There’s a new #1 “R”… as in longest tenure

Milestone near Richmond Park, Greater London area, UK
Source: Matt Armstrong, taken in East Sheen near Richmond Park.

Milestones are important. They were to reassure travelers that they were on the right path, how far they had gone, and how far they had to go. Living in London, I find it surprising how many milestones, many of which are hundreds of years old, are hiding in plain sight. They do not, however, tell us how we are doing. 

Four and a half years ago, I wrote about the tenures of the Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The post — ‘R we there yet?‘ — was a follow up to a report my team wrote a month earlier when I was the Executive Director of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. That report of December 2011, supplemented by my personal blog post of January 2012, was the first time the gaps between confirmed Under Secretaries and the brevity of their tenure had been examined and published.

For context, I compared the tenures, and importantly the gaps in tenure, of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (or ‘R’ for short to use State’s internal designation for the office), the Under Secretary for Political Affairs (‘P’), and the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (renamed 1 January 2012 to ‘Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights’).

[I will refer below to the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs simply as the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy. This is both for convenience and to reflect the 17-year reality that the Under Secretary has little direct authority over the Office of Public Affairs, which is ostensibly subordinated to the Under Secretary but in practice is not. But that is a separate topic.]

As of January 2012, the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy was ‘unencumbered’ 30% of the time (as in, a confirmed, not acting, Under Secretary was in place). By the time Rick Stengel was sworn in as the third Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy of the Obama Administration (the Bush Administration had four Under Secretaries), the vacancy rate was 33%.

In other words, since Evelyn Lieberman was sworn in on 1 October 1999, the office had been vacant one out of every three days. As I described in ‘R we there yet?‘, this can, and has, lead to challenges of relevance, integration, and support of a key information capability of the State Department and a natural interagency hub. It also limits the support for the public diplomacy officers at State — the ‘cone’ — and of the practice across the government, including the Congress.

The average tenure was for an Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs was 504 days, or less than 17 months. Today, that average has been skewed upward to 550 days, or over 18 months, by the tenure current encumbant.

This brings us to the milestone reached yesterday. As of 1 July 2016, Rick Stengel is now the longest serving Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy at 870 days. This surpasses the previous record holder, Karen Hughes, who served 868 days. Rick’s tenure skewed the vacancy rate down to 28%.

So, Rick, congratulations on becoming #1!

Data as of 1 July 2016

The data is from my own research and the spreadsheet is maintained by me. Let me know if you spot an error.

While a milestone has been reached and is now behind us, we are no closer to knowing how we — broadly defined as practitioners of the thing often called ‘public diplomacy’ — are doing, how well we are integrated or isolated from policy planning and execution, or how well the ‘cone’ is supported (in the case of the State Department, but they are not the only practitioners of ‘public diplomacy’ despite the protestations of some). Inquiry along these lines is necessary by leadership across State and other departments, Congressional authorizers and appropriators, and academia. One simple question that I’ve wanted to explore for years is whether the rise of the use of MIST (Military Information Support Teams) is, in part, in lieu of developing capacity and capability of the information officers and offices of our foreign ministry? My January 2012 post ‘R we there yet?‘ asks questions, some of which may no longer be relevant or have been answered since then.

Use the comments to add questions or offer answers.