September 7, 2017
An Atlantic Council Roadmap for State Department Reform
By Rachel Ansley
A key recommendation is to use the US Agency for International Development (USAID) as “the platform to build a more robust, effective civilian assistance capacity, empowering it with an expanded mission set and greater control over US foreign assistance efforts.”
The report’s authors—ten foreign policy experts—also agreed that in order to make the State Department more effective, its structure must be refined, its personnel properly prepared for their jobs, and its relationship with the US Congress improved.
This analysis is “more important than ever,” US Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) said at the Atlantic Council on September 6. Royce delivered the keynote address at the report’s launch.
“Defeating [the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] ISIS and other threats requires a strong State Department and foreign service,” according to Royce, who is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Therefore, he said, the report “at its core, is really about how to improve America’s national security and how to promote our interests around the globe.”
In introductory remarks, David C. Miller, Jr., a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, and one of the authors of the report, described the motivation and structure of the recommendations to reform the State Department. In recent years, said Miller, “we have failed to achieve a number of goals we ought to have achieved because the objectives were fine, but the execution was poor.” The report, he said, aims to identify areas that can be improved upon to enhance the function of the department.
“It is clear that the State Department is our most important foreign policy institution,” said Royce. While undermining the department’s authority and limiting the funding of foreign aid will not help its mission, he said, the institution must confront difficult questions regarding its efficacy.
The report is divided into five sections that focus on the State Department’s structure and processes, personnel, budget, congressional relations, and the role of USAID.
Since US President Donald J. Trump took office, senior positions have remained empty at the State Department, and a budget proposal from the president aims to cut funding for US foreign aid. “We cannot afford a weakened State Department,” said Chester Crocker, a professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service and one of the authors of the report.
Crocker, who served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs in the Reagan administration, insisted: “We need to strengthen [the State Department], restore it, and empower it to do better.”
Some of the authors of the report discussed their recommendations in a panel moderated by David Ignatius, a columnist at the Washington Post.
“There really is a consensus behind the idea that it is time for some fundamental changes” to the State Department, said Ignatius, adding: “The moment for reorganization has come.”
Thomas Pickering, who served as under secretary of state for political affairs in the Clinton administration, called for a delayering and delegation of authority throughout the department. He said that a multitude of bureaus and layers of authority leads to overlapping responsibilities, and inevitable friction. In addition, too many bureaus means too many people reporting to the secretary of state.
“State should look at itself as having no more than three layers,” Pickering said, so as to “combine speed with expertise.” However, expertise depends on the caliber of the people working in the department.
“Above all else, the most important national security asset of all is our people,” said Royce. He insisted that any effort at reform “must focus on ensuring our foreign service officers have the leadership, training, security that they need to get this job done for the United States.”
“The people are the ones who implement the policy; the people are the ones who make the decisions,” said Rand Beers, who most recently served as acting secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security in the Obama administration. In his contribution to the report, Beers said that “we need to be thinking about who is representing the United States overseas and in Washington.”
In addition, the State Department’s budget must also have a more targeted focus and centralized ownership with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, said Brad Higgins, a partner at SOSV. He said that “the budgets in Washington are spending plans; they’re not resource-focused.” Higgins, who served as assistant secretary of state for resource management and chief financial officer (CFO), called for a “fully loaded cost analysis” of State resources. He added that the difficult decisions regarding the allocation of funds must be made by Tillerson himself, rather than a series of CFOs from individual bureaus who do not work together.
The authors called for increased coordination not only within the State Department, but also between the department and the US Congress. “There is deep distrust between the department and the Hill,” said Jodi Herman, vice president for government relation and public affairs at the National Endowment for Democracy. In order to improve the function of the State Department and strengthen its mandate abroad, that relationship must be improved, she said.
According to Lester Munson, international vice president for BGR Group, improved communication between the State Department and the Hill could help make Congress a more educated stakeholder in the department’s success. Congressional support helps turn diplomatic agreements into consistent policy, he said.
The final recommendation, set forth by Karen Hanrahan, president and chief executive officer of Glide Foundation, advocates for the consolidation of US foreign assistance, currently dispersed across a number of agencies, under USAID. Hanrahan, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights in the Obama administration, said that coordinating diverse aid efforts under a single agency would, rather than diminish USAID’s authority, “empower it with expanded mission and greater control over foreign assistance.”
“Although USAID is not currently fully equipped to play this role… any administration would benefit from using this agency as a platform from which to build a more robust civilian capacity,” she said.
Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council.