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by Ronald E. Neumann, President, American Academy of Diplomacy
December 5, 2017

The article first appeared in National Interest and can also be accessed by clicking here. Permission to reprint courtesy of National Interest.

For ten months the State Department has been nearly immobilized between staffing cuts that are shredding its expertise and a reform process that has put lives and decisions on hold for almost a quarter of the administration’s term while it seeks to discover some holy grail of reform. Most press discussion has focused on what is happening at the moment, little has been on what reform might mean for the department. Yet multiple studies of departmental reform already exist with common elements that suggest both the broad lines that reform should take and the fact that it could be managed without the agony of the current process.

The current state of affairs has been widely discussed. Senior officers are leaving, positions are cut, a hiring freeze remains largely in place despite some exceptions, and many senior positions remain unfilled. The freeze itself has resulted in a constricted decisionmaking process that appears, at least from outside, to be top-down micromanagement, contrary to efficient decisionmaking. To take just one example, senior training at various war colleges and universities was put on hold, presumably to consider whether such things should be curtailed, although no rationale was offered. Months after such assignments would normally be made, an exception to the hold was finally made at a very senior level, and officers who had had their families’ futures suspended for months could finally plan. This is a small example. But in a service where staff moves across continents, it is important for families and careers to have timely decisions. And when decisions are suspended, officers try to find other jobs to avoid being left with only the dregs of the assignments process if the training does not go forward.

This process of small-scale decisions being made very slowly at a high level is constantly repeated. Decisionmakers mull over questions about who should travel to UN meetings? For whom will family member hiring exemptions from the freeze be made? Rumors of over one hundred action memoranda awaiting decision in the secretary’s office are too well sourced to disregard, although that number may have been inflated in the storytelling process. Essentially, it is as though most of the nation’s trains had been instructed to stop in the middle of their journeys while a select group of authorities examine and adjust their schedules, and, ten months later, can still be found sitting exactly where they stopped. The rationale, as far as one can guess since no public comment has been offered, is that all this control is essential so that the eventual reform plan can work from a clean slate.

Someday, after the White House and OMB have had their own look, a reform plan will come forth. While it will have to be evaluated in detail, there already exist basic precepts by which to judge the adequacy of the resulting plan. Over the past few years numerous individuals and institutions have produced papers on State reform. The most important of these papers have been compiled by the American Academy of Diplomacy, the Atlantic Council and the Heritage Foundation. The Hart-Rudman Commission on National Security Report of 1991 also identified some of the same issues. Leaving aside many individual details, and numerous other articles by individuals, one finds a number of ideas that all the reports share. They constitute the outlines of what multiple experts and panels for years have agreed should be done. They also suggest that, with so much known, reform could move along much faster and be less painful than the current process.

What Is Not in the Reports?
The massive budget and personnel cuts favored by the current administration appear in none of the major reports. Brett Schaefer’s Heritage report notes the growth in State Department personnel and points out that the frequent argument for increased resources is wrong because the problem is a misapplication of existing resources, but it does not suggest large reductions. The academy’s work, which may be seen by some as representing a bias of the practitioners involved, also calls for reductions in some areas of staffing to free up resources for higher priority tasks. How the administration arrived at its preferences for major reductions remains a mystery.

One element missing from all studies except those of the academy is the need for surge capability in times of crisis. The Afghanistan “civilian surge” during the Obama administration was heavily criticized for being too slow to field the needed staff. One study of civil-military operations in crisis has noted that State’s inability to respond to military requests for political assistance during operations has been ongoing since the Mexican war over 150 years ago. As history suggests that interventions will be a recurrent phenomenon, future reform should consider how this need will be met.

The common elements in the reports could well provide a blueprint for essential reforms. Details would need study and some adjustments would surely be needed as experience with changes was developed. But using what is already widely agreed could have launched reforms earlier and without a long delay.

Reforms Accomplished
Two recommendations common to the reports have already been accomplished, to the administration’s credit. One is the reduction in special envoys and advisers. All the major reports noted the proliferation of such offices, commented on the negative effects of duplicative responsibilities and the confusion in the chain of command and called for major reductions. This theme predominated in many of the articles by individuals as well.

A second recommendation, made by both the academy and the Heritage, was to remove the position of a second deputy secretary of state. The experience of this position was that it led to bureaucratic duplication and added little to nothing to effective management. The much larger Defense Department runs with one. For these two actions the administration deserves recognition. Many other common elements of recommended reform have yet to garner attention.

Here are some common recommendations:

Strengthen State’s Ability to Integrate Policy

As domestic and foreign-policy issues have increasingly merged, many cabinet departments thought of as domestic now play a role in foreign policy. Treasury handles the execution of sanctions. Defense shares resources and authorities for foreign-military training. Commerce and the office of the Special Trade Representative share in the responsibility for foreign trade as does the State Department. While each department has its own view of what is important, only State is responsible for maintaining a holistic view of how interests or policies may contradict each other or raise tensions. Some critics charge that the State’s view may sometimes be too sympathetic to foreign interests, but without the State’s role in integrating policy, tensions between goals are likely to be found only when policies are put into place and embarrassment results.

Most reports seem to assume this function as a continuing necessity and not a problem that needs fixing. However, with rumors now circulating of moving major functions like visas, refugees, or sanctions out of State to other agencies, it is worth remembering the need for integrating policy concerns.

Reduce Layers
Every review of State Department procedures has noted that the department has too many layers with unclear lines of authority. This impedes rapid decisionmaking and consumes countless hours in the clearance process required to send information and decisions to senior policy makers. Many of the other recommendations for change stem from this recommendation. An associated concept is that responsibility for many actions needs to be pushed down. The current operation of State has moved in the opposite direction, although some may argue that this is temporary until the reorganization study is finished.

Another thing that is frequently noted is that the absence of clear lines of authority has led to major growth in the National Security Council. The result is that NSC staff nearly doubled just from the second Bush administration to the Obama administration. The NSC became a quasi-action department, although the nearly unanimous view of observers during the last administration was that this development led to micromanagement and a further slowdown in policy execution rather than enhancing efficiency. All the studies call for a reduction in the size of the NSC. The Heritage report specifically recommends that authority be pushed back to State’s undersecretaries and assistant secretaries. The recommendation to reduce the size of the NSC, which has been followed to some extent, lies outside the specific authority of State but will need to be considered as part of the reform of America’s diplomatic structures. Reform, however, depends on close-working relations between State and the NSC. Rumors and casual comments to date raise questions about how this is working.

Reduce the Number of Undersecretaries
America managed the diplomacy of World War II with only two undersecretaries. The number has now expanded to six. The lines of authority overlap and add confusion to decisionmaking, and they push more decisions upward to solve bureaucratic disagreements. Additionally, since there is an inherent bureaucratic (and perhaps human) reluctance to ask supervisors for guidance, many issues remain unresolved when bureaus and undersecretaries disagree about action, thus further slowing decisions.

There are disagreements about how this should be done. The Atlantic Council recommends a four deputy structure. The Heritage report recommends two, one for bilateral affairs and one for multilateral issues. But all the major reports agree that the number should be reduced.

Reduction of Bureaus
State now has some fifty assistant secretaries or equivalent officials, in theory reporting through the undersecretaries to the Secretary. This is clearly too many, prompting seemingly endless disagreements about which positions to chop or combine. One point does stand out: if the number of undersecretaries is to be reduced, then there needs to be consolidation in the number of bureaus reporting to them. This logic flows from two propositions. One is “span of control.” There are simply too many bureaus for effective management by the undersecretaries and the secretary. The other relates to pushing responsibility downward. The argument is essentially that consolidating more functions into individual bureaus will sharpen the lines of authority and permit more issues to be resolved at the level of the assistant secretaries.

Despite disagreements on the details, all three major reports would reverse the direction of State’s last two Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Reviews (QDDR), which increased the number of the so-called functional bureaus that deal with worldwide issues spanning from economics, to trade, to law enforcement. Some minor tinkering may be possible in the six regional bureaus, which deal with areas geographically, but all the reports agree that the major area for tightening organization lies in the functional bureaus. Every observer has a slightly different opinion about which ones should merge. In the end, however, the exact decision probably matters less than that some amalgamation takes place. If this were combined with the reduction of special envoys and ambassadors, then there would unquestionably be a reduction in duplicative support staff.

Better Collaboration with Congress
Poor State Department cooperation with Congress has been a perennial criticism. In 1977 the author’s father wrote one of many papers calling for reform, many of whose criticisms still ring true today. In view of the frequent criticisms now heard from Congress about lack of adequate consultations by State, it is particularly interesting that both the Heritage and Atlantic Council reports point to the need for improved collaboration between the Department and Congress. While the Academy’s studies do not focus specifically on this aspect, the recommendation is certainly one with which many professionals would agree. Whether the requirement is best met by organizational reform or different habits of thought and practice is debatable, but the need is clear. Equally clear is that the current administration is going in the opposite direction.

Improved Professional Education and Training
Training is valuable for specific skills. Broad professional education is required to develop the traits essential for confronting new situations. Military officers spend between 20 and 25 percent of their career in a mix of professional training and broader education for exactly this reason. For many years, Foreign Service Officers substituted a kind of apprenticeship under more senior officers for formal professional education. This worked in a smaller service where officers worked closely with those more senior. Today, when because of expansion, nearly two-thirds of officers have less than ten years in the Service and half of those only five years, this informal mentorship is inadequate; seniors simply cannot stretch far enough to substitute for more formal structures. With the current departure of an unusually high number of the most senior officers in the current administration, the need is even greater. Additionally, State is often criticized for being too cloistered without enough experience with the many nontraditional aspects of current foreign relations.

All three of the major studies recommend greatly expanding cross-training by sending State personnel for tours in other agencies and departments. All three also recommend that Foreign Service Officers have at least some experience in functional bureaus. Additionally, the need for common understanding of broad issues has made time in the various war colleges and investment in postgraduate degrees particularly useful. Whether such professional education will continue to be possible with the currently planned staff reductions in State is open to doubt.

Appoint Qualified Ambassadors
Interestingly, but unlikely of accomplishment, is the common recommendation that all ambassadors need to meet high standards for appointment. This recommendation is explicit in all the major studies. It is stated explicitly in the law, the Foreign Service Act of 1980. Specific recommendations differ on whether there should be a cap on the number of noncareer ambassadors or how qualifications should be judged, but all agree that ambassadorial quality is important. However, as this principle has been ignored by every administration since the founding of the Republic in order to reward political loyalty and campaign donors, it is likely to be ignored in the future. Still, it is worth noting.

Civil Service Reform—An Idea Less Noted
One issue that is very lightly touched on except in the Academy’s work is the need for reform of State’s Civil Service. Unlike other cabinet departments, State presides over three different personnel systems: Foreign Service, Civil Service, and locally employed staff abroad; the latter making up approximately two thirds of State’s seventy-five thousand employees. Under the pressure of repeated crises there has been an increasing use of Civil Service employees to fill positions that previously would have been Foreign Service jobs. This has led to frictions between the services. The Foreign Service is required to be worldwide available, to accept hardship assignments, and to compete for promotion on an up-or-out basis. Among other differences the Civil Service has no requirement to serve abroad or accept hardship assignments. However, Civil Service officials suffer from the lack of career mobility. The time is long past where the Civil Service was just a domestic support for the more substantive work of the Foreign Service. Civil Service employees are the backbone of State’s skills and continuity in specialized areas from trade to arms control negotiations. They increasingly have picked up the slack when crises have generated the need for rapidly creating new positions to handle the workload. This is because there is no reserve of Foreign Service Officers, so a new position can only be filled by new hires through a lengthy competitive exam process or shifting assignments of serving officers, which both take a long time.

The major studies, including Hart-Rudman, agree that it is time to review how the two services will work together in the future. Which jobs should be filled by each and how are the strains and overlaps to be managed? Most recommendations on the subject are fairly general and require much more detailed consideration. However, the Academy has proposed the creation of a new service within the Civil Service that would have far greater career mobility in return for taking on a limited number of the extra responsibilities and duties common to Foreign Service officers.

One related issue that has been treated only in the Academy’s studies is the need for professional education for senior Civil Service officials. Historically, this has been even more neglected than the need for such education and training for the Foreign Service. Both the larger issue of how the two personnel systems are to work effectively together to advance U.S. foreign-policy goals, and the subordinate issue of how Civil Service officials are recruited and trained should be part of any reorganization of the State Department.

An Area of Disagreement
Where USAID is to be located and how it is to be managed remains in disagreement among various studies and authors. The Heritage report would merge it into State. The Atlantic Council would not. Congressional sentiment seems to lean to keeping it separate. Since this issue has been debated in similar terms since 1948 and the establishment of a precursor organization as part of the Marshall Plan, it is probably safe to say that the debate will continue no matter what decision is reached.

Getting on with State Reform
The list of proposals on what to trim, cut, combine, or expand in a State Department reform is almost endless. Not every decision needs to be made at once. Experience with any reform is likely to show the need for further adaptation as approaches are tried and circumstances change. Yet what comes out of reviewing the major studies of the past few years is a consensus on certain broad lines of reform.

The central ingredients to reform include cutting down the layers, reducing the superstructure of undersecretaries, clarifying the chain of command, combining some bureaus and increasing the authority of assistant secretaries, broadening the education and experience of Foreign Service Officers and senior Civil Service employees, and reaching new decisions on how the Foreign and Civil Services are to divide up the work of diplomacy. Any set of decisions on these aspects will be open to debate and none will be perfect. Congress will want its say and various political constituencies may demand special consideration as decisions are hammered out. But reaching initial conclusions on these issues should be possible in far less time than has already been spent.

Eventually, when State, the White House and OMB are able to put forth a reform plan, the issues above will be the major ones to examine in determining how well the reform meets the needs as commonly defined.


Author Ronald E. Neumann was U.S. ambassador to Algeria, Bahrain and Afghanistan. He is president of the American Academy of Diplomacy. The views expressed are his own


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