WASHINGTON — America’s diplomats are struggling to figure out what mission the Trump administration expects them to carry out, and they see the importance of their jobs waning as President Donald Trump seeks drastic cuts to the budgets of the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.
The results of a survey commissioned by the State Department found a high level of confusion and demoralization among the ranks of career diplomats and civil servants who expressed concerns about their futures as well as the trajectory of American foreign policy. The survey results were released to State Department and USAID employees Wednesday in a 110-page report that was first reported by The Wall Street Journal. A copy of the report was obtained by The Associated Press shortly after it was distributed to employees.
The survey, conducted by a private consulting firm, was ordered in late April by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former Exxon Mobil CEO. Tillerson was brought into Trump’s administration in part due to his experience running a massive organization, and he was given a mission to reorganize the State Department. Tillerson has largely accepted the administration’s plans to slash diplomatic and development funding, although he faces intense bipartisan opposition in Congress, which will likely reverse at least some of his proposed 31 percent cut in funding. Such funds account for a little more than 1 percent of the federal budget.
In addition to grave unease about the future, many of the 35,000 employees who responded to the survey complained about management culture, working conditions, uncertain performance goals and technological shortcomings that pre-date the Trump administration.
“No one we interviewed said that the working environment at USAID or DOS enabled them to be successful;” the report’s authors said, using an acronym for the Department of State.
But as Tillerson weighs sweeping changes, many employees also expressed doubts that he or Trump understand their role or appreciate their work, according to the report.
One employee told interviewers he feared the agency would be overhauled “to save costs” without an understanding of what’s actually being cut.
“Our leaders do not understand our mission and our capabilities,” said the employee, who like others in the report was not named.
Tillerson, in a video message to employees accompanying the report’s release, sought to alleviate concerns that the survey was being used to justify major changes that Tillerson and Trump had decided upon long ago.
“We began this process with no preconceived notions about the outcome,” said Tillerson. “Our goal is, and always has been, to address challenges to the way our department operates.”
The survey comes as the roughly 75,000 workers employed globally by the State Department brace for what administration officials have indicated will be a far-reaching overhaul, involving job cuts, program eliminations and the expected consolidation of many offices in the agency’s sprawling bureaucracy. Trump’s budget proposal to Congress includes almost a one-third cut to Tillerson’s budget.
Tillerson’s initial proposals for reorganizing the agency also included the elimination of about 2,300 jobs, though aides have suggested those would come through attrition and retirements and not necessarily through layoffs. The slow pace of filling key State Department jobs under Trump, including most assistant secretaries who oversee geographic regions, has also raised concerns that those positions may never be filled.
Officials briefed on Tillerson’s plans have said he’s also considering merging the State Department and USAID, a notion that elicited particular concern in the survey. The report said employees had mixed opinions about how the agencies should be structured but were concerned that making USAID a division of the State Department would lead to foreign aid being overly politicized.
Describing a lack of accountability, workers also said they were less efficient than they could be due to time-consuming requirements to have even basic decisions approved by numerous offices with differing interests, according to the report. Many said they spent so much time documenting what they were doing that they lacked the time to actually do it.
“We spend hours generating reports that Congress demands, and then you hear from someone well-placed on (Capitol Hill) ‘we don’t actually read those reports,'” one worker said.
Tillerson said the State Department’s leadership would keep listening to input as it starts “the next phase of transforming State and USAID for the future.” He said a steering committee led by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan would work on those reforms over the next three to six months.
More than 35,000 State Department and USAID workers took the survey, a participation rate of 43 percent, the authors said, while another 300 were interviewed. To conduct the survey, the State Department hired Insigniam Holding LLC, a management consulting firm.