Tillerson tries to quell anxieties at State Dept. amid questions about his future

Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images(WASHINGTON) — Ten months after taking office and seven months after beginning a “redesign” of the department that critics say has hollowed it out, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is making a push to be more transparent and open and boost sagging morale — starting with the first of what will be many town halls on where the agency stands.

The push, described by a senior State Department official, comes as questions about his future continue to haunt Tillerson, after a White House plot to oust him was leaked to the press two weeks ago.

But Tillerson doubled down on his plans to revamp the nation’s foreign service agency and pushed back on continued reports that it was being dismantled.

In particular, after a monthslong multimillion-dollar process that included 35,000 State Department and USAID employees taking an online survey, 300 in-person interviews and employee-led teams narrowing those ideas down with the help of two outside consulting firms, Tillerson’s big reveal today was six changes to IT systems and personnel policy.

Some of the ideas got applause from those in attendance in Washington, such as an end to the hiring freeze for employees’ spouses at posts around the world. But that freeze was implemented by Tillerson, and a broader one remains in place for department employees. It’s been the cause of much frustration for missions and diplomats, although the State Department counters that Tillerson has signed 2,400 exemptions and denied only one to two dozen.

Tillerson also got applause for announcing a streamlining of the security clearance process, which “was frustrating for me,” he said to laughs, and for changes to personnel policy that allow employees on medical or maternity leave to telecommute instead of use up leave time.

But after months of planning that was seen as secretive by Capitol Hill and cuts to staffing through attrition, resignations, retirements and buy-outs, critics called it a small pot to show for his efforts.

“These are drops in a bucket compared to the magnitude of issues facing this department,” Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement. “These problems have been needlessly inflicted by this administration … It will take a lot of hard work to help State and USAID recover from the damage the freeze and rudderless ‘redesign’ have done.”

Tillerson referred to some bigger changes coming down the line, including upgrading and integrating the IT and HR systems, streamlining the process for policy to be created and raised to his attention and eliminating duplicative systems and processes.

He said that there will be no embassy or consulate closures but that there will be a re-evaluation of how many people are needed at various posts — citing London, Paris and Rome as missions that will likely be cut back.

These new projects are two or three years in the future, he said — implying that he was sticking around to see them through.

In the face of the reports that he was being ousted, Tillerson was at his most passionate talking about organizational performance, saying finding ways to increase it has been “one of the things I’ve gotten the greatest satisfaction from” in his career — and that he did not necessarily enjoy diplomacy.

“The actual task at hand of dealing with North Korea? I don’t enjoy that,” he told the room of employees and those watching at posts around the world. “But I enjoy working with Susan Thornton on it,” referring to the acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs as an example of a colleague he’s gotten to know.

“Unleashing” the talent of the department’s personnel seemed to be his top priority.

“It is all about our greatest asset, you the people — how do we develop the talent that resides inside of you, the capability inside of you, and then do we enable you to put it to work on behalf of the American people,” he added. “That’s what the redesign is about, nothing more, nothing less.”

A senior State Department official said that Tillerson acknowledges, understands and respects how people feel but blamed the low morale on a messaging problem. “We have to do a better job to communicate to internal and external audiences the accomplishments and achievements, his vision for the U.S.’s position in the world, and he is committed to doing that,” the official said.

To that end, Tillerson’s senior aide R.C. Hammond, who worked with him through the transition and became his de facto spokesman, is out. Tuesday was his last day at the department after a tsunami of bad headlines for his boss over his first 11 months in office.

Tillerson will play a more public role now as he and his team seek to combat the narrative that he is gutting the department.

He praised the work of foreign service officers and civil servants, especially those who have been filling roles in acting capacities and who have faced attacks from conservatives who see them as holdovers from the Obama administration.

At a speech later in the day, Tillerson acknowledged that there are “lots of open positions. I’ve got nominees for them. I’d love to get them in place. It makes a big difference.” He thanked those who have stepped up in the interim — and tried to offer a bit of humor about the delays, often the result of infighting with the White House.

“Some people seem to want to observe that there’s nothing happening at the State Department because I’m walking through this hollowed-out building and listening to the echoes of the heels of my shoes as I walk down the halls,” he said to laughs at that speech, before the Atlantic Council in Washington.

In addition to the speech, the public push will include an editorial planned for sometime next week.

But some of what Tillerson said in the town hall didn’t seem to help the new push. He recounted how he did not know any State Department employees or diplomats in his previous career, shrugging his shoulders with a laugh and saying, “Sorry.”

Asked whether he enjoyed his job, he laughed for a bit before saying, “I am learning to enjoy it. Look, it’s — this is a hard job.”

Tillerson tried to open up and show a different side of himself, including his admiration for the culture of the American West, where “your word is your bond,” he said. He added that that’s a philosophy he has carried with him throughout his “global diplomacy in the private sector,” in oil deals with foreign leaders.

Critics point out Trump has backed away from deals that the U.S. previously pledged its support to, like the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

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