U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy: no one in PD conducts PD overseas


Strong words from the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.  Strong and brutally honest.  The Commission, an organization reporting directly to the President, has submitted a report unlike any other before it.  Not the Government Accountability Office, the Congressional Research Service, the Defense Sciences Board, or any other body has assessed the human resource element of U.S. Public Diplomacy in such depth.  The topic for this report originated with the Commission.  The findings will be presented tomorrow, Wednesday, 25 June 2008, but the report is available at the Commission’s website now.  This blog was granted permission to share the report prior to its official release. The function of the Commission is to provide independent oversight and make recommendations on the activities and effectiveness of America’s information activities and education and cultural exchanges.  It was established by the Smith-Mundt Act of 1948 and was originally two different bodies, the Advisory Commission on Information and the Advisory Commission on Educational Exchange.

Earlier this evening, I had the opportunity to sit down with the chairman of the Commission, Bill Hybl, to discuss the report to be publicly presented tomorrow.  Bill described a core requirement of public diplomacy is to address people and issues in local terms, including identifying common ground.  This requires engagement, something Bill noted is absent.  It also requires continuity at the very highest level, which he said has been missing with the turnover at the Under Secretary position.

A driving factor of the report, and a repeated refrain from Bill, is that the U.S. “should be able to do better.”  To this end, Bill emphasized that public diplomacy officers want to communicate with foreign populations but can’t because 90% of their job descriptions and work requirements are something else, like administration.

For the first time, we have a report that (while pulling some punches) looks at the impediments to implementing an effective public diplomacy.  This report is of particular interest for those like myself who are more interested in the structure of how public diplomacy and information activities are conducted than about the specific messages employed.

The 41-page report is split into seven sections, plus the introduction.  It is an easy read, even for the beginner not conversant in public diplomacy.  Each section begins with a background statement, followed by findings and analysis, and closes with recommendations.  The recommendations are real and often substantial.  Many are obvious, some may be easy, several will take a strong commitment and leadership from State, the White House, and Congress to implement.

This is the first report to point out that there is no one overseas whose primary job responsibility is to interface with foreign audiences.  The Commission surveyed employee evaluation reports and found that direct foreign engagement was a low priority and had little, if any, positive impact on performance reviews.  This fits in with a five year old 2003 GAO report that surveyed public affairs officers and found 77% did not have a goal of “mutual understanding” in their FY04 plan.  As the report asks, if no one in the field has primary responsibility to engage and influence foreign publics, who job is it?

For a Department short on funds, precious time and money spent on training public diplomacy officers in cultural and linguistic awareness and skills are wasted.  The report portrays these officers as having little opportunity, and even less expectation, to engage foreign audiences.  Further, when they are trained, the training is better described as identifying public diplomacy and not engaging in it.  Little to no instruction is done on practicing persuasion and culturally and linguistically specific engagement.  If DOD can use simulators, real and virtual, why not State?  The report’s discussion on what was and wasn’t included in employee evaluations is startling.  For example, the first five (out of eleven) work requirements for a “senior-level public diplomacy officer at a mid-sized African post” were: “Plan, develop and implement programs…”, “Administer…”, “Supervise, counsel and support staff members…”, “Oversee the operations…”, and “Utilize opportunities to explain U.S. foreign and domestic”.  Largely, if not entirely, absent from the sample of work requirements surveyed by the commission where phrases like “Influence public discourse…”, “Shape the terms of the debate…”, “Persuade key interlocutors…”, “Correct inaccuracies and misrepresentations appearing in the local media…”, and “Appear on talk shows on television and radio…”.

To the question of whether the PD officer had an impact on how the U.S. or U.S. policy was viewed in country, the answer was typically no.  The problem is perhaps that State went too far to integrate public diplomacy, pushing a square into a round hole.  Performance reviews, the report says, are often written in ways that it is impossible to know what country the officer serves in.

Back in the United States, the fate of public diplomacy officers is no better.  Nearly ten years after the merger, or “abolishing”, of USIA, dozens of public diplomacy officers at Main State, Washington, D.C., headquarters, are administrators and liaisons that do not perform public diplomacy.

The report also points out these significant shortcomings:

  • State does not recruit for public diplomacy
  • State does not test for public diplomacy
  • State does not train for public diplomacy
  • State has a glass ceiling for public diplomats

The last bullet raises the specter that State does not value the skills or have confidence in the public diplomacy officers.  While it is noteworthy a public diplomacy officer has never held the Under Secretary position, more interesting is the under-representation of public diplomacy in senior management positions.  While State has made progress incorporating public diplomacy, it still has a way to go.  This report says, among other things, that those in the public diplomacy “cone” (career track) are not promoted to senior positions on par with their numbers vis a vis other State cones, economics, political, consular, and management.

Bill Hybl commented that it “felt different” investigating the present public diplomacy arrangement as compared to the USIA.

The Commissions recommendations are not binding but will hopefully spur action in vested parties from State, the White House, and Congress.  Public diplomacy is a keystone of our national security and must be treated as such.  It was at one time and it must be again.  We must move beyond claims that money is short and realize this is a national security imperative.  Engaging in information and ideas is ultimately cheaper tha n engaging with bullets, bombs, and combat boots.

As my conversation with Bill came to a close, he said that “if we don’t do this effectively, those who wish to do harm to us will beat us in an area where we should dominate… we can do better.”  Agreed.  We can and must do better.