New GAO Report on Public Diplomacy is out (Updated)

U.S. Public Diplomacy: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight, GAO-09-679SP, May 27, 2009. Download here (PDF, 566kb) or read online here.


The United States’ current national communication strategy lacks a number of desirable characteristics identified by GAO, such as a clear definition of the problem, desired results, and a delineation of agency roles and responsibilities. …

The United States’ current national communication strategy lacks a number of desirable characteristics identified by GAO, such as a clear definition of the problem, desired results, and a delineation of agency roles and responsibilities. …

State faces a number of human capital challenges that influence the effectiveness of its public diplomacy operations. …

Security concerns around the world have led to building practices and personnel policies that have limited the ability of local populations to interact with Americans inside and outside the embassy. …

[GAO] provided a draft of this report for review and comment to State, BBG, USAID, and DOD. Each agency declined to provide formal comments. State, BBG, and USAID provided technical comments, which we incorporated in the report, as appropriate.

The report includes a Strategic Communication (not “public diplomacy”) budget breakdown:


The overall goal of U.S. strategic communication efforts is to understand, engage, inform, and influence the attitudes and behaviors of global audiences in support of U.S. strategic interests. U.S. strategic communication efforts are distributed across several entities, including State, BBG, USAID, and DOD, and function under the broad guidance of the White House and National Security Council. Within the U.S. government, State’s Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has the lead for U.S. strategic communication efforts.

USAID funds all domestic and some foreign audience communications out of limited agency operating expenses. … USAID’s main resource for communicating to foreign audiences is its worldwide network of communications specialists, most of whom are Foreign Service Nationals.

Beginning in 2003, GAO recommended that State develop an agency-level plan to integrate its diverse public diplomacy activities and direct them towards common objectives. We noted that the absence of a strategy may hinder the department’s ability to guide its programs towards the achievement of concrete and measurable results. … Among the four nonintelligence agencies (State, USAID, BBG, and DOD) involved in U.S. strategic communication efforts, only DOD responded to this call for an agency-specific plan.

State has evaluated its public diplomacy programs to varying degrees. … [T]he Bureau of International Information Programs’ Speakers Program, which [State] describes as its “largest and single most powerful instrument for engaging foreign publics on a person-to-person basis,” has not yet been evaluated, although State is planning an evaluation of the program later in 2009.

State officials told us the lack of sustained leadership at the under secretary level has also hindered interagency coordination. These officials estimate the position of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has been vacant about 40 percent of the time since 2001, and said the PCC did not meet when the position was vacant. A recent report on this issue notes that neither a lead organization nor lead individual has the authority to command independent departments or agencies, and the PCC structure is incapable of fostering coordination and strategic planning.

[C]urrent information suggests a failure to adapt in this dynamic communications environment could significantly raise the risk that U.S. public diplomacy efforts could become increasingly irrelevant, particularly among younger audiences that represent a key focus of U.S. strategic communication efforts.

The report is interesting and worth reading. As others have said, this is a timely report that pulls together much of what has been said. However, there are four points that need emphasis.

First, the GAO does not quite know what to do with the emergence of two sometimes complimentary and sometimes adversarial labels for US engagement: public diplomacy and strategic communication. At one point it positions public diplomacy as a subset of strategic communication while saying the two terms are interchangeable. However, the report fails to reconcile the Defense Department concept of strategic communication that often includes the five pillars of Information Operations, Public Affairs, and Defense Support to Public Diplomacy.

Second, the report does not even footnote the abolishment of Defense Support to Public Diplomacy, the existence of the Global Strategic Engagement Center, or other interagency mechanisms beyond the PCC. 

Third, problems caused by the Smith-Mundt Act are ignored.

Fourth, they only obliquely address the problems of bifurcating public affairs and public diplomacy. I believe the GAO did not recognize the problem as they put public affairs functions (like DipNote) and public diplomacy functions (like the blogger’s roundtable) in the same sentence without noting how really separate they really were.

Fifth, it is important the report notes the damage the lack of consistent leadership has had on formulating a strategy and improving the practice of public diplomacy. However, the report fails to note that the absence of immediate leadership – vacancy in the Under Secretary’s office – was just one part of the problem. Failure to understand the real requirements and purpose of public diplomacy notwithstanding, the report should have also noted the lack of support of the Under Secretaries (some of which was expected). The Under Secretary was incapable of substantial change without active and visible support from the Secretary and the President, both of which we can believe the new Under Secretary will have.

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