Tillerson seeks to ease scepticism about U.S. State Dept reorganization

By Arshad Mohammed
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson addresses a news conference during a meeting of OSCE Foreign Ministers in Vienna, Austria, December 7, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Rex Tillerson, dogged by media speculation about how long he will last as U.S. secretary of state, tried on Tuesday to ease scepticism among staff about his leadership and planned State Department reorganization.

Tillerson has alienated some staff by relying on a narrow group of aides while nudging out some of the department's most senior foreign service officials, and for making erroneous statements about the top echelon of U.S. diplomats during a recent appearance.

During a town hall meeting at the State Department, the chief U.S. diplomat laid out steps such as merging agency email lists, allowing more telecommuting for employees and partially easing a hiring freeze as part of his effort to win over workers unhappy about previously announced plans to reduce staff and to carry out the White House's proposed 30 percent budget cuts.

Tillerson did not break new ground in his speech on policy challenges such as the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programs, Syria's civil war and Russia's occupation of Crimea.

Among the organizational steps he laid out were moving to cloud-based systems for email and collaboration; integrating the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development email address lists; and ending a hiring freeze on "eligible family members" of employees.

Many State Department officials have been frustrated by the hiring freeze on such family members because this means their spouses are often unable to work at U.S. embassies. The State Department said its wider hiring freeze would remain for now.

Tillerson also announced plans to allow workers abroad who are evacuated for medical reasons to telecommute; to streamline the process of obtaining security clearances, including allowing interns to work with "interim" clearances; and to simplify the department's computer system interfaces.

Tillerson aides have said they need to make a stronger case about the reorganization.

While the initiatives that he announced drew some applause, five of six State Department officials interviewed about his remarks said they did not think the town hall would do much to ease scepticism about Tillerson or his reorganization plans.

"It's too little too late," said one official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

President Donald Trump has undercut Tillerson on issues such as North Korea, where the president said the secretary of state was wasting his time pursuing diplomacy.

Tillerson's inaccurate statements about the title and ages of some the State Department's recently retired top officials have rankled some of his staff and suggested that his grasp of the agency's inner workings is limited.

"It's one of many things that show that the administration as a whole doesn't fundamentally understand what diplomacy can do and how it works," Richard Boucher, a former assistant secretary for South and Central Asia, said on Monday.

(Reporting by Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Alistair Bell and Tom Brown)