Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard R. Verma (right) sits for an interview with State Magazine’s Multimedia Editor Amanda McCarthy (left), Aug. 8. Photo by Isaac D. Pacheco
Multimedia Editor Amanda McCarthy: Deputy Secretary, thank you so much for being here today. We really appreciate you sitting down with State Magazine.
Deputy Secretary Richard Verma: It’s great to be here. Thank you for having me.
McCarthy: In just a few short months, you’ve been on what your team calls a “Listening Tour.” With three overseas trips and 13 countries visited, what are you learning from the field and how has it influenced your role?
Verma: Thank you. And it’s great to be back at the Department. This is my third tour at the Department, so I was previously U.S. ambassador to India, and before that I was assistant secretary for legislative affairs. So it’s great to be back in this role as deputy secretary for management and resources. We have a lot of opportunity in this job because there’s only been four prior D-MRs, as we call them. That’s an opportunity. It’s also a challenge. So we’ve got to put together what we think both advances the secretary’s vision and the president’s vision and also serves our workforce around the world. So it’s a busy agenda, but I really wanted to get out to posts. Being a former chief of mission, I know that what the people are feeling and experiencing may be different than what we think here in Washington. So, first trip was to Ukraine, Poland, Moldova, Romania. Just wanted to see the significance of our security assistance, foreign assistance effort. Made it into the Western Indian Ocean, into Africa, have been to the Middle East and Europe. I just came back from Mexico. So, yes, it’s been an incredible experience. I will say I come back from these trips really motivated and really inspired because fundamentally the people out there love doing their jobs and they’re inspired by it and they’re focused and they are the leaders in their communities. When I look at other missions, they are looking to what the United States is doing and saying. And so I think that’s really important. But I also come back with a set of, okay, here are the things we can do to help people either on training or on resources or in just making their lives easier. Also coming back with a list of what can we stop doing to make their lives more efficient and support their families, support our locally employed staff? So the travel has been really important. But I’ll just say, it’s a huge honor to be back here in the Department and to be part of this organization.
McCarthy: We’re really happy to have you back.
Verma: Thank you.
McCarthy: You mentioned how your visits have helped inform your priorities. What do you see as your priorities in this position?
Verma: So first and foremost, I think it’s about making sure people have what they need to do their job. I think of, you know, it is the deputy secretary for management and resources, so that breaks into a few categories. So we want to make sure on the assistance side, on foreign assistance and security assistance, we have what we need to carry out the mission in that it’s strategically aligned. So we want to be sure we’re advancing the key challenges of today. Ukraine—making sure they have what they need—the competition with China, making sure we have what we need on our transnational threats, on global health and so much more. So, assistance and resources first. Secondly, modernizing the Department and again, making sure our missions are fit for purpose and that the workforce has what it needs. I would also say assisting on the key strategic priorities though as well, and the secretary has laid these out, standing up new missions, for example, a new China House, a new global health bureau, new embassies in key places. So, you know, these are a lot of our priorities. But also, you have the day to day. And I think about the crises that we’ve seen, whether it’s been in Sudan or most recently in Niger. Again, this is not what you plan for each day or each week, but you’re ready for it when the situation occurs and making sure our folks are safe as well. So a lot going on in this job and again, very, very exciting. But you also hope to have an impact, right? You want to make sure you’re actually holding yourself to account, measuring success. We try to do that, too.
McCarthy: And you mentioned the importance of hearing firsthand from the workforce. How can Department leaders build trust among employees, especially among those who have routinely indicated on surveys that they feel ignored and not supported by leadership?
Verma: Yeah, it’s a really important point. So we want to make sure our managers are well trained. We want to make sure they’re listening to their workforce and hearing about what’s on their minds. And so what has our workforce been saying? Our workforce has been saying they feel stretched. They feel sometimes limited in their promotion opportunities. Sometimes they feel like the assignment process is not as transparent. Sometimes our Civil Service colleagues feel like they don’t get enough attention, again in the assignment and promotion process. We hear from our locally employed staff about compensation issues, about benefits, so we really need to take all of this on and make sure we have a good plan in place. We need to hold managers accountable as well. So poorly performing managers, we need to make sure they either get the training or they move on to something else. And for those really good managers, we want to call them out and reward them. We want a workforce that is excited to be here, that is diverse, that is impactful, and that is carrying out this mission. Again, that is so critical today. When I look again at this mission of what the State Department is doing around the world, it is essential. There is a reason why every chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the last 30 years has called for a bigger State Department, a State Department with more budget because they know what we can do on conflict prevention. They know what our diplomacy mission means. They know what our commercial mission means for U.S. persons around the world. And so we are more relevant today. We are more impactful today. We are being called on to do more things today. That is both a huge opportunity. It is also a challenge, but I think we’re up to the challenge.
McCarthy: Modernization is a big key term in today’s State Department. Can you explain what that means and how it will affect the Department?
Verma: Sure. Let me try to break down modernization because I think you’re right. If we don’t define what modernization is, it’s kind of a buzzword. And people will say, well, you’re just saying it, but it doesn’t really change how I do my job. So let me break it into three categories. The first is making sure we have the right missions for the right time as this secretary likes to say. Do we have a Department that’s fit for purpose? So what are those critical missions that we should have in addition to our basic job? So we have a new global health bureau, as I said, we have a new cyber bureau. We have new lines of effort on climate. We have a new China House that is consolidating our efforts to make our competition with China more effective and global. So, we’ll keep looking at those missions to make sure those missions, again, are fit for purpose. That’s category one. Category two is our set of workforce reforms. Do we have the right training program in place for people not only at the start of their career, but through the course of their career as far as they go? And again, not only for Foreign Service officers, but for Civil Service and for locally employed staff as well. Do we have the right retention policies? We have a whole team looking at not losing good people, you know, at their mid-career levels. Do we have the right diversity policies, all kinds of diversity from across the country, from different economic backgrounds, from different skill sets, ethnic and racial diversity, historically underrepresented classes? We want a Department that looks like America, and that’s a Department that’s going to be more effective. So this workforce bucket is really, really important. The third category, or bucket, is on how we use technology. Do we have the right risk profile for our folks? So there is a perception that the State Department is somehow behind on technology. My experience as chief of mission, I didn’t see that. But I know we can do better. And we have a great chief information officer and a really good team that’s making sure, for example, that we are doing the latest on AI, on using our data effectively to make decisions, on basic things like technology for life. Can we give someone a laptop when they come into the Department and they have that laptop throughout different assignments? Same with their phones. We want to use technology to make people’s jobs more efficient. We also want technology to be part of the diplomatic tradecraft that people have. And then on risk, you know what I found again, in India and around the world, our people want to be out engaging with publics. They don’t want to be necessarily stuck behind large walls, far away from city centers. But we also have to be cognizant of the risks that our people face and that you face as an American diplomat around the world. And so we try to get that balance right, and that is also part of our modernization agenda. So critical missions, workforce, technology, and risk. And let me just say, we’re making sure we hold ourselves to account. There is a SharePoint site where people can go on and see what we’ve done and we’re going to do a much better job in communicating all this to the workforce.
McCarthy: You touched on this a little bit in that last answer in your role as D-MR, what are you doing to promote a diverse and inclusive workforce that better reflects American society? And how is the Department working to retain such employees?
Verma: Yeah, it’s a great question. Again, I think this is about organizational effectiveness. At the end of the day, it’s also the right thing to do to have a workforce that looks like the great diverse country that we have. And so we have a lot of initiatives in this regard. We have a new chief diversity officer. There is a new strategic plan on diversity, equity, and inclusion, and accessibility. There’s some 270 benchmarks that they’ve set, very measurable. We’ve already achieved about a third of them. Again, you can track these online for people who want to go and see them. But, you know, the plan is just part of it, but it’s also about retention. It’s also about getting people in with different backgrounds. I will say I’m really pleased to announce that this year’s incoming class of Foreign Service recruits was the largest and most diverse ever. And diverse in all categories, from their backgrounds, from the geographies where they come from, from the ethnicities and racial groups. And this is exactly what will bring a better, stronger set of ideas to the table. Again, it’ll be a workforce that represents the values of this country, and we’re really committed to that.
McCarthy: That’s great. And lastly, you’ve talked about how closely our success at home is tied to our success in achieving the interest of the American people globally. How can the Department help achieve that?
Verma: Yeah, it’s so important and the president has talked about this a lot and the secretary of state has talked a lot about this: a foreign policy that really works for the American people. And I think sometimes in the past over our history, you can see how foreign policy gets disconnected from the needs of the American people. And so we want to make sure that we’re actually serving their interests. You know, I grew up in a small town in western Pennsylvania that often felt left behind, that was disconnected from the big issues of the day. And we don’t want that to happen. So what can we do? First, we can invest here at home, and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing. And so if you look at the Infrastructure Act, which had a trillion dollars in spending, if you look at the Inflation Reduction Act that had the greatest spending on environmental and climate commitments that we’ve ever had, if you look at the CHIPS and Semiconductor Act, if you’ve looked at what we’ve done with veterans, I think there’s been an incredible commitment to invest here at home because, again, as Secretary Blinken has said, if we are strong here at home, that helps us compete around the world. Secondly, we can deal with those problems as a Department around the world that really impacts people’s lives. So gas prices, fairness in markets and trade, making sure people are safe and can travel, our consular services, tackling those transnational issues that impact people. Pandemics. We saw what can happen when a global pandemic hits. We need to make sure we have the architecture in place now to deal with the next crisis. So we invest here at home. We are focused on those issues that impact people’s daily lives. And third, I think we have to build a Department that, again, is really fit for purpose and ready to tackle the missions of this century. I feel a lot of responsibility for that because that falls in kind of the budget, the modernization, the workforce [baskets]; and really overcoming a lot of the budget cuts that we’ve faced in the past and personnel shortages that we faced, and making sure our Department is the best and preeminent diplomatic branch, not only in this hemisphere, but around the world. And I’m really committed to that. So I think that’s how the American people will have confidence in what we do. And again, there’s an important communication element to that. And we’re telling that story as much as we can around the world and in this country.
McCarthy: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the State Magazine audience?
Verma: It’s a great opportunity and I’m honored to be here. I think about my own family’s story. And 60 years ago this month, my dad came to this country with, as he says, $14 and a bus ticket and nothing else. And he, like millions of other immigrants to this country, started over with next to nothing. [My parents] worked so hard, raised five kids in western Pennsylvania. My mom was a teacher, and he was a teacher. So to have [their] kid come back and not only be ambassador in India, but to be here as deputy secretary for management—that’s a great personal honor for me. But I also feel a certain obligation to deliver and to work really hard. It’s also just part of the American story and the American dream, which we have been privileged to be a part of.
McCarthy: Thank you so much for sharing that with us. And we’re really happy to have you here today.
Verma: Thank you.