Center for Strategic Communication

By Patricia H Kushlis

The good news is that the US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy has seemingly risen from the ashes – or more accurately been wrested from the clutches of a member of the US Congress who refused to vote for the pittance required to keep this small Commission afloat.  The better news is that the resurrected Commission has begun to fulfill its mandate – to evaluate operations and programs and to offer independent guidance to the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors – as to how better to operate this country’s public diplomacy activities.  Not that the State Department is comfortable with any independently appointed commission investigating its operations:  believe me, it’s made it clear that it’s not.  Yet, all the more reason for the Commission to step to fill the breach.

The first report I’ve seen from the newly resurrected Commission appeared on September 14, 2014.  Its title “Data- Driven Public Diplomacy: Progress towards Measuring the Impact of Public Diplomacy and International Broadcasting Activities” is forbidding – a sleep inducer for a reader without an advanced degree in, and infatuation with, the arcane field of government assessments and accountability. But, I suppose, this study isn’t really written for him or her.  Rather it is aimed at the specialists and especially the policy makers who can effect change so, in the end, the report’s soporific title really doesn’t matter all that much.

Most of this report is a critique of current assessment methodology employed by the State Department and the Broadcasting Board of Governors’ Voice of America.  The individuals hired by the Advisory Commission to conduct these evaluations of evaluations were American academics from a variety of tertiary institutions but none, as far as I can tell, with practical public diplomacy experience. Their names and affiliations are listed in the report.  

This lack of expertise is a weakness although presumably the experience itself gave them better insights into the actual practice of US public diplomacy. Yet since public diplomacy acumen comes foremost from hands-on learning in Washington and on assignment abroad, without having the requisite experience that ensues from having participated in its nitty-gritty and often unglamorous, behind the scenes work, an outside researcher trying to divine what happened, what is happening, what should happen and what will happen is too often whistling in the wind.

The critiques of the public diplomacy evaluations process provide the report’s body. 

The introductory historical section is by USC historian Nicholas Cull. Cull’s history summarizes the evaluation efforts by the U.S. Information Agency – which included the Voice of America and the Education and Cultural Affairs Bureau – until the Agency’s untimely demise in 1999. Cull also includes a slice of the US public diplomacy story after USIA was destroyed and its pieces shoved willy-nilly into the State Department or alternatively made part of the new, ungainly and dysfunctional structure for international broadcasting which made and still makes as little sense as the State “merger.”

Cull’s contextual history is by far the most useful part of the 58 page Commission study.  Writing in clear English, he points out that USIA did a pretty good job of internal program evaluation while bending to the requirements placed on all federal agencies by the Executive Branch or the Congress throughout the years.  A disclosure:  I was one of the many practitioners Cull interviewed for this introduction and my name appears among the list in his footnotes on page 13.

My one correction to Cull’s encapsulated history of USIA is that although Public Affairs Officers in the field received two evaluations (one by USIA’s geographic area office and the other by the Ambassador) not all public affairs staff did, as Cull erroneously indicates on page 9.  This may simply have been a typographical or editorial omission. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the requirement was redundant because public affairs officers wore dual hats:  1) they had to protect USIA interests and programs 2) as well as to please their Chief of Mission, sometimes having to deal with a less than stellar Ambassador’s countervailing whims.

The division of the report into sections on the activities of the State Department bureaus engaged directly in public diplomacy plus VOA generally makes sense except that public diplomacy has been so dispersed throughout the building, major elements – like the geographic bureaus – were excluded.

 Be that as it may, if there are central themes to the critiques in this report it’s that far too little funding is devoted to evaluations of public diplomacy effectiveness by both State and BBG, the expertise of the in-house staffs that conduct them needs strengthening and, further, that more should be done to provide narrative context in the evaluations themselves not to mention the application of greater methodological rigor (including use of comparison) employed in future evaluations.

 What I fail to understand, however, is why the evaluation teams used only one State Department Inspector General Report and also why the public diplomacy activities of the geographic bureaus were omitted.  The single OIG report referenced was a devastating one about IIP although there must have been evaluations of other elements including the geographic bureaus (all of which have their own public diplomacy staffs and budgets) available as well.

Furthermore, it seems to me that it’s impossible to evaluate Washington’s effectiveness without understanding what the results are in the field.  Public diplomacy should foremost be a coordinated and cooperative effort between the field and Washington Headquarters. Unclassified versions of OIG reports are available on the web, all OIG evaluations of Embassy and Consulate operations include public diplomacy sections – and even with all the serious problems in State’s OIG office, there’s a lot of relevant information available in those OIG reports to this Commission’s evaluators.       

I think, however, that much of the Commission’s report would have be unnecessary if:  1) USIA’s  country planning process had not been destroyed by the State Department or that once that mistake was identified years ago, the Country Plan had been reintroduced (important sections of those plans provided the context and history that the Advisory Commission evaluators identified as missing in the post-USIA evaluations); and 2) a sizeable cadre of experienced public diplomacy officers existed.  This number has decreased dramatically over the years as has the dilution of professional experience of officers serving in those positions since 1999.  So what has happened and why has professional expertise diminished as a result of the State Department’s short-sighted HR policies?  And yes, both matter.     

The Advisory Commission report indicates that the Voice of America has been far more effective than the State Department in providing the kinds of evaluation and analysis the writers of this report were looking for.  Far from perfect – after all nothing’s ever perfect or why bother to do an evaluation – but regardless. Apparently, according to the evaluators, the best thing VOA has done is to contract public opinion surveys to the venerable Gallup polling organization.  But then, unlike State, VOA maintained its research unit over the years. The Voice had conducted systematic independent audience research for decades assessing its listeners, adjusting its programs and signals and justifying its budget to Congress.

At the other end of the Washington Mall in contrast, the State Department destroyed USIA’s research office during the merger thereby killing public diplomacy’s ability to conduct and contract out its own survey research.  USIA’s research office had conducted and commissioned such attitudinal survey research for the Agency and the wider US government since the Agency’s beginning in the 1950s.  The survey results were particularly useful in the late 1980s and 1990s for understanding the then fast moving situation in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.  The world is changing no less rapidly today.

The section on social media is the new element in the Advisory Commission’s evaluation.

In its research on this controversial medium, the Commission’s panel zoned in on the State Department’s Bureaus of Public Affairs and IIP (International Information Programs).  Yet, the review fails to take a more comprehensive view of social media usage by other State Department offices and the Voice that should have included VOA’s extensive use of the Internet, initiatives to use the Internet via Embassy Homepages and Facebook pages supposedly written by overworked Ambassadors not to mention ECA’s separate Internet outreach activities to former exchange program grantees.  In this sense, the evaluation is not only stove-piped but it sees only some of the trees and completely misses the forest.    

The social media wars: Public Affairs versus IIP

Perhaps part of the problem is that social media and Internet use have been murky questions pre- and post-USIA simply because of the relative newness of the medium and the restrictions on government collection of personal data. Nevertheless, the State Department has never developed a coherent approach to the use or understanding of social media, an evolving phenomenon that changes as quickly as the names and alliances of Islamic terrorist groups.       

PA is supposed to keep the Secretary happy and to focus on State’s American audience whereas IIP has been restricted to engaging and informing the US government’s international audience.  The Advisory Commission report suggests that turf fights between these two bureaucratic entities, both under the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, grew worse as a result of the Internet revolution – but if my memory serves me, such fights didn’t exist when these two entities were managed in separate bureaucracies even after the Internet age had begun.

 But here’s another weakness

IIP (in its USIA guises) products included far more than just those of the State Department. Since the merger, however, the bureau seems to have become principally an organ of the State Department just at a time when the Defense Department, the National Security Agency and the CIA have emerged as America’s principal national security actors.  This is a qualitative and bigger picture issue that was not addressed in the Commission’s report but it is important, perhaps more important to the efficacy of US public diplomacy operations in the wider scheme of things than whether an evaluation is designed appropriately to meet Congressional requirements. 

In short, this is a good report but future ones could be better. In the meantime, I hope that the renewed US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy is allowed to function as it should despite entrenched bureaucratic entities lined up against it and a polarized Congress.  An independent authoritative voice on US public diplomacy is very much needed in these turbulent times.