State Magazine: What would you say to employees who have continued to advance the Department’s mission despite pandemic-related challenges?
D-MR Brian P. McKeon: First, I just want to say that Department employees have been amazingly resilient in persisting to do, and perform, their mission in the last 14 months of the pandemic. Honestly, I’m not sure how working parents have done it. We don’t have children in my house, so I know that’s been really an added complexity for people who have children at home who have not been able to be in school or people with eldercare issues with parents who might be affected by the pandemic. I have had that in my family. We understand the difficulties that people have encountered in the last 14 months during the pandemic. And I also want to say at the top my own admiration and gratitude and a little bit of awe for the Foreign Service. Because moving every two or three years, changing jobs, changing locations, moving your family, that’s a huge sacrifice. I’ve lived in the same house for 25 years. I once had the same job for 12 years. I have no idea what that is like. So I just want to give a nod to that and my appreciation. But also Civil Service officers and our locally employed staff, they deal with it in a slightly different way, which is they have changed leadership all the time. They have different bosses who come in as political appointees or new Foreign Service officer leaders. So they have to make adjustments too, and everyone has struggled with how to work in this environment for the past 14 months. So we’re cognizant of the stress on the workforce from that experience. And with the change of administration, there’s obviously change in practices and policies. And this administration is more energetic in the interagency than perhaps the last team was, and we recognize that that’s putting a strain on the workforce. So I just want to express my appreciation in the way that everybody is answering the call and responding to requests from the secretary, from senior leadership, and the new team at the White House.
State Magazine: What will the Department’s day-to-day operations look like moving forward?
McKeon: I think we’re still talking about it. I’ve had some meetings with the undersecretary for management and other people in the M [management] family. And I think what’s clear is probably we are not going back to the status quo ante of February 2020, where almost everybody is coming into the Department every day and telework options are fairly limited. We’ve shown that we can do remote work and that there should be some flexibility for telework. Granted, there are going to be some people who have to be in the building more often—or some people 100 percent of the time. People who do highly classified work like in INR [Bureau of Intelligence and Research] or the Political Military Bureau and many of the regional bureaus. We just can’t get around that. But I think we will want to be more flexible in the future with telework opportunities for people.
State Magazine: What is the Department doing to promote a diverse and inclusive workforce that better reflects American society?
McKeon: I think the record of the Department in the last decade or so has shown that we do a pretty good job of recruiting a diverse workforce. I’m sure there are things we can improve, but there’s a good pipeline of talent that comes in that is diverse. Where the Department is not succeeding is in retention and promotion. And the data bear that out pretty clearly, both external data that GAO [Government Accountability Office] has published recently but in our own internal data. So we need to understand what the challenges are to maintaining this diverse workforce and drilling down and getting at systemic issues that are barriers to people being promoted. Secretary’s announced and–and created the position of chief diversity officer, brought back a retired Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley. She and I will be working together regularly. She’s going to build out a staff of about a dozen people, so it’s not just her doing this work. And then there are obviously other places where we need to promote opportunities and ensure that we are retaining the talented workforce that we have recruited.
State Magazine: What steps are being taken at State to implement the President’s Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities?
McKeon: The president has issued an executive order on equity, and that applies to all the departments. We have set up what we’re calling the agency equity team. I kicked off a meeting on that about five or six weeks ago, and we have representatives from every bureau looking hard at our programming and policies to make sure that we’re integrating equity and equitable principles in all of the work that we do. It’s not just a question of contracting with minority owned businesses, but really thinking about in our assistance and grant programs, in our overall policy, how are we thinking about these issues through that lens. So that work is ongoing, and we owe a lot of homework to the White House under the executive order. But I’m hopeful we’ll make a lot of progress on that this year.
State Magazine: How does this administration rebuild trust among Department employees who have felt let down by senior leadership in the past?
McKeon: Myself and other senior leaders need to earn the trust of the Department workforce. How do we do that? We follow what the secretary wants us to do, which is strengthening and empowering the workforce to do their jobs, having their back, which he said in this lobby on his first day, here in the Department, and meeting the needs of the workforce across the board, whether it’s in technology, whether it’s on flexibility on telework, whether it’s giving them time and space for the training that they need to have. It’s also showing trust in the workforce by appointing career officials to positions. You’ve, I hope, seen already that several assistant secretary nominations that have been made by the president have been of career officers, and those came at the recommendation of the secretary. So there’s a lot of work to do to rebuild trust, and we’re going to continue to do it.
State Magazine: How does the unique nature of the D-MR position impact the way you lead?
McKeon: So I think the value of this position is being–at least some of the time not being pulled into the ongoing crises of the day, which on the regional policies will fall to Deputy Secretary Sherman. There are some issues that are crisis-oriented that I’m going to be engaged in. I don’t think I can escape that. But I think the value add of this position is that I can focus from the seventh floor on major management and workforce challenges facing the Department and funding challenges. I really see myself as a voice, with OMB [Office of Management and Budget] and with the Congress, to make sure that we have the resources we need, not just on the operational side but on our–on the foreign assistance side, and using the secretary’s authority over all the foreign assistance programs, including his supervision of USAID to make sure that all of our programs are broadly aligned with our–the president’s strategic priorities.
State Magazine: How can the Department ensure that everyone in the workforce has a voice and a seat at the table?
McKeon: Well simply put, it’s listening to the workforce at all levels. We obviously can’t meet with all 75,000 employees on a weekly or a monthly basis but through their representatives. So meeting with AFSA [American Foreign Service Association] and meeting with the Civil Service unions, meeting with the Employee Affinity Groups. The secretary has done town halls with posts on his virtual visits to overseas missions. I plan to do some of that. I think he’s also done some outreach to individual bureaus, meeting junior- and mid-level officers. I’m planning to do that periodically. So it’s listening to the workforce across the board, being open to ideas from across the workforce, and hearing what people are saying, and then acting on their concerns.
State Magazine: How can Department leaders ensure that their efforts now have a lasting impact?
McKeon: We need to balance the urgent versus the long term. And the urgent will always be there. And you could spend your whole day dealing with urgent matters. But leaders need to be strategic and take time to look at long-term projects. Revitalization of the department is a long-term process. It’s not a month. It’s not a week. It’s not even a year. And in some respects, the secretary and I, and the other senior leadership, we’re just temporary stewards of this Department. The workforce, they’re the long-term guardians of it. And so everyone needs to be invested and understand the direction we’re going. And by the end of the term of the secretary and me and the other senior leaders, we hope we can look back and say that we’ve left the Department in better shape than we found it. But it’s a process that will have to continue past our tenure.