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How President Trump’s State Department is sabotaging America’s future leadership

Ending the Presidential Management Fellows program will be a disaster.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is withdrawing his agency from the Presidential Management Fellows program. He shouldn’t. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Stephen K. Bannon pledged to destroy the American “administrative state.” Russian President Vladimir Putin is devoted to ending America’s global leadership. One of their most enthusiastic, and unexpected, allies? Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

The State Department’s decision to halt participation in the Presidential Management Fellows program is the latest baffling personnel move that will have lasting consequences for our government’s ability to protect and advance U.S. national interests. So far, the State Department is the only agency that has formally stopped recruiting fellows, but others also appear to be slowing this initiative. This is, one commenter put it, akin to “a Major League Baseball team giving up all draft picks, & ending minor league & scouting.”

It’s hard to find a rationale for this other than concluding that it is a deliberate sabotage of the most critical functions of government. Government jobs typically require candidates to navigate a cumbersome and nonintuitive application process (combined with security clearance for national security positions) that is not known for elevating talent. As a result, the best and the brightest often have incentives to look to the private sector, particularly where open, more lucrative positions are easily identifiable. The Presidential Management Intern, now Fellow, program was established in 1977 to help overcome this problem by attracting the best postgraduate professionals into public service through a streamlined process. The program has been a recruitment tool for some of the government’s top leaders, with alumni rising to deputy chief of staff of the White House, NASA administrator, a number of assistant secretary roles and running the Social Security and General Services Administration, as well as members of Congress.

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At the State Department, fellows and alumni work on the thorniest national security challenges we face, from North Korea to Iran. With classes of at most around 70 fellows, PMFs make up only a small portion of annual hires at the State Department, but they’re often given significant responsibility. These dedicated civil servants are the backbone of the infrastructure we all depend on to keep us safe, regardless of which party is in power. Their institutional expertise allows those who come and go through different administrations to do their jobs effectively. And they serve as true experts on a range of critical issues. As veterans of the program, we are dismayed that America’s most in-demand talent are being told that they are not wanted for public service.

And in practical terms, for an administration supposedly intent on bringing the best of the private sector to the public sector, this decision is the latest of many that make no business sense. The PMF program is one of the most cost-effective, streamlined and efficient ways to get high performers into government — and keep them. Even the most small-government-loving, bureaucrat-hating critics should love this concept! Recruits skip much of the inefficient government application process and are heavily screened for leadership potential. Hires are routinely dispatched to war zones, complex negotiations and high-priority task forces to hone their skills.

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It’s for these reasons, as well as genuine public spiritedness, that despite the long hours, low pay and the alternative sexiness of Silicon Valley and Wall Street, the program is still astonishingly competitive. The program hires 250 to 350 fellows annually from an applicant pool of 6,000 to 7,000, and its popularity is evidence that young Americans have yet to be turned off by the demonization of government drones. Young people still rank the federal government as among the top places they want to work, with the State Department, CIA and FBI consistently listed in the top 20 desired employers, ahead of even Facebook, Netflix, Tesla and Snapchat. For those who wish not only to serve but also to improve value to taxpayers, the PMF program, with its strong emphasis on management proficiency, is ideal.

As alumni of the program, we know that our government does not always make it easy to serve. Placing country above all else demands intensive commitment. We each entered government as PMFs in 2004 and 2005, called like many young Americans to national security after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, despite our personal concerns about the George W. Bush administration and its policies. One of us worked on North Korea policy, including negotiations on its nuclear program, and one of us worked on counterproliferation investigations and post-conflict stabilization policy, as well as former defense secretary Robert Gates’s transition team.

This was no sacrifice or oddity: Generations of public servants have thrown themselves into helping leaders figure out the hows, whys and whens of policy, working late nights for no glory regardless of the party at the helm. Our government depends on motivated people with the public interest at heart who ignore the narrative that calls them lazy or unpatriotic.

The State Department’s decision to halt participation in the PMF program is, unfortunately, part of a larger move to hollow out institutions across the federal government. Many administrations from both parties have undervalued civil servants, particularly in the national security sphere, but the Trump administration’s efforts go well beyond anything we have seen before. The administration seems to have deliberately aimed to make public service as unattractive as possible, starting with a hiring freeze and an ongoing public campaign to accuse the “deep state” of conspiracy against the president. The State Department, despite its relatively small size, has borne the brunt of these efforts, facing a significant budget cut, a deliberate effort to understaff its senior ranks and a principal with a public distaste for the role — and a charge for scorched-earth reform.

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But if Tillerson is a leader persuaded of his own organization’s bloat and ineffectiveness, his solutions might generously be termed bizarre. Only weeks ago, a frenzy erupted over his plan to cut off the Pickering and Rangel fellowships, programs comparable to the PMF that bring top — and diverse — talent into the ranks of the Foreign Service. He has also constrained his agency’s internal transfers, the ability to hire family members into critical roles overseas and personnel details to the National Security Council — all of which do much to enable the department’s most critical priorities. There is no private-sector playbook that urges executives to cut off their pipelines of top talent, or to hamstring their existing staff’s abilities.

These actions will be felt across agencies and for years to come. This administration’s message to smart and talented young people who want to serve their country is: We don’t want you.

And they will listen. Poor morale is already a growing challenge across the federal government, beset by years of wage freezes and threats of sequestration. We are hemorrhaging young talent to the private sector: The percentage of people under age 30 serving in the federal workforce has dropped from more than 20 percent in the 1970s to less than 7 percent in 2013 (compared with 25 percent in the private-sector workforce). If Tillerson were to ask his PMFs, he would find common ground with mutual frustrations that put them off government service. This comes as the percentage of those eligible to retire is accelerating. The result is that the hardest-working, most motivated civil servants will leave and won’t be easily replaced; attrition will take care of the rest. While Tillerson has attempted to justify his actions in terms of the need to freeze all hiring pending the outcome of his opaque organizational review, he is in practice hollowing out the State Department for generations.

If we were asked to devise a playbook on how to cripple U.S. global leadership, these moves would have topped the list. The damage the Trump administration is doing with its foreign policy is grave, no doubt. Reversing that damage will be even harder without the strong institutions — powered by good people — necessary to do just that. If Tillerson’s agenda is to help achieve Bannon’s goal of deconstructing the administrative state, he is succeeding. But this will cost his own administration, as well as the American people in taxpayer dollars, expertise and security.

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