What Does the New Tech Guru at the State Department Mean for Public Diplomacy?

The Washington Post reports Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has a new “senior adviser on innovation.” According to the Washington Post article Diplomatic Efforts Get Tech Support, the adviser, Alec Ross, is “armed with a new set of diplomatic tools including Facebook, text messaging and YouTube.” I’ll get back to the hyperbole below, but the paper’s description of his job is interesting:

His new job will blend technology with diplomacy in an attempt to help solve some of the globe’s most vexing problems on health care, poverty, human rights and ethnic conflicts. And it is emblematic of the expansive approach the administration has taken to the role of technology in advancing its domestic and global agendas.

"Secretary Clinton believes technology is a powerful tool to address the priorities of the State Department, including promoting human rights and vibrant democracies, fostering development and enhancing the impact of smart power," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. "Alec’s track record of successfully using technology for development initiatives around the world made him an ideal candidate for this job."

Projects could include the use of cellphone text messaging as a way to reach isolated communities to warn people of natural disaster or remind patients to take medication. Social networking sites could bring together youth in warring tribes to communicate and organize cultural exchanges. Software could be used to help ensure aid is delivered by creating supply-chain systems.

On its face, it would certainly seem this is a new job, but as the ill-informed statement “new set of diplomatic tools” hints, the responsibilities really aren’t new. It has long been the responsibility and mandate of America’s public diplomacy bureau, or “R” in State Department bureaucratic shorthand, to promote human rights, democracy, development and to be a critical component of smart power. In fact, what we now know as public diplomacy was institutionalized and funded to promote vibrant democracies, foster development, and be a necessary non-military tool in a global conflict. Back then and for decades on, it was called very simply public affairs and its purpose was to engage both connected and isolated communities for a host of reasons, including protecting against and recovering from natural disaster, health issues, conflict, and developing markets.

What then does the appointment of Alec Ross, whom I do not know but hear the Post’s portrayal is accurate, mean for R?

The implications of his appointment are potentially staggering. It would seem to diminish the responsibilities of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy nominee-in-waiting Judith McHale by shifting some of her presumed responsibilities and some of the actual responsibilities of organizations below her, like International Information Programs (IIP) for one. 

Alec Ross, or his facsimile, must be at the top level and not buried underneath layers of bureaucracy. He should be, in fact must be, at the “pinnacle to dip into anyone’s rice bowl” as a colleague put it. Why then is Mr. Ross not the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy? Surely “Under Secretary” carries more weight than “Senior Advisor”. Or why is he not in “R” with a direct line to the Secretary?

If Robert Wood’s comments are accurate, and there are no reasons to believe they aren’t considering he’s the State Department spokesman, then it seems that the appointment of Mr. Ross is yet another indication of the not-so-subtle fracturing of America’s public diplomacy apparatus that had been coalescing under the previous Under Secretary. Jim Glassman came in and said he was in charge of the interagency process and, as much as it was like herding cats, the cats started to get into line. They did, after all, want, and more importantly needed, somebody to coordinate activities. Will for example, Mr. Ross be a lead in supporting future USNS Comfort missions?

In my opinion, the Under Secretary of Public Diplomacy must be effective at coordinating, directing, motivating, empowering, educating, encouraging, and facilitating global engagement across USG and outside of USG. How does this differ from the skills Mr. Ross brings to the State Department? Is the issue that Judith McHale was a CEO of a large media organization and Mr. Ross was “simply” the Executive Director of a non-profit? Surely the difference between Under Secretary and “Senior Advisor” is not the ability to manage an organization. The Under Secretary does not need to be a bureaucratic, there are qualified individuals within the office to help with those issues, but it would seem Mr. Ross has at least some experience in that area.

I’m excited about the appointment of Mr. Ross, don’t get me wrong. But it clearly indicates the future role of “R” is being defined narrowly. Will Judith McHale, or whomever becomes the Under Secretary, focus on women’s issues to limit overlap between Mr. Ross? Will Mr. Ross work with IIP and Education and Culture (or ECA, also under R) to help them as he’ll undoubtedly help State’s Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization (S/CRS)? 

Either the Secretary wanted redundancy or “R” will will change from “R” to PR.

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