Tillerson tightens limits on filling State Department jobs

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attends a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2017.


By NICK WADHAMS | Bloomberg | Published: June 28, 2017

Rex Tillerson is clamping down further on hiring as part of his push to overhaul the State Department, in a move likely to exacerbate concerns that a large number of unfilled jobs is diminishing his agency's role in shaping foreign policy.

In a memo sent June 26 and obtained by Bloomberg News, bureaus are ordered to temporarily stop all transfers and reassignments and are barred from appointing new envoys. Any other request to "increase, expand or proliferate organization structures in the Department" must also be stopped.

The decision is part of Secretary of State Tillerson's plan to reorganize the department, an effort expected to cut more than 8 percent of the workforce and eliminate dozens of positions deemed inefficient.

"These restrictions are necessary and prudent to insure we do not permit additional position and grade level growth at a time when the Department is undergoing reform and restructuring," the memo said. "As we strive collectively to develop and implement a departmental organizational structure that is efficient, responsive, and focused on its core mission, it is imperative that you adhere to the spirit and intent of this guidance."

In what may be the most significant step, the memo bans "lateral reassignments," the term for shifting employees from one job to another in different bureaus. With a broader freeze on hiring and promotions already in effect, lateral reassignments were a key way State Department offices were able to fill jobs as staff members have quit or been forced out since President Donald Trump's election.

A State Department official, who asked not to be identified discussing a memo that hasn't been publicly released, said the department is trying to align its mission with the staff that is its most valuable resource. The official underscored that the suspensions are temporary.

The move doesn't apply to foreign service officers, meaning diplomats headed to embassies overseas won't be affected.

Tillerson has championed his reorganization initiative as an effort to drag the State Department into the 21st Century and eliminate wasteful spending. He argues that the process must be complete before the department is fully staffed.

But the decision has drawn skepticism from the department, career ambassadors and members of Congress who say they worry that the slow pace of hiring, coupled with a budget proposal that would cut funding by more than 28 percent, is hobbling the agency's effectiveness and muddying the voice of the U.S. overseas.

"When we turn to the State Department to learn how American diplomacy and development efforts are going to help us meet these challenges in the Trump Administration, we find empty offices," Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said at a hearing of the panel Wednesday. "The president still has to yet to nominate dozens and dozens of senior State Department officials."

Even the White House has become impatient, with officials expressing frustration that Tillerson and his staff haven't acted fast enough on their recommendations to fill crucial ambassadorial posts, according to people involved in dealings between the White House and State Department who asked not to be identified discussing private communications.

Testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee this month, Tillerson said staffing cuts would largely come through attrition and his progress was aimed at focusing on results, not money spent.

"As all of you well know, we have a number of bureaus that have common missions," Tillerson said. "Some of them have overlapping missions. Not just true within the State Department, but we have that with other agencies as well."

The decision to freeze transfers and assignments has been coupled with other, similar efforts by the secretary that have drawn criticism from career staff. In March, Tillerson froze transfers of State Department staff to the White House's National Security Council. Career diplomats worry that the move has diminished the voice of civil servants in a body now dominated by staff from the military or with a military background.

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