President Joe Biden traveled to the State Department headquarters Feb. 4 to deliver a message of support and unity to an agency that has seen a string of top level vacancies, a hiring freeze and reports of politically motivated attacks on career employees under the Trump administration.
“You’re the face of America abroad. And in our administration, you’re going to be trusted, and you’re going to be empowered — trusted and empowered to do your job,” Biden said
“But I ask each of you to abide by a few core tenets: Integrity in all you do. Let me say it again: Integrity in all you do. Transparency and accountability to rebuild trust in America and around the world. Working in the service of American people, not self-interest. And promoting diversity, equity, inclusion — accessibility across the board — because our diplomats, at all levels, should reflect the full diversity of this great country.”
According to a report produced by democratic staff for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in July 2020, more than a third of assistant or under secretary posts at the agency were vacant at the time or filled by acting officials.
A hiring freeze that begun at the start of the Trump presidency and lasted nearly a year and a half resulted in a workforce reduction of over 1,200 employees during that time – a significant blow for an agency that employs only around 12,000 feds.
Career staff also chose to leave in larger-than-average numbers under a working environment that the agency’s inspector general found in August 2019 had politically targeted career staff for perceived disloyalty.
The agency has also struggled to maintain diversity in its upper ranks, with white employees making up a larger percentage of leadership positions than they do in entry- and mid-level roles.
Biden, who has worked closely with the State Department during his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as vice president, emphasized the importance of the State Department workforce as the “face” of the U.S. abroad.
“I also know that you’ve never let us down. I believe in you. I believe in you. We need you badly. I trust you. And I’m going to have your back — that, I promise you — just like you’re going to have the backs of the American people,” Biden said.
“I know how much we ask of you and your families, and I mean that. I do know. It’s been a long time I’ve been dealing with this building and all of your predecessors. And the sacrifices you make are real and not recognized much by the country as a whole. They don’t know all that you do.”
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.