Nothing New in White Oak Recommendations on Public Diplomacy

by Steven R. Corman

Yesterday I participated in a bloggers’ roundtable on the just-released White Oak Recommendations on Public Diplomacy.  They were formulated by a large group described as “principal stakeholders” from government, academia, business, the arts, and media.  They spent three days at the Gilman Foundation’s White Oak conference center

to arrive at a cross-disciplinary consensus on fundamental recommendations to guide the new Administration and Congress, as they seek to revitalize and adapt public diplomacy in the context of new geopolitical realities and new communications tools.

Their recommendations include the following (paraphrasing heavily):

  1. Take a more holistic approach that involves all stakeholders.
  2. Direct PD at a global audience.
  3. Improve organizational structures that will enhance credibility.
  4. Treat PD as a specialized skill, value it, and make it attractive to new recruits.
  5. Better integrate new technology with person-to-person methodologies.
  6. Increase international exchanges.
  7. Increase funding.
  8. Get Capitol Hill on-board.
  9. Create effective leadership in the State Department and national security organizations.

I find nothing to disagree with in these recommendations, but my reaction to them is a strong sense of deja vu.  They have been repeated over and over again in an slew of reports published over the last four years.

When I pointed this out, panelist Doug Wilson said their objective was not to generate “off the wall” ideas but to develop consensus among an unusually broad group of stakeholders about the way forward.  Bob Coonrod added that past discussions he has participated in have not focused on resources and personnel issues.

Following the roundtable I did my own informal analysis of 18 reports covering topics of public diplomacy and strategic communication (including the White Oak set) that have been published over the last four years.  Most made explicit recommendations, and in the cases where they did not I was able to discern some.  I made an effort to group these into general categories of recommendations.  Here is the list and the number of reports that made them (full spreadsheet here [see updates below]):

Number of Reports Recommendation
11 Improve internal coordination, cooperation, business processes
9 Increase funding
9 Improve staffing/human resources
8 Create PD specialty tracks/Careers or improve PD training for FSOs
6 More integration of academic and/or private sector and/or NGOs
6 Create independent PD entity
4 Emphasize development in policy
4 Embrace new media
3 Emphasize people-to-people exchange
3 Better audience adaptation/targeting
3 Improve research/assessment
3 Improve strategic planning
2 Emphasize youth engagement
2 Emphasize values
2 Create US info centers/libraries
2 Engage the Hill
2 Adopt Commercial Branding/PR practices
2 Resturcutre BBG
2 Improve messaging
2 Better connect PD to policy
2 Give Under Secretary New Powers
1 Rebuild alliances
1 Int’l policy leadership
1 Engage Muslim community
1 Expand exchange programs
1 Promote regional broadcasting initiatives
1 Engage opinion leaders
1 Increase oversight

So there was already considerable consensus on several issues, including funding and personnel resources, albeit perhaps not by as broad a group as was present at the White Oak conference.

My point here is not to criticize the conferees or their conclusions.  If nothing else they assembled a large, diverse group, and got everyone on the same page.  However this exercise shows (as I have argued before) that our problem is not a lack of understanding or consensus about what needs to be done.  Rather it is the operation of some mysterious force in the USG that keeps smart recommendations like the ones in all these reports–including those in the the White Oak report–from being implemented.

To their credit, the panelists recognized this.  In response to a question from Chris Tomlinson from the Associated Press, both said that good PD practices aren’t a mystery, but that bureaucratic arguments and stovepipes, a lack of resources, a risk-averse culture, and a narrow view of the enterprise prevent things from changing.  If the White Oak conference can be faulted for anything, it is failing to focus recommendations on solving those more challenging and overarching problems.

UPDATE February 21, 10:42 MST

Kristin Lord kindly pointed out that I neglected to include a more recent Brookings report (and a significant one).  Since folks seem to have found this meta-anaysis useful, I updated the spreadsheet (see update below) with data from that report.  It didn’t change the rankings very much, so I won’t bother to re-do the table above.  The main changes were breaking the tie between increased funding and increased staffing in favor of funding (I took the recommendation about increased investment to mean funding), a bump-up of the item having to do with BBG (and modification of it to include review of policy), and addition of a couple of one-report reccos.

UPDATE February 23, 8:35 MST

Nothing is easy.  Matt informed me that the links in the PDF of the spreadsheet do not work.  On investigation I  found that there is a bug in Acrobat that prevents it from converting embedded links in an Excel spreadsheet.  So for those of you who want the links, here is the actual Excel spreadsheet from which the pdf file was created.

One Response to “Nothing New in White Oak Recommendations on Public Diplomacy”

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  1. Marta Jimeno Viñes says:

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for your blog and the information it contains. I am part of a Spanish research team on PD and your posts are very useful to us. I´d would like to post a question.
    I have heard that the new undersecreatry for PD and PA is already nominated by the President, but waiting for the Senate. I see in you page, you still have the counter, Where could I find more information about this fact? When do you calcullate is she going to be at office?
    I also have asked Matt (whom I follow via twitter) if he has more information about the PD National Summit announced by the Commission last year, or where could I find it?
    Thanks for every help and regards from Spain,

    Marta Jimeno Viñes