The State Department’s No. 2 official assured staffers Tuesday that plans to restructure the department would take their concerns into full account, comparing the coming changes to U.S. military reforms following the Vietnam War.
At a town hall session, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan also urged diplomats and other employees to take media reports on the department’s woes with a grain of salt.
The gathering was closed to reporters, but two State officials who watched it described it to POLITICO.
The session appeared aimed at bucking up sagging morale at the department, whose budget President Donald Trump wants to cut by a third. Unlike Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who held a similar event in May, Sullivan took audience questions.
His reference to post-Vietnam reforms in the U.S. military suggests major changes are afoot; the military saw major changes in organization, doctrine, personnel policy, equipment and training. But Sullivan offered few specifics and few guarantees about what changes may be coming at State now.
He described the various working groups involved in rethinking the department, but gave few clues about what bureaus or divisions could be shifted, cut or reorganized. He insisted, however, that the goal of the restructuring is not to dismantle State or its partner, the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Despite reports that Tillerson wants to trim the workforce by at least 2,300 people, Sullivan stressed that the redesign is not a synonym for layoffs and that he would do his best to ensure that staff reductions are voluntary. But he also said a hold on lateral transfers for civil servants would stay in place until redesign plans were more concrete.
When asked how seriously the Trump administration is taking a proposal that the State Department’s consular services be transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, Sullivan indicated that all options remain on the table.
The department is expected to submit its reorganization proposal to the Office of Management and Budget by mid-September.
The morale at State, whose ranks include civil service and foreign service employees, has sunk precipitously since Trump took office. Tillerson, who is traveling in Asia this week, is widely considered an aloof, isolated figure.
Sullivan is much more popular, and on Tuesday he was full of praise for the 75,000 people who work for the State Department in the U.S. and beyond.
It’s not clear how much power Sullivan wields. Still, staffers were happy the town hall took place.
"The takeaway to me is they’ve recognized how terrible they’ve been at communicating with the building," said one of the State Department officials who described the gathering. "It was important that he did this. He was candid about not having all the answers, which always goes a long way."
Some of the staffers’ questions Tuesday focused on who has decision-making powers at State, where a backlog of requests for decisions by Tillerson have deeply frustrated diplomats throughout the chain of command.
Sullivan disputed recent news reports that implied that Tillerson’s office had taken away decision-making powers from him and all other top officials. The deputy secretary said so-called delegations of authority were being reviewed in hopes of making them more rational and organized.
Sullivan also insisted that the redesign plans were not about concentrating more power in the hands of the secretary of state.
The vast majority of leadership positions at State remain unfilled. Some staffers believe Tillerson is intentionally avoiding filling the positions until after the reorganization is implemented, which could be many months away.
But Sullivan said candidates have been identified for roughly 60 percent of the positions, which include undersecretaries and assistant secretaries of state, and that they are in the vetting and nominating process.
The deputy secretary took a moment toward the end of the session to urge State staffers not to believe everything they read in the press about what is happening in the agency.
As an example, he pointed to a story that said the State Department was considering dropping democracy promotion from its mission statement. Sullivan insisted the story was unfair because it had looked at only draft statements.
The State Department is committed to the concept of democracy and always will be, Sullivan said.