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.

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.

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.

Image: 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


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