THE BLOG
12/23/2017 09:01 EST | Updated 12/23/2017 09:01 EST

How Secretary Tillerson Can Right The State Department

He would do well to take a page from our former boss.

MOLLY RILEY via Getty Images

From 2009 until 2013, we were in charge of management at the Department of State. It was a new position created by Secretary Hillary Clinton, housed right next to her office and given the highest department rank aside from the secretary herself. She recognized the need to streamline how the department uses its resources to get the most out of its diplomats and development experts, and to match resources to policy objectives.

Secretary Tillerson talks about doing the same. But every indication suggests otherwise. Republicans and Democrats alike – from John McCain and Bob Corker to Ben Cardin – voice concern about an absence of transparency and no sign of a sound plan for reform.

Just this month, a young, promising career diplomat named Elizabeth Shackelford left the Foreign Service after expressing concern for its future. This is one of many signals that there needs to be a mid-course correction at the Department of State.

The men and women who do our vital diplomatic work need a leader who listens and responds to the challenges they face.

Secretary Tillerson faces many global challenges which are difficult to solve. But one thing he can control would be to leave a lasting mark on how to effectively manage the department he heads. And he would do well to take a page from an unlikely source, our former boss: Secretary Clinton.

Here are three things he can do right now to improve our national security and standing in the world.

1) Fill diplomatic posts. As of the end of last month, 10 of the 44 top positions at the Department remained unfilled. Like any business, government agencies need human capital in order to thrive. Even with his hands tied on a number of global issues, Secretary Tillerson can make headway by simply filling these empty posts. He has yet to fill the post we held ― Deputy Secretary for Management and Resources ― a position created by a Republican congress, and first filled by Secretary Clinton, to ensure a laser focus on how the department uses its resources.

We may not agree on every foreign policy decision, but conducting diplomacy, like running a business, requires people with the right skills. And this should not be a partisan issue.

2) Cultivate young talent. Since President Trump’s inauguration, over 100 foreign service officers have left the department. Unless something changes, that number will continue to grow, as we saw with Ms. Shackelford most recently. Career diplomats who understand the nuances of complex geopolitical dynamics are not only key to making progress today, they also mentor young officers and strengthen our diplomatic corps for generations to come. This is a matter of basic personnel management: Secretary Clinton held regular town halls, listening to department staff about what they needed to do their jobs most effectively. The result was big changes, like making it easier to rebuild schools in war zones, and small yet significant ones like, installing a better web browser on department computers, something employees requested through an online message board she created. The men and women who do our vital diplomatic work need a leader who listens and responds to the challenges they face.

Young people from all walks of life, and every corner of our country, still want to contribute through public service. Secretary Tillerson should recruit the best and the brightest, train them well and leave a legacy for those who come next.

3) Advocate for funding and put it to good use. The State Department budget is roughly 10 percent of what the Pentagon receives annually, but a vital part of our national security strategy. Investing in diplomacy can also mitigate the need to put troops in harm’s way, which is why former military leaders such as General Petraeus and Defense Secretary Mattis have been huge advocates of the State Department budget.

Advocating for resources is just the first step ― they must also be put to efficient use. Secretary Clinton’s State Department established the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, an idea borrowed from a similar effort undertaken by the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, a Republican, established the review in 2001 to take stock of how we utilize our resources and put them to best use in a changing world. It was a bold plan to change the way we manage a large government agency, without regard to politics. Secretary Clinton, who doesn’t see eye to eye with Rumsfeld on policy, saw the value in this approach and borrowed the idea for the State Department.  Secretary Tillerson can use this framework, building on tools both parties have used with success in government agencies in the past.

During the Bush administration, strides were made to better coordinate the strategic allocation of foreign assistance with foreign policy objectives.  Secretary Clinton enhanced this effort by building up the budget review capacity at the Department of State to guide this process. Secretary Tillerson should continue to perfect this important capability and resist efforts to go back to a time when foreign assistance resource allocation and foreign policy were only loosely coordinated, if not disconnected.

Running State well is not just about building a better State Department. It sends a message to the world. In a Pew Research survey of G20 nations, in 2008 the United States had a favorability rating of 42 percent. In 2013, when Secretary Clinton left office, that number rose to a 57 percent favorability rating. And here at home, Americans saw she ran the department well, which is one of the reasons she left office with one of the highest approval ratings in the federal government. Henry Kissinger may not have agreed with the Obama administration’s foreign policy, but nonetheless he once remarked that Secretary Clinton had run the department in “the most effective way” he had ever seen.

The Department of State needs to keep pace with a rapidly changing world, and this means ongoing attention to management. This means we need to continue to recruit, retain and train the foreign service and civil service talent this requires. It is our hope that we continue the long history of both Democratic and Republican administrations of supporting and saluting the men and women who make up our State Department and diplomatic leadership.

Jacob J. Lew served as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources from 2009 to 2010 and Thomas R. Nides served as Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources from 2011 to 2013.