The Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently released its report on Tillerson’s redesign projects (although those projects were no longer called that). GAO looked into the status of the reform efforts that the State Department reported to Congress in February 2018 and also looked at the extent to which State addressed key practices critical to the successful implementation of agency reform efforts.
GAO has determined that “State leadership has not provided the focus necessary to support the officials responsible for implementing all these reform projects.”
Uh-oh! Some excerpts below.
Remember the Listening Tour?
In response to the March 2017 Executive Order 13781 and the ensuing OMB memo, State launched a “listening tour” intended to gather ideas and feedback from State and USAID employees. As a key component of this outreach effort, State hired a contractor to design and administer a confidential online survey, which was sent to all State and USAID employees in May 2017. According to the contractor’s report, the survey had a 43 percent response rate, with 27,837 State employees and 6,142 USAID employees responding to the survey. The contractor also conducted in-person interviews with a randomly selected cross section of personnel, which included 175 employees from State and 94 from USAID.
17 Reform Projects Plus
The planning teams developed specific reform projects, listed below in table 2 (17 reform projects, see page7-8 of report), which State described in the fiscal year 2019 budget justification it submitted to Congress in February 2018.9 According to implementing officials, all these projects predated the Executive Order and OMB memo issued in the spring of 2017. They also noted, however, that the administration’s reform-related directives helped advance State’s preexisting efforts by focusing management attention and agency resources on these projects. (9 In addition to these reform projects, State’s Congressional Budget Justification also reported seven changes related to its reform efforts that are complete or underway. State reported that it is (1) expanding employment opportunities for eligible family members; (2) implementing cloud-based email and collaboration; (3) increasing flexibilities for employees on medical evacuations; (4) streamlining the security clearance process; (5) simplifying the permanent change-of-station travel process; (6) improving temporary duty travel options and experience; and (7) integrating USAID and State global address lists.
Status: Completed-1, Continuing-13, Stalled-2, Discontinued-1
As of April 2019, according to State officials and status reports, State had completed one of its 17 reform projects; 13 projects were continuing; two projects were stalled pending future decisions or actions; and one project was discontinued.
According to State officials, as of April 2019, although 13 of the reform projects described in the fiscal year 2019 Congressional Budget Justification were considered by State to be continuing, some had been scaled back, slowed down, or both as a result of senior leadership’s shifting priorities and attention.
Leadership Focus and Attention
In February 2018, State reported to Congress in its fiscal year 2019 budget justification that it was pursuing the reform projects we described above. In March 2018, the first transition affecting the implementation of those projects occurred when the President removed the then Secretary of State and nominated the then CIA director to replace him; in April 2018, the Senate confirmed the current Secretary. According to senior State officials, when the new Secretary took office, his top priority was ending the hiring freeze and restarting a concerted recruitment effort because vacancies in key positions and a general staffing shortfall would otherwise have led to what one senior official described as a “cataclysmic failure” at State. These senior officials noted that the new Secretary decided some of the existing reform projects were not well designed and that he wanted greater emphasis on cybersecurity and data analytics. They said he also wanted to pursue other initiatives, including a new proposal to create a Global Public Affairs Bureau by merging two existing bureaus. The senior officials told us that the Secretary authorized responsible bureaus and offices to determine whether to continue, revise, or terminate existing reform efforts or launch new initiatives. However, State did not formally communicate other changes in its reform priorities to Congress, such as its plan to no longer combine State and USAID’s real property offices.
State initiated another transition in leadership of the reform efforts in April 2018 when it disbanded the dedicated planning teams overseeing the reform efforts and delegated responsibility for implementing the reform projects to relevant bureaus and offices. As the planning teams finished working on their particular reform efforts and prepared to transfer these projects to the bureaus, some planning teams provided memos and reports on the status of their efforts and offered recommendations for the bureaus to consider when determining next steps in implementing the projects. Some implementing officials, however, reported that they received little or no direction regarding their projects or any other indication of continued interest in their project from department or bureau leadership aside from the initial notification that the project had been assigned to them.
Various State officials noted that the prolonged absence of Senate confirmed leadership in key positions posed additional challenges. We have previously testified that it is more difficult to obtain buy-in on longterm plans and efforts that are underway when an agency has leaders in acting positions because federal employees are historically skeptical of whether the latest efforts to make improvements are going to be sustained over a period of time
Leadership Transition Effects:
Taken together, the leadership transitions at State had two significant effects on State’s reform efforts. First, the transition of departmental leadership and lack of direction and communication about subsequent changes in leadership’s priorities contributed to uncertainty among implementing officials about the future of individual reform projects. Second, according to implementing officials, the transition of project responsibility from dedicated teams to bureau-level implementing officials resulted in fewer resources and a lack of senior leadership involvement and attention for some projects. Absent leadership decisions, implementing officials will continue to struggle with understanding leadership priorities with regard to State’s reform efforts. Similarly, for any projects that are determined to be leadership priorities, day-to-day implementation activities will continue to be hampered by the lack of a dedicated team to guide and manage the agency’s overall reform effort.
Don’t Forget USAID: Continuing Projects? Where? What?
GAO has not made any recommendations to USAID and yet, the agency has submitted a written response to highlight the State Department’s unwillingness to coordinate with them. What’s this about? (see Appendix III-Comments from the U.S. Agency for International Development – PDF/page25-26):