Critics say Rex W. Tillerson is still acting like a corporate executive and not the secretary of state.
WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson said Thursday that the most important thing he could do during his tenure was to make the State Department more efficient, and in a lengthy letter to employees he promised that the efforts would yield significant savings.
To his critics, his remarks and the letter outlining his proposals were simply more evidence of their contention that the former petroleum engineer is still acting like a corporate chief executive and not the nation’s chief diplomat.
In the letter, Mr. Tillerson wrote with a businessman’s shorthand that his plan “contains seven ambitious proposals with investments that will generate a minimum deliverable of 10 percent ($5B) in efficiencies relative to current (FY2017) spending over the next five years, with an aspirational general interest target of up to 20 percent ($10B).”
“The most important thing I can do is to enable this organization to be more effective, more efficient and for all of you to take greater satisfaction in what you do day in and day out,” Mr. Tillerson told a gathering of embassy employees in London.
“Because if I accomplish that,” he continued, “that will go on forever, and you will create the State Department for the future.”
Since the day Mr. Tillerson arrived at the State Department, aides have remarked that one of the few aspects of the job that seemed to truly delight Mr. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, were detailed discussions about decision trees and bureaucratic hurdles.
For just as long, veteran diplomats have pointed out that tinkering with the department’s organization chart is the kind of necessary but thankless duty that a secretary usually assigns an assistant. A low-level assistant.
“It’s really unfortunate that that is the secretary’s highest priority,” said John Negroponte, a career diplomat who was President George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations.
If Mr. Tillerson had hired a capable team of top aides, they could have reorganized the department while Mr. Tillerson focused on more important affairs, Mr. Negroponte said.
“I think he has it all wrong,” Mr. Negroponte said.
It is a view shared by many at the State Department who have long hoped that Mr. Tillerson would help imbue their work with the kind of larger purpose for which many joined the Foreign Service. John Kerry, Mr. Tillerson’s predecessor, exhorted them to save the planet from climate change. Condoleezza Rice charged them with fulfilling the human yearning for freedom and democracy.
Mr. Tillerson wants to fix their email system.
“That’s why we call it a process redesign,” he said Thursday, using the kind of management talk rarely uttered by the nation’s chief diplomat.
To be sure, the flights of rhetoric of Mr. Tillerson’s predecessors sometimes fell with a thud. And the State Department’s email system is truly horrible, having entirely crashed recently for most of a day.
But employees yearn to be part of something bigger than a bureaucratic Gordian knot, and Mr. Tillerson rarely even tries to speak of a larger purpose.
The capital “B” in his letter to employees referred to billions of dollars. Even so, such a plan would deliver far fewer savings, spread out over a much longer period of time, than Mr. Tillerson’s own budget plan initially envisioned, which will be greeted with some relief both in the department and on Capitol Hill.
Members of Congress have complained that Mr. Tillerson has given them almost no details of his plans, and a spending blueprint passed last week by a crucial Senate committee largely rejected Mr. Tillerson’s proposed cuts, with a bipartisan group of senators saying that now was not the time to retreat from diplomacy.
Mr. Tillerson must provide the White House with an outline of his redesign by Friday, although he has said that the full details will most likely not be available until the end of the year, with implementation beginning next year.
Mr. Tillerson’s relationship with President Trump has deteriorated in recent weeks, particularly after he sharply criticized Mr. Trump’s reaction to the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Va. Rumors that he would soon resign have swirled for weeks.
His remarks Thursday did nothing to put such rumors to rest.
“The most important thing I want to do during the time I have,” he began at one point, suggesting that the remainder of his tenure was limited.
In his letter, Mr. Tillerson also said he was looking at more flexible, family-friendly working schedules and that he was making provisions to allow more family members to fill needed jobs in embassies.
Alone among the Trump administration’s cabinet secretaries, Mr. Tillerson has kept a hiring freeze in place, preventing spouses of many diplomats from taking jobs in embassies, a highly unpopular policy.
Such spousal jobs are often an accepted part of hardship assignments and crucial to the family finances of diplomats. Spouses can often do such jobs far more cheaply than another diplomat, who must be sent out separately and given independent housing. Mr. Tillerson’s nod to the problem of spousal jobs will most likely be well received.
“Our working groups have also identified areas where we can improve our human resource functions, empower leadership at all levels, improve management support services to reduce redundancies while ensuring you have the tools you need to do your job,” Mr. Tillerson wrote in his letter.
Mr. Tillerson wrote that some of his redesign efforts had already been implemented, including the closing of many of the nearly 60 special envoy offices.
“Once a solution is ready to go, we are going to put it to work as soon as we can,” he wrote.