Here they are:
MS HARMAN: Mindful of your time, I just want to get in a few questions about other topics, including questions from the audience. But I would note that an interesting point you made in your talk was about Turkey, that Turkey now has a choice: It can become more connected to Europe, which is a huge advantage, and to us, or not. And I heard that loud and clear.
I want to turn to the question of State Department funding and organization, something that many people are interested in. Every organization needs renewal. The Wilson Center needs renewal. And surely, everyone here, including long-serving Foreign Service officers, think the State Department needs renewal. However, questions have arisen about the steep cuts in your budget proposed by the Office of Management and Budget – that doesn’t mean that’s what Congress will enact – and what some claim is a hollowing out of your department. Most recently today, two valued friends of the Wilson Center, Nick Burns and Ryan Crocker, both of them enormously experienced Foreign Service officers and ambassadors, wrote a piece in The New York Times with a lot of information about who’s leaving and what its implications are.
My understanding is there is another side to this story. And so I would like to ask you to tell your side of this story and give us your vision for what the State Department should become.
SECRETARY TILLERSON: Well, let me start quickly with the budget, because it’s – I think it’s the easier – actually easier question to address. The budget that the State Department was given in 2016 was a record-high budget – almost $55 billion. This was above what traditionally has been a budget that runs kind of the mid-30 billion level. And this was ramping up over the last few years, in many respects for some good reasons. But as we look at that spending level, quite frankly, it’s just not sustainable. It is very difficult to execute a $55 billion budget and execute it well. That’s a lot of spending and deployment of resources, and I take our stewardship of those dollars very seriously, and I take the congressional oversight obligations on us very seriously and am not going to brush them aside light handedly. So part of this was just a reality check: Can we really keep this up? And the truth of the matter is, it’d be very difficult to keep it up and do it well.
And secondly though, part of this bringing the budget numbers back down is reflective of an expectation that we’re going to have success in some of these conflict areas of getting these conflicts resolved and moving to a different place in terms of the kind of support that we have to give them. So it’s a combination of things – that sustainability, a recognition that those numbers are really the outliers. The numbers we’re moving to are not the outliers; they’re more historic in terms of the levels of spending.
As to the State Department redesign – and I use the word “redesign” because it would have been really easy to come in on day one and do a reorg. A “reorg,” when I use that word, is moving the boxes around on the org chart. When I showed up in the State Department, I was stunned when I got the organization chart out and I had 82 direct reports to the Office of the Secretary, to me – 82. Now, almost 70 of those are special envoys, special ambassadors, positions that have been created. So we immediately undertook an examination of just what’s a reasonable way to run the place, and that isn’t it. Having run a large global organization – and I have been through three major reorganizations in my history and actually enjoy doing it – it’s always focused on how do we help the people be more effective, how do we get the obstacles out of their way.
So we undertook a different approach, and since I don’t know the department and didn’t know its culture, we had a massive listening exercise. We had 35,000 people respond and we had over 300 face-to-face interviews, and we continue an active dialogue with people today about what is it – if I could do one thing for you that would make you more effective and make you – make your work more satisfying, what would that be. And we got hundreds of ideas. We’ve actually selected about 170 of those ideas that we are now perfecting.
The reason we call it a redesign is most of these have to do with work processes internally and work processes with inter-agencies that we should be able to improve the way people get their work done. Some of it is tools and enablement, so things like – we have a really antiquated IT system. I was shocked when I went down to spend an afternoon with the A Bureau, and I said, “What’s the one thing I could do?” And they said, “Get us into the cloud.” And I looked at them. I said, “What do you mean? We’re not in the cloud?” And they said, “No, no. We’re still on all these servers.” Well, that’s a big cyber risk, first. But it really made it very cumbersome for people, and when I started using my own computer I started realizing just how cumbersome it was.
So a lot of the projects that have been identified out of the redesign are process redesigns and some enablement for people, and it’s all directed at allowing the people of the State Department to get their work done more effectively, more efficiently, and have a much more satisfying career. We have a lot of processes in the HR function that have not been updated in decades, and they need to be updated. How we put people out on assignment – we invest enormous amounts of money in people that we deploy to missions overseas, and I was stunned to find out in a lot of the missions these are one-year assignments. So we invested all this money; we send them out to the mission. They’re there for one year, and about the time they’re starting to figure it out and have an impact, we take them out and we move them somewhere else. Well, a lot of people have said to me, “I would really like to stay another year and start contributing.” So it’s a lot of things like that that came out of the listening exercise.
So the – so we have five large teams. They’re all employee-led. I’ve brought in some consultants to help us facilitate, but the redesign is all led by the employees in the State Department.
The issue of the hollowing out – I think all of you appreciate that every time you have a change of government you have a lot of senior Foreign Service officers and others who decide they want to move on and do other things. We’ve had a – our numbers of retirements are almost exactly what they were in 2016 at this point. We have the exact same number of Foreign Service officers today – we’re off by 10 – that we had at this time in 2016. There is a hiring freeze that I’ve kept in place, because as we redesign the organization we’re probably going to have people that need to be redeployed to other assignments. I don’t want to have a layoff; I don’t want to have to fire a bunch of people. So I said, “Let’s manage some of our staffing targets with just normal attrition.”
Having said that, I have signed over 2,300 hiring exceptions, because I’ve told every post if you have a critical position and you really need that filled, just send it in. And I think I have out of 2,300 requests I think I’ve denied eight positions that I decided we really didn’t need. So we’re keeping the organization fully staffed. We’ve had over – we’re still running our Foreign Service officer school; we’ve hired over 300 this year. So there is no hollowing out. These numbers that people are throwing around are just false; they’re wrong.
There was a story about a 60 percent reduction in career diplomats. The post career diplomat was created by the Congress in 1955 to recognize an elite few. The number of career diplomats in the State Department have ranged from as low as one at any given time to as many as seven. When I took over the State Department we had six. Four of those people have retired. These are your most senior – they were – they reached 65, they retired, they moved on. We have a review process – we’re very selective in replacing those, but we actually have a review process underway and we’re evaluating a handful of people who might be worthy of that designation. But we still have two. But we went from six to two; it was a 60 percent reduction. It sounded like the sky was falling.
The other comment I would make is while the confirmation process has been excruciatingly slow for many of our nominees, I have been so proud of the acting assistant secretaries and people who’ve stepped into acting under secretary roles. And when the – I read these articles that there’s this hollowing out, I take offense to that on their behalf because the people that are serving in those roles are doing extraordinary work, and they know they’re not going to get the job permanently. They already know we have a nominee, but they come in every day, they work hard, they travel with me around the world, and that’s – it’s that group of people that have helped me put in place and helped the President put in place the North Korean strategy with the international sanctions; a Syrian approach to the peace process that we think we’re about to get on the right track; an approach to negotiating with the Russians on Ukraine; an approach to the Defeat ISIS campaign; the Iran policy, the South Asia policy in Afghanistan, our new posture towards Pakistan; the open – free and open Indo – all of that’s been done with the people that are working there today, and I’m very proud. I’m very proud of what they’ve done. They’re working hard and I’m offended on their behalf. I’m offended on their behalf when people say somehow we don’t have a State Department that functions.
But I can tell you it’s functioning very well from my perspective. Have we got more we want to do? Yes, we got more we want to do. And my only objective in the organization redesign is to help these people who are – who have chosen this as a career – because I’ll come and go, and there will be other politicals that will come and go – what can I do to help them? Because they’ve decided they want to spend their life doing this and they should be allowed to do it as effectively and efficiently and without a lot of grief and obstacles. And if I can remove some of that for them, that’s what I want to do.
After delivering those remarks SecState Tillerson went home and packed his bags. If you put any credence in today's media feeding frenzy.