Since the abolishment of the United States Information Agency, the State Department has struggled to balance the need of the embassies with what Washington perceived was needed. This challenge has been particularly acute on the Internet where the resulting mix of information and voices can undermine the very purpose and effectiveness of engagement.
On January 28, I spoke with Dawn McCall, Coordinator for the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), to discuss the recently announced reorganization of the Bureau. IIP is responsible for developing and disseminating printed material, online information and engagement efforts, and speaker’s programs (a kind of offline engagement using subject matter experts). It is half of the operational capability of the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to engage people outside of the United States.
The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) completes the other half of the Under Secretary’s toolbox. While most observers like to imagine (or don’t know better) that U.S. public diplomacy is a monolith, the reality is that these two offices are the Under Secretary’s only direct reports. Other cogs in the public diplomacy machine exist within – and report to – the geographic bureaus (such as Western Hemisphere Affairs, European and Eurasian Affairs, and Near Eastern Affairs) and posts in the field.
(This of course is an incomplete list as other elements within State actively or implicitly practice “public diplomacy”, including Democracy and Global Affairs to Counter-Terrorism, including Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE, and others.) [Note: in 2012, "Democracy and Global Affairs" became "Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights" and, with the name change, a new url: http://state.gov/j/]
The announced changes will realign IIP – and thus the Under Secretary’s office – to a supporting role for the other parts of the organization, the geographic bureaus and the posts, that actively engage the public. This is a shift from the previous role of providing sometimes confusing content of sometimes questionable quality and purpose on America.gov, IIP’s primary hub for online information dissemination.
A visible change is that America.gov will disappear as attention shifts to developing “packages” of material to support demand-driven requirements. This will be a departure from the past in which IIP dictated what material would be available. McCall noted in our conversation that only 6% of the bureau’s time was spent understanding the needs of the posts. The focus, as McCall told me, “must shift to proactive tactics instead of passively putting our content on a shelf and expecting [the public] to find it.”
Changes at IIP include:
- Expanded use of mobile technologies, including SMS programs and Smartphone apps, while ensuring the continued provision of products for such traditional media as print and radio, and for American centers and corners.
- More products in foreign languages, supported by a central translation team.
- Consolidation of content producers into a content development group to create content in written, digital, video and audio formats.
- Creation of a talent management unit to identify and recruit expert Americans as writers, bloggers, and speakers for IIP and American missions;
- A new audience research unit, to provide research and analysis on audiences, channels, and use of IIP products.
The creation of a “talent management” unit is of particular interest and an example of the changing orientation of IIP to a role of supporting rather than competing with the department’s efforts to engage publics. The speakers bureau, too often neglected in the building while greatly appreciated abroad, will also get a necessary boost.
The research unit will work closely with other similar Government groups, including the Evaluation and Measurement Unit in the Under Secretary’s office, the department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, and the Broadcasting Board of Governor’s (BBG) research component.
The digital outreach team (DOT), the group that engages the (non-U.S.) public on social media sites, will be expanded. In concept, the DOT is essential. In practice, challenges – that are not unique to the Government – remain. Two years ago, I took the DOT to task for failing to identify the de facto Public Affairs Officer at the keyboard. McCall faces the same issue as the private sector, from which McCall came, in staffing expressly social media positions: do you entrust your “brand” with the professional PAO or the young, technology-savvy and well-intentioned individual who (presumably) works under guidance? This and other questions have yet to be answered.
There will be, McCall tells me, more collaboration between the two halves of the Under Secretary’s office: Public Affairs and Public Diplomacy. Today, this integration is better – as I have seen and been told – than it has ever been, but a “heads up” or the occasional coordination is not enough in today’s truly global environment in which boundaries of states, geography, language, ethnicity, culture and technology (including print, radio and the Internet) are less likely to define an audience.
These smart and overdue moves may ultimately have limited impact, and could conceivably reduce capacity, as a result of an outdated “firewall” that isolates the operations of the public diplomacy of the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy from the American public and indirectly, and increasingly potentially, from the rest of U.S. Government engagement with the world. The changes must be complemented by undoing the “firewall” language in the Smith-Mundt Act. The existing prohibition declares that what the U.S. tells audiences abroad, specifically the information and “packages” developed by IIP (and the BBG), is deceptive and unfit for and dangerous to American democracy.
The forthcoming challenge is that by expanding embassy sites and third-party sites with content from IIP, this will, under the letter of the law, make it illegal for the sites to be connected to State.gov, which is public affairs activity under Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs P.J. Crowley, who (nominally) works for the Under Secretary (but in practical terms is aligned more with the Secretary and department).
Based initially on distrust of the State Department (not the President or the Executive Branch as a whole) in the 1940s and later the environment of the 1970s and 1980s, the Smith-Mundt Act limits America’s ability to inform and engage global audiences. It is, among our peer democracies, unique. Legislation was introduced last session to update it (mostly by returning the “firewall” to the “filter” that was intended by two Congresses in the 1940s).
It also remains to be seen how, or if, embassies will link to news from Voice of America, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty and other government news and information broadcasts of the BBG as the embassies become hubs of engagement. Such content is also prohibited under Smith-Mundt.
Hopefully these measures will contribute to the realization of our truly global environment and that bifurcating domestic and foreign engagement, a concept that within among our democratic peers is unique to the U.S., hampers policy making, American awareness of global affairs, and accountability. Know what Michelle Kwan is doing as a U.S. Public Diplomat? Perhaps somebody should provide photos, video and transcripts to Wikileaks so Americans can find out.
McCall has her work cut out for her. No word on whether her position will eventually become an Assistant Secretary, an upgrade authorized in 2008 but never implemented.
McCall made it clear that these changes will be accomplished within IIP’s current budget and staffing. A not insignificant point to make in today’s budget environment.