September 28, 2021

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken to State Department Employees

15 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, DC

C Street Lobby Harry S Truman Building

AMBASSADOR SMITH:  Good morning, everyone, and welcome.  It is my honor and privilege today to welcome back to the Department of State our new Secretary of State Tony Blinken.  Secretary Blinken is a familiar face in these halls having served previously first in the Bureau of European and Canadian Affairs and most recently as Deputy Secretary of State.  He is, as we say in the department, well and favorably known to the Department of State and to our career professionals, and we are excited to have him as our new Secretary of State.

This is an unusual event today.  Normally this room would be packed with thousands of cheering State Department employees.  I assure you, we had to take extraordinary measures in order to keep them away at this time, but don’t let that deceive you in any way.  There is enormous enthusiasm on the part of the career professionals who have known and worked with Secretary Blinken over the course of his career.  He is a man of honor and integrity, vision, and character.  And he will lead this department and advance the interests of the American people with great vigor and great passion.

So on behalf of the career professionals of the Department of State, Foreign Service, Civil Service, our locally employed staff around the world, it is my great honor and privilege to present to you the 71st Secretary of State, Antony J. Blinken.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Dan, thank you so much for that incredibly warm welcome – and more importantly, for serving as Acting Secretary of State, for leading the transition here at the State Department.  The Department’s been in excellent hands with you, and I thank you very, very much for that.

I am honored to begin work as our nation’s 71st Secretary of State.  I’m excited about all that lies ahead.  It’s a new day for America.  It’s a new day for the world.

And today does feel a little bit like a homecoming.

Twenty-eight years ago I walked through those doors for the first time to start my job as a special assistant in the EUR front office, a little awed, a little bit intimidated by a legendary institution and a new culture.

It didn’t take me long to figure out one thing, and that’s how much the talent and expertise that resides in this building is so important, and it’s so important to listen to the men and women of the State Department when thinking about America’s place in the world and our foreign policy.

Your knowledge, your experience, your generosity was the springboard that brought me and landed me here today.

Two decades later, as a proud husband, I watched my wife Evan Ryan lead the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and I gained an even deeper appreciation for how people‑to‑people exchanges bring our world closer together and convey the best of America to the world, especially to its young people.

As Deputy Secretary of State, I learned what it means to help lead an institution as vital as this one – how to safeguard what makes it great, invest in its future, and leave it just a little bit stronger than when you found it.  I take that work very seriously.  As Secretary, I will not let you down.

To all the State Department personnel worldwide, to the men and women of USAID whose work exemplifies America at its best, I want you to know how proud I am of every single one of you and how proud I am to be on your team.

Whether you’re diplomats or development workers, members of the Foreign Service or the Civil Service, locally employed staff, contractors, you do hard things very, very well.

These jobs demand sacrifice.  They can be dangerous.  The names engraved on the walls here in our lobby remind us of that every single day.  We honor them by coming to work every day and doing our absolute best for the American people and for each other.

I know the State Department that I’m walking into today is not the same one that I left four years ago.  A lot has changed.  The world has changed.  The department has changed, and we need only look around to see that.

I’m speaking, as Dan said, to a nearly empty lobby.  The people who are here are all wearing masks.  To date, the pandemic has claimed the lives of five State Department American employees and 42 locally employed staff around the world.  Many more have gotten sick.

And outside our doors, our government buildings are surrounded by new barricades.

We’ve never been in a moment quite like this before.  The President is committed to getting us through it as quickly as possible, so that very soon, we can all gather in person again and have confidence that the foundations of our democracy are strong.

We at State have a role to play in all of this, and I believe it starts with rebuilding morale and trust.  This is a priority for me, because we need a strong department for the United States to be strong in the world.

To that end, we have to invest significantly in building a diverse and inclusive State Department.  We need the most talented people.  We need the most creative workforce.  We cannot do our job of advancing America’s interests, values, and commitment to democracy without a State Department that is truly representative of the American people.

Now, I can’t promise that you will support every choice I make as your Secretary.  But I can promise an open door and an open mind.

I’ll be forthright with you, because transparency makes us stronger.  I’ll seek out dissenting views and listen to the experts, because that’s how the best decisions are made.  And I will insist that you speak, and speak up, without fear or favor.  And I will have your back.

One of the great attributes of our Foreign and Civil Services throughout history has been your nonpartisanship.  You serve Democratic and Republican presidents alike because you put country over party.  All we ask is that you serve the United States, the Constitution, and the President to the best of your ability.  I know you’ll do that.

The world is watching us intently right now.  They want to know if we can heal our nation.  They want to see whether we will lead with the power of our example, if we’ll put a premium on diplomacy with our allies and partners to meet the great challenges of our time – like the pandemic, climate change, the economic crisis, threats to democracies, fights for racial justice, and the danger to our security and global stability posed by our rivals and adversaries.

The American people are watching us, too.  They want to see that we’re safeguarding their wellbeing, that we care about their interests, that our foreign policy is about them and their lives.

We will do right by them – by pursuing a foreign policy that delivers real benefits to American families, protects their safety, advances their opportunities, honors their values, and leaves their children and grandchildren a healthier and more peaceful world.

So we’ve got our work cut out for us.  But I am confident we will succeed.

The United States has enormous sources of strength – we’re going to build upon them.

America’s values are noble and powerful – and we will recommit to them.

And America’s leadership is needed around the world, and we’ll provide it, because the world is far more likely to solve problems and meet challenges when the United States is there.  America at its best still has a greater capacity than any other nation on Earth to mobilize others for the better.

The State Department will be central to all of this.  I know you’re ready.  I am too.  We’re in the arena together.  We do work that matters.  So let’s meet this moment – our moment – with joy.

Thank you all for being part of this great endeavor.  I am honored to be your Secretary.  Now let’s get to work.  Thank you.  (Applause.)

More from: Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

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In two states that had contractors struggling to deliver successful projects, state officials said they had not received recommendations or technical assistance from CMS. The states eventually terminated the projects after spending a combined $38.5 million in federal funds. According to CMS officials, they rely largely on states to oversee systems projects. This perspective is consistent with a 2018 Office of Management and Budget (OMB) decision that federal information technology (IT) grants totaling about $9 billion annually would no longer be tracked on OMB's public web site on IT investment performance. Accordingly, the CMS and Health and Human Services chief information officers (CIO) are not involved in overseeing MMIS or E&E projects. Similarly, 21 of 47 states responding to GAO's survey reported that their state CIO had little or no involvement in overseeing their MMISs. Such non-involvement of officials with duties that should be heavily focused on successful acquisition and operation of IT projects could be hindering states' ability to effectively implement systems. To improve oversight, CMS has begun a new outcome-based initiative that focuses the agency's review of state funding requests on the successful achievement of business outcomes. However, as of February 2020, CMS had not yet established a timeline for including MMIS and E&E systems in the new outcome-based process. CMS had various initiatives aimed at reducing duplication of Medicaid systems (see table). Description and Status of Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Initiatives Aimed at Reducing Duplication by Sharing, Leveraging, and Reusing Medicaid Information Technology Initiative Description Implementation status Number of surveyed states reporting use of the initiative Reuse Repository Used by states to collect and share reusable artifacts. Made available in August 2017. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. 25 of the 50 reporting states Poplin Project Was to provide free, open-source application program interfaces for states to use in developing their modular Medicaid systems. Initiative never fully implemented. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. Three of the 50 reporting states Open Source Provider Screening Module Open-source module for states to use at no charge. Made available in August 2018. As of January 2020, CMS was no longer supporting this initiative. One of the 50 states reported attempting to use the module. Medicaid Enterprise Cohort Meetings A forum where states can discuss sharing, leveraging, and/or reuse of Medicaid technologies. As of January 2020, Cohort meetings were being held on a monthly basis. 47 of the 50 states reported participating in the meetings. Source: GAO analysis of agency data. | GAO-20-179 However, as of January 2020, the agency was no longer supporting most of these initiatives because they failed to produce the desired results. CMS regulations and GAO's prior work have highlighted the importance of reducing duplication by sharing and reusing Medicaid IT. To illustrate the potential for reducing duplication, 53 percent of state Medicaid officials responding to our survey reported using the same contractor to develop their MMIS. Nevertheless, selected states are taking the initiative to share systems or modules. Further support by CMS could result in additional sharing initiatives and potential cost savings. The Medicaid program is the largest source of health care funding for America's most at-risk populations and is funded jointly by states and the federal government. GAO was asked to assess CMS's oversight of federal expenditures for MMIS and E&E systems used for Medicaid. This report examines (1) the amount of federal funds that CMS has provided to state Medicaid programs to support MMIS and E&E systems, (2) the extent to which CMS reviews and approves states' funding requests for the systems and oversees the use of these funds, and (3) CMS's and states' efforts to reduce potential duplication of Medicaid IT systems. GAO assessed information related to MMIS and E&E systems, such as state expenditure data, federal regulations, and CMS guidance to the states for submitting funding requests, states' system funding requests, and IT project management documents. GAO also evaluated a generalizable sample of approved state funding requests from fiscal years 2016 through 2018 to analyze, among other things, CMS's review and approval process and conducted interviews with agency and state Medicaid officials. GAO also reviewed relevant regulations and guidance on promoting, sharing, and reusing MMIS and E&E technologies; and surveyed 50 states and six territories (hereafter referred to as states) regarding the MMIS and E&E systems, and assessed the complete or partial responses received from 50 states. GAO is making nine recommendations to improve CMS's processes for approving and overseeing the federal funds for MMIS and E&E systems and for bolstering efforts to reduce potential duplication. Among these recommendations are that CMS should develop formal, documented procedures that include specific steps to be taken in the advanced planning document review process and instructions on how CMS will document the reviews; develop, in consultation with the HHS and CMS CIOs, a documented, comprehensive, and risk-based process for how CMS will select IT projects for technical assistance and provide recommendations to assist states that is aimed at improving the performance of the systems; encourage state Medicaid program officials to consider involving state CIOs in overseeing Medicaid IT projects; establish a timeline for implementing the outcome-based certification process for MMIS and E&E systems; and identify, prior to approving funding for systems, similar projects that other states are pursuing so that opportunities to share, leverage, or reuse systems or system modules are considered. In written comments on a draft of this report, the department concurred with eight of the nine recommendations, and described steps it had taken and/or planned to take to address them. The department did not state whether it concurred with GAO's recommendation to encourage state officials to consider involving state CIOs in Medicaid IT projects. HHS stated that it was unable to discern evidence as to whether a certain structure contributed to a specific outcome. GAO believes, consistent with federal law, that CIOs are critically important to the success of IT projects. For more information, contact Vijay D’Souza at (202) 512-6240 or dsouzav@gao.gov.
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    Proficiency in foreign languages is a key skill for U.S. diplomats to advance U.S. interests overseas. GAO has issued several reports highlighting the Department of State's (State) persistent foreign language shortages. In 2006, GAO recommended that State evaluate the effectiveness of its efforts to improve the language proficiency of its staff. State responded by providing examples of activities it believed addressed our recommendation. In this report, which updates the 2006 report, GAO (1) examined the extent to which State is meeting its foreign language requirements and the potential impact of any shortfall, (2) assessed State's efforts to meet its foreign language requirements and described the challenges it faces in doing so, and (3) assessed the extent to which State has a comprehensive strategy to determine and meet these requirements. GAO analyzed data on State's overseas language-designated positions; reviewed strategic planning and budgetary documents; interviewed State officials; and conducted fieldwork in China, Egypt, India, Tunisia, and Turkey.As of October 31, 2008, 31 percent of Foreign Service officers in overseas language-designated positions (LDP) did not meet both the foreign languages speaking and reading proficiency requirements for their positions. State continues to face foreign language shortfalls in regions of strategic interest--such as the Near East and South and Central Asia, where about 40 percent of officers in LDPs did not meet requirements. Despite efforts to recruit individuals with proficiency in critical languages, shortfalls in supercritical languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, remain at 39 percent. Past reports by GAO, State's Office of the Inspector General, and others have concluded that foreign language shortfalls could be negatively affecting U.S. activities overseas. Overseas fieldwork for this report reaffirmed this conclusion. State's approach to meeting its foreign language requirements includes an annual review of all LDPs, language training, recruitment of language-proficient staff, and pay incentives for language skills. For example, State trains staff in about 70 languages in Washington and overseas, and has reported a training success rate of 86 percent. Moreover, State offers bonus points for language-proficient applicants who have passed the Foreign Service exam and has hired 445 officers under this program since 2004. However, various challenges limit the effectiveness of these efforts. According to State, a primary challenge is overall staffing shortages, which limit the number of staff available for language training, as well as the recent increase in LDPs. State's efforts to meet its foreign language requirements have yielded some results but have not closed persistent gaps and reflect, in part, a lack of a comprehensive, strategic approach. State officials have said that the department's plan for meeting its foreign language requirements is spread throughout a number of documents that address these needs; however these documents are not linked to each other and do not contain measurable goals, objectives, or milestones for reducing the foreign language gaps. Because these gaps have persisted over several years despite staffing increases, we believe that a more comprehensive, strategic approach would help State to more effectively guide its efforts and assess its progress in meeting its foreign language requirements.
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