Rapid Response Interview: Bill Burke-White on Changes in the State Department

Interview with PWH Director, Bill Burke-White: Restructuring the State Department

Interview conducted by Laurie Jensen, PWH Program Coordinator, on Thursday, January 26, 2017

Q: Today, the Washington Post reported that the State Department’s entire senior management team had resigned. What do we know about the causes of this collective action, and what are the immediate implications of the mass resignation for American foreign policy?

A (Bill): “The officials in question are among the senior career managers of the State Department. As members of the senior Foreign Service, they bring decades of expertise to the management of US embassies overseas, our consular (visa) processes, and embassy security. While these officials were Foreign Service Officers, they were in very senior positions (Such as the Under Secretary of State for Management) and, as such, serve at the pleasure of the President of the United States. Like all Presidential appointees, they had submitted their letters of resignation before the inauguration, but the widespread expectation was that, unlike politically appointed officials, they would be asked to stay on, either permanently or at least until their successors were chosen. 

What happened today is that President Trump accepted their resignations and they were formally removed from their positions. In reality, this constitutes something between being fired and resigning. It is unclear why President Trump accepted their resignations, particularly before any replacements were chosen, named, and confirmed by the US Senate. White House officials indicate that they effort was part of a "house cleaning" at the State Department. The problem is that these officials were not employed in a political or policy context – they are experts in operations management. Their [forced] departure will cost the State Department a vast amount of expertise and ability. The result, at least in the short term, is that our embassies will be less well-managed and our personnel will be less safe.”

Q: Rex Tillerson is now tasked with replacing his entire management team. Is this an opportunity or a setback for his foreign policy agenda?

A (Bill): “While the termination of this group of senior career officials opens up more senior management slots for Trump and Tillerson to fill, this will likely create challenges for our next Secretary of State. The Secretary depends upon the institutions of the State Department and our embassies overseas to function effectively to advance the new administration's foreign policy interests. A first challenge is that without officials like Undersecretary for Management Pat Kennedy, it will be harder for these institutions to function well.

A second challenge this presents for the new Secretary is that there are countless jobs to fill in the State Department. The White House and the new Secretary of State will want to concentrate first on key ambassadorships overseas and the senior policy jobs at the State Department. It is hard enough to find the right people for those positions and to get them confirmed by the Senate. They now will have to focus both on key policy positions, as well as on filling critical management positions as well. 

Thankfully, there are a great many career officials at the State Department with expertise in the management of the department and hopefully some of them will be empowered to step into these newly vacant management positions while the Secretary and the White House work on filling critical policy positions. But, at the very least, the departure of these officials add to the difficult staffing challenges at the State Department and leave the US --at least for the moment --more vulnerable and less effective.”