Quick reference: GAO report notes State staff shortfall, interagency failures

Some highlights regarding the Department of State from the GAO report “Actions Needed to Address Stakeholder Concerns, Improve Interagency Collaboration, and Determine Full Costs Associated with the U.S. Africa Command” (GAO-09-181, 1.4mb PDF, from February 2009)

DOD has requested that State fill 13 mid level positions in AFRICOM in addition to the two senior positions already filled. State and DOD officials told us, however, that DOD had requested State input only after the positions had been established. Moreover, State officials told us that they would not likely be able to provide active employees to fill the positions requested because they are already facing a 25 percent shortfall in mid level personnel. Given these shortfalls, State officials are considering alternatives to filling positions, such as technological tools, as a way to engage in AFRICOM’s plans and activities without having to physically locate personnel in the command in Stuttgart.

[p23]

Although DOD often stated that AFRICOM is intended to support, not lead, U.S. diplomatic and development efforts in Africa, some State officials expressed concerns that AFRICOM would become the lead for U.S. government activities in Africa, even though U.S. embassies lead decision making on U.S. government non-combat activities conducted in African countries. Other State and USAID officials noted that the creation of AFRICOM could blur traditional boundaries among diplomacy, development, and defense, thereby militarizing U.S. foreign policy. At the same time, however, some saw AFRICOM as a key organization that could support other U.S. government activities on the continent.

DOD and State developed two separate documents to guide U.S. government communication on the establishment of AFRICOM, but neither document addressed the widely varying interests among U.S. government, nongovernmental, and African stakeholders. DOD’s initial planning team on AFRICOM included in its December 2006 final report a section on strategic communications, but this document was focused on government-to-government interactions and did not include shaping public opinion. …

AFRICOM officials also noted that this document was also focused more on process, rather than the messages that would be communicated. State, which has a role in strategic communications through its Office of Public Diplomacy and embassies, issued an interagency strategic communications strategy in December 2007 for use in U.S. embassies in Africa. This document was issued about 10 months after AFRICOM had been announced and was facing significant stakeholder concerns. According to DOD officials, it emphasized strategic communications tools but did not provide guidance on how to use them. Both DOD and State officials noted that neither document included efforts to communicate with other U.S. government agencies on the establishment of AFRICOM or its mission and goals.

According to AFRICOM officials, the command recognizes the need to address persistent concerns and is working on a strategic communications approach. However, at the time our review, it was unclear what the effort would include or how the views of State and other stakeholders would be incorporated. Officials told us that they plan to complete this effort in early 2009 but the publication date is not firm. Officials told us that the approach will be based on DOD-wide guidance on strategic communications and draw on State’s interagency strategic communications documents. Given the underlying concerns inside and outside the U.S. government about AFRICOM and its mission, we believe a communications strategy is an important first step in reducing stakeholders’ concerns, but we also recognize that it alone may not be able to resolve all of them. It will take time for concerns generated by the initial announcement to subside and will largely depend on AFRICOM’s actions. Until AFRICOM has a comprehensive communications strategy that includes all appropriate audiences, encourages two-way communication with stakeholders, and ensures a consistent message, the command may continue to be limited in its ability to reduce persistent skepticism and garner support for the command.

[p19-20]

In a 2008 report on the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, a multi-agency program in Africa led by the State, we found that the program lacked a comprehensive, integrated strategy to guide the implementation of State, USAID, and DOD activities aimed at strengthening country and regional counterterrorism capabilities and inhibiting the spread of extremist ideology in northwest Africa.23 Our work showed that, as a result, State, USAID, and DOD developed separate plans focused on their respective program activities. Although these plans reflected some collaboration, such as in assessing a country’s development needs, they did not constitute an integrated approach and may have hampered the ability of key agencies to collaboratively implement their activities.

[p26]