Tillerson Said to Seek 9% Cut to State Department Workforce

(Bloomberg) -- The State Department plans to cut 2,300 U.S. diplomats and civil servants -- about 9 percent of the Americans in its workforce worldwide -- as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson presses ahead with his task of slashing the agency’s budget, according to people familiar with the matter.

The majority of the job cuts, about 1,700, will come through attrition, while the remaining 600 will be done via buyouts, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because the decision hasn’t been publicly announced. William Inglee, a former Lockheed Martin Corp. official and policy adviser in Congress, is overseeing the budget cuts and briefed senior managers on the plan Wednesday, the people said.

The personnel cuts, which may be phased in over two years, represent the most concrete step taken by Tillerson as he seeks to reverse the expansion the department saw under former President Barack Obama’s administration and meet President Donald Trump’s demand -- outlined in an executive order signed last month -- to cut spending across federal agencies. A draft budget outline released in March for the year that begins Oct. 1 seeks a 28.5 percent reduction in State Department spending from fiscal 2016.

The proposed cuts reflect a belief shared by many conservatives that the State Department and other government agencies have grown too large and drifted away from their core missions. Tillerson was taken aback when he arrived on the job to see how much money the State Department was spending on housing and schooling for the families of diplomats living overseas, according to one person familiar with his thinking.

The moves come as Tillerson, who mostly kept out of sight in his first weeks as secretary, is taking on an increasingly visible public role. He traveled to New York on Friday to chair a United Nations Security Council debate on how to curb North Korea’s expanding nuclear weapons program.

Current and former diplomats say they fear that the job cuts will bite into the work of the State Department and undermine the voice of the U.S. overseas.

‘Simply Mindless’

“Just cutting without deciding what change you want to make is simply mindless,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs who served as U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet Union.

“A new administration is right to look at what Cabinet departments do, but does it want the United States to do less in the world — and if so, exactly what?” he added. “Those are the questions that need to be answered before you make big cuts at State.”

The planned jobs cuts come as the State Department is preparing a major reorganization of its work and mission. The rethinking is part of a process of asking if the State Department is “set up to meet the needs of the next two decades” after 16 years focused on counterterrorism following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, according to R.C. Hammond, Tillerson’s communications adviser.

90-Day Mark

Tillerson will address staff next week to mark the first 90 days since he came into office to tell them his vision for the department, Hammond said. In excerpts of an interview with NPR News airing Friday, Tillerson said the department’s mission is to deliver on Trump’s policies to “to provide the national security needs of the American people and to advance America’s economic interests around the world.”

“I think the issue for us is how well we deliver on that mission through all of the various aspects of what the State Department does, from diplomacy to our assistance programs to helping nations that are just emerging to dealing with conflicts,” he said.

That reorganization plan will also involve a survey that will be sent next week to all 75,000 or so State Department staff, including foreigners, as well as employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development and diplomats’ family members to determine whether they have the resources they need to do their jobs.

“Do you have the tools you need to do your job? If you do, what’s working and if you don’t, what do you think you need?” Hammond said. “And from there you will see what comes back and will make the next decision.”

Hiring Pace

The survey, being conducted by consulting company Insigniam, will later select several hundred State Department and U.S. AID staff and diplomats for in-person interviews. Hammond said there wouldn’t be a conflict between cutting spending and the outreach to see if employees have the resources they need.

“This is what we work out through the budget process,” Hammond said. “Our plan is to start with priorities and work backwards. You start with the resources you do have and you prioritize your choices.”

State Department officials are also seeking to ease concerns about the slow pace of hiring in the department: Almost all Senate-confirmed jobs, including ambassadorships and assistant secretaries, remain unannounced.

Policy is being determined by a relatively small group that includes Tillerson, policy planning chief Brian Hook, chief of staff Margaret Peterlin and a few acting assistant secretaries of state at regional bureaus.

But the lack of clarity has damaged morale among the department’s rank and file, according to the people. Departments are supposed to be in the thick of planning for the 2018 and even the 2019 budgets, and many of those conversations have been frozen by a lack of clarity.

“They’re behind the curve, but they’re not totally off base,” said Richard Boucher, a former assistant secretary of state under secretaries from both parties. “Generally I’d say people don’t have a sense of direction, and the rumors of what the reorganization is going to look like are just rampant and nobody knows if jobs are going to be there and what’s going to happen.”