By Yeganeh Torbati
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The No. 2 U.S. diplomat on Tuesday sought to allay concerns among the State Department's rank-and-file employees over possible layoffs and perceptions of a lack of firm direction under the administration of President Donald Trump.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, formerly chief executive of Exxon Mobil and new to government, has initiated a top-to-bottom re-organization of the agency, saying it will improve diplomats' experience and help the department better meet 21st-century challenges.
"Re-design is not a synonym for layoffs," Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan was quoted as saying by two officials who listened to his remarks to around 450 employees at a town hall-style event that was closed to journalists.
Diplomats have fretted over a hiring freeze that has hampered their ability to switch jobs, the slow pace of appointments to senior positions, and a proposed 28 percent cut in State Department funding.
Sullivan acknowledged in remarks to a small group of reporters after the event that the pace of senior job hires had been frustrating.
Tillerson is not directing any specific outcome from the re-design, which is being led by senior career officials, other than a better-running and more efficient department, Sullivan said.
According to the Partnership for Public Service, which tracks political appointments, the Trump administration has not yet put forward a nominee for 86 of 131 Senate-confirmed positions at the department, including posts leading diplomacy on the Middle East and East Asia, where there are several potential crises.
"No one here would say that we're pleased by the fact that we don't have more of our undersecretary and assistant secretary slots filled, but we're working hard to do that," Sullivan told reporters.
Sullivan said media portrayals of a listless bureaucracy and "a hollowed-out State Department that is not effective" were wrong. He said work was being done on major issues such as the North Korea nuclear and missile programs, a rift between Gulf nations and Qatar and Ukraine.
State Department officials said the tone of the town hall event was professional, with pointed exchanges of views at times. One said that Sullivan's public appreciation for career diplomats "has been desperately needed."
Sullivan's uncle was William H. Sullivan, the last U.S. ambassador to Iran, who left in 1979 when Iran's monarchy was overthrown and replaced with an Islamic theocracy.
In response to a question from an employee about State Department efforts for gay and lesbian couples posted abroad, Sullivan told employees he would do everything he can to make sure everyone is treated fairly, a remark that drew strong applause, one of the officials said.
(Editing by Yara Bayoumy and Grant McCool)