragraphs? Around $12 million, most paid to outside consulting firms.

Update, June 22, 2018: This article was updated to add additional details on Tillerson’s initial plans for the redesign.

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

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