Tillerson submits State Department reform plan

Story highlights

  • Tillerson said he hopes to save up to $10 billion over five years with the redesign
  • Last week a Senate panel kept State's funding levels on par with recent years

(CNN)Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday submitted the first phase of his long-awaited reform plan for State Department and the US Agency for International Development, calling it "the most important thing" he'll do as head of the agency.

Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said he presented the plan to the White House Office of Management and Budget on Thursday.
In an email to employees Wednesday, the text of which was provided to CNN, Tillerson said he hopes to save up to $10 billion over five years with the redesign, which seeks to "align" resources from the State Department and USAID, a goal which suggests he could merge the two agencies.
    Tillerson's efforts are being watched closely by many in Washington, who have chaffed at the many top leadership positions left vacant during the restructuring process. They are also anxious over the Trump administration's budget proposal to cut the State Department and USAID's annual budget by roughly a third.
    But last week, a Senate panel kept State's funding levels on par with recent years and folded management amendments that could limit Trump's budget restriction efforts into the spending bill.
    Tillerson has called the restructuring "employee-led" and wrote in the email that the input he received from an agency-wide survey and a listening tour of the State Department and USAID would govern the redesign.
    The online questionnaire, sent in May to all staff at the State Department and USAID, asked for their help in building a "word cloud" to characterize the department's current mission and what it should be over the next 20 years.
    The focus was on how to streamline the country's oldest Cabinet agency, clarify its mission and make it more efficient.
    More than 35,000 employees responded to the survey, Tillerson told employees at the US embassy in London on Thursday during a visit there. He said that 200 people have been working on redesign teams and he has met with some of them.
    "I just can't tell you how excited I am," he told them. "You know where you're having problems, where you're struggling, where things get in the way of you being effective. That's what we want to get at. And that's why we call it a process redesign. A reorganization is taking boxes on a chart and cramming them together and moving them around, but nothing really changes. We want to get down to how do you get your work done and how can we help you get your work done more efficiently, more effectively."
    In the email, Tillerson said the survey revealed that modernizing the bureau's antiquated technology and improving workplace flexibility were identified as priorities. He said he would also seek to increase the ability for spouses of US diplomats serving in overseas posts to be hired to fill administrative jobs at embassies and consulates.
    "Our working groups have also identified areas where we can improve our human resource functions, empower leadership at all levels, and improve management support services to reduce redundancies while ensuring our employees have the tools they need to do their jobs," Tillerson said, adding that he would continue to implement other recommendations on a "rolling basis."
    "Some will require Congressional approval or a change in law, some will require OMB support, but there are several actions we can begin to undertake internally," he said.
    Tillerson pointed to efforts to increase diversity in the State Department workforce, which he previewed in a letter to Congress last month as well as plans to integrate certain Special Envoy offices into the bureau structures and eliminate others.
    Tillerson hinted at a reorganization on his first day at the State Department, even before the Trump administration signaled its intent to cut up to 30% of the agency's budget. The letter to Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, outlined some of the first concrete steps the former ExxonMobil CEO will take in his restructuring.
      Tillerson said he would end or transfer as many as three dozen special envoy positions. Those who cover Syria, Sudan and South Sudan, and the Arctic will be eliminated, while other positions dedicated to thorny diplomatic issues, ranging from Mideast peace to relations with Afghanistan, would be subsumed under existing State Department bureaus.
      The agency is expected to shed about 2,000 jobs in the restructuring process, State Department officials told CNN, but plans to do so over the next two and a half years through attrition rather than layoffs or buyouts.