State Department’s structure hinders public diplomacy

The below structural and operational recommendations by retired public diplomacy officers and diplomats originally appeared at AmericanDiplomacy.org. Long in development by the authors, it appeared at AD as a response to Amb. Bill Rugh’s “Enabling Public Diplomacy Field Officer’s to do their Jobs.” The goal of both the below and Rugh’s recommendations is to make the State Department effective – not simply more effective – in today’s global information environment by addressing internal issues that the many studies on public diplomacy from various government groups, think tanks, and academia have failed to really get at. Related reading is Hitting Bottom at Foggy Bottom and How to win the GWOT - or whatever it's called today.

The merger – abolishment really – of USIA in 1999 was never complete. The recommendations below seek to create an “internal” USIA within the Department. They are not comprehensive or end-all changes, but they are a starting point to centralize the resourcing, planning, and execution of engagement activities.

On the specific recommendations, recommendation #1 – creating a bureau for field operations headed by an assistant secretary (essential) – would put field ops on par with IIP (which is still waiting its Assistant Secretary) and ECA (which is also still waiting for its Assistant Secretary). It is not clear what relationship of the field PD officers would have with this new bureau within Judith McHale’s office – perhaps they’ll comment below – but presumably the field officers would report first and foremost to the new bureau instead of the Ambassador.

Both Recommendation #1 and #2 – transferring regional bureau PD desks to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs – are ultimately partial steps without top-down pressure to better integrate post or regional bureau PD into Department operations (see the report on the Africa Bureau).

Other – many other – recommendations could be added, I appreciate the brevity the authors sought (most of whom I’ve met). However, I would add at least two more on the short list. First, the functional integration of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, both of which Judith McHale is ostensibly in charge of. We operate in a global information environment and weekly “coordination” meetings are inadequate. Second, elevate the prestige and importance of the public diplomacy “cone”. The Department of State must become also the Department of Non-State. This requires empowering, resourcing, and integrating public diplomacy officers that advise, inform, and engage leadership and publics. 

The commentary is important enough to post it in its entirety. Bold within the text are mine.

Public Diplomacy is trying to reach and influence the world but its State Department structure has problems.

Ten years ago on October 1, the US Information Agency was folded into the Department of State. Everyone hoped that our public diplomacy outreach would benefit from integration of efforts to inform and relate to the rest of the world, with our often more sensitive, traditional diplomacy. There is a consensus, however, that the present arrangement has not worked well.

With President Obama, there is a new opportunity to change this situation. He spoke of launching “a program of public diplomacy” … that would “… open America Houses in cities across the Islamic world, with internet, hi-tech libraries, English lessons.” Numerous study commissions propose expanding the Department of State’s educational exchange programs, person-to-person outreach overseas, private sector cooperation and cultural centers and libraries; and finding funds and personnel to make this happen. Secretary of State Clinton seeks change along similar lines. Her predecessors signed a June 25 Politico letter expressing concern over “troubled” American efforts to communicate with other countries, and noting that “staff resources … have shrunk … our exchange programs have declined.”

We strongly endorse these calls for significant increase in resources and personnel, especially for public diplomacy. It not only needs more of both, but a more integrated operation, greater emphasis on overseas programs and contacts with future leaders we must know better. Every advanced communication technique should be employed; but, as broadcast pioneer and USIA Director Edward R. Murrow said, what counts is not so much moving information 10,000 miles but moving it “the last three feet in face to face conversation.”

The number of public diplomacy officers and centers they operate from, have indeed shrunk; yet their mission has hardly ever been more urgent. Furthermore, the Washington organization that supports them lacks cohesiveness and direction. It suffers from a merger that did not recognize how public diplomacy involves managing budgets, exchanges of persons, cultural activities, private sector agreements; and also editing magazines, directing TV programs and producing policy information via the Internet – skills that do not grow naturally in the State Department.

Under the 1999 merger, lines of authority for public diplomacy were scattered, PD offices overseas had no “home base” in Washington, and no set of State offices supervised them from Washington. Two bureaus, Educational and Cultural Affairs and International Information Programs, operate under the Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, but mostly on their own and not closely to the field. Critically, all Undersecretaries of Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the past decade have lacked authority over most public diplomacy personnel, resources and field programs.

Indeed, clusters of public diplomacy officers with country expertise operate within six regional bureaus headed by State’s already busy Assistant Secretaries, but they report not to the Public Diplomacy, but to the Political Affairs, Undersecretary. Public diplomacy field posts have only an informal relationship with these bureaus, and no easy channel to get Washington programs tailored to their specific situation.

Public diplomacy professionals in the Foreign Service once expected to spend most of their careers in this arm of diplomacy. Now, to get ahead, some find they may need to spend half their Foreign Service careers in non-public diplomacy assignments. The “élan” of this corps of professionals was largely lost when USIA was fragmented in the State Department.

Recognizing the importance of reaching out persuasively, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have raised the art of communicating overseas to new levels in their visits abroad, showing the way for public diplomatists who, if Senator Lugar has his way, should be operating from forty additional centers and libraries.

Appointment of Discovery Channel pioneer, Judith McHale, as Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, bodes well for a credible information outreach. Her appeal that we “listen more” and, as the 1962 Kennedy/Murrow mission stated, “… advise the President on the implications of foreign opinion for … US policies and programs,” may finally be institutionalized.

After the merger, public diplomacy administrative staffs overseas were downsized; now, “administrative burdens and staffing policies … limit the time public diplomacy officers can devote to outreach efforts …,” stated a May 2009 GAO report. Personal contact is the heart of public diplomacy; its officers would get out of embassies more, if their administrative requirements were lessened.

What is needed most is an integrated public diplomacy structure, with clear authority and supervision from the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, who should be the “director” of all public diplomacy budgets, personnel and operations, and should participate in assignments, training and officer evaluations. We should:

1. Create a Public Diplomacy Bureau for Field Operations, headed by a senior Foreign Service Public Diplomacy professional (perhaps, Assistant Secretary), who would advise and answer to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and oversee all activities in each country.

2. Transfer public diplomacy “desks” and budgets from the six geographic bureaus to this new Bureau, to coordinate field programs and provide country-specific expertise to the new Assistant Secretary and Under Secretary, but retain several experienced hands as senior advisors.

3. Recognize that public diplomacy professionals manage programs, unlike their political and economic colleagues, and require special training (including advanced language skills). They should be able to maintain careers largely in public diplomacy, but compete for senior Foreign Service assignments equally well across all specialties.

These steps will improve public diplomacy support for overseas programs, provide a clear chain of authority overseas from the Under Secretary and give field officers a stronger voice in Washington direction. The old “élan” can be restored.

To achieve foreign policy objectives, Secretary Clinton will need not only more funds and officers, but a sharper, better arranged organization - fully poised to persuasively reach and relate to the rest of the world.

Signed by Thomas R. Pickering, former US Ambassador to the United Nations and Undersecretary of State; Henry E. Catto, former Ambassador to the U.K. and Director of the US Information Agency; David Hitchcock, Career Minister (USIA for 35 years) and former Senior Associate, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Fred A. Coffey, Jr., Senior PAO at various USIA posts (37 years); Stanley M. Silverman, Comptroller, USIA (44 years with the Agency).

October, 2009

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