How to Save Trump's State Department

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks to reporters as he departs for travel to Utah from the White House in Washington, U.S. December 4, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Every review of State Department procedures has noted that the department has too many layers with unclear lines of authority, which impedes the department's ability to make rapid decisions.

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.