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The Businessman’s Priorities in Government: Cut Spending in the Name of Efficiency

September 16, 2017

Over the last couple of days the NYTimes reported on Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s quest to impose efficiencies on the State Department in the name of saving money. His approach in hacking at the State Department bureaucracy is reminiscent of the tactics used by non-educators recruited to lead schools on the theory that “running schools like a business” will result in greater efficiency and savings to the taxpayers. But, as often noted in this blog, the metrics in schools— and the State Department— are softer than those of business. As Times writer Gardiner Harris reports, Mr. Tillerson’s obsession with efficiency is not only alienating people in his Department, it is bringing rebukes from former GOP State Department officials and current GOP legislators:

The changes are part of a wholesale rethinking by Mr. Tillerson of how the State Departments conducts diplomacy. That rethinking has led Mr. Tillerson, a former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, to leave many jobs unfilled and preside over a restructuring scheduled to begin next year that will shrink the department’s work force and recast its duties.

For the State Department’s diplomats — already deeply skeptical of Mr. Tillerson’s lack of foreign policy experience, his inability to make timely decisions, put a leadership team in place or express a global strategy — the cuts are further evidence of his lack of understanding of what the department does. 

Former officials are more outspoken — and more willing to be quoted.

These cuts are needlessly stupid,” said Eliot A. Cohen, a top department official during the administration of President George W. Bush. “So much of what diplomacy is about is building and maintaining relationships.”

Congressional critics have sounded much the same theme, and have not reacted positively to Mr. Tillerson’s plans for cuts or restructuring. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who leads the subcommittee that controls the State Department’s budget, issued a spending plan last week that largely rejected Mr. Tillerson’s proposed cuts, saying, “Now is not the time for retreat.”

Mr. Cohen’s remarks are the most telling, because they underscore the major difference between operating a service organization, like the State Department, and a business, like Exxon Mobil. It strikes me that Lindsay Graham might be able to help Mr. Tillerson appreciate the difference by asking hims if Exxon-Mobil cut back on its expenditures for lobbyists when the news broke about his organization’s prior knowledge about the impact of fossil fuels on global warming…. because the lobbying of businesses is analogous to the work of the State Department…. and lobbying, like diplomacy, is about building and maintaining relationships.

Those who are dismayed with Mr. Tillerson’s approach might take heart in reading that the President, too, is dismayed with Mr. Tillerson… not because of his performance as leader of the State Department but because Mr. Tillerson spoke out against Mr. Trump’s inflammatory remarks following the incidents in Charlottesville.

But in the face of this criticism, Mr. Tillerson marches forward in the name of efficiency:

On Thursday, Mr. Tillerson said in remarks to employees that the most important thing he could do during his tenure was to make the State Department more efficient. For him and his top aides, saving tens of thousands of dollars on unnecessary hotel rooms is a sign of good stewardship. For his diplomats, it shows that he fails to understand the importance of routine diplomacy below his level.

If Mr. Tillerson and his other Cabinet colleagues with a business background fail to grasp the differences between rewarding shareholders and serving the nation we are in trouble. Here’s hoping that the voices of former and current GOP leaders who understand that difference are heard.

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