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.

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.