Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to hold a series of town halls for U.S. officials worried about his plan to reorganize the State Department, he told diplomats in Vienna.
“I appreciate your dedication to the mission,” Tillerson said Friday. “We’re going to try to give you some tools and capabilities that are going to allow you to be more effective at it.”
Tillerson’s tone was pitched to address a morale problem that his team has acknowledged openly, as rank-and-file diplomats worry about departures of senior officials and overall reductions in staffing levels. He emphasized the redesign is led by State Department officials rather than outside experts and tried to reassure staff worried that he doesn’t value the career personnel.
“One thing I do know is I have a quality of people that if you unleash their talents, the quality of what we do moves up, and I don’t have to have a bunch of consultants tell me that,” Tillerson said. “I appreciate every one of you.”
Tillerson took office with reform of the State Department’s inner workings as one his top priorities, following years of conservative complaints about the bureaucracy. But the development of the plan has drawn criticism from Republicans and Democrats of late, who fault him for being behind schedule and failing to provide Congress with sufficient information.
“I don't think they're anywhere close to having a plan to present relative to the reforms that they want to make there,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tenn., said in November.
That same week, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert urged career foreign service officers not to retire out of frustration with the leadership at Foggy Bottom.
“There is a morale issue in this building, and that's why I say, 'folks, hang in there,’” Nauert said. “I know that times may seem tough right now. I know that the headlines coming out of the State Department do not look good, do not look promising.”
Tillerson argued some of the headlines, particularly pertaining to the hiring freeze or State Department staff levels, have been wrong.
“We are providing that information out to certainly people on the Hill and others to know that this whole narrative that, somehow, people are leaving in droves is simply not true, and the numbers don’t bear that out,” he said. “But more importantly to me, the quality of the work doesn’t bear it out ... It’s all getting done because all of you are dedicated, and I know that.”
And the former ExxonMobil CEO, who has been accused of running an insular team at the State Department, reiterated that he’s taking advice on the redesign from long-serving diplomatic professionals. “They’ve got great ideas,” he said. “They’re your ideas. We want to just unleash all of that.”