Missing! One Advisory Commission...

Friday, December 16th 2011

In attempting to contact the Executive Director of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy this morning (December 16), I was surprised to get this message: 

The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, the only government organization charged with overseeing and promoting public diplomacy and strategic communication of the U.S. Government, was not reauthorized by the Congress and ceased operations on December 16, 2011.

  The Executive Dirtector and the staff have apparently been sent home and their email access cut off.  More news when we learn what's going on .


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Summary: A career public diplomacy officer, Brian Carlson advises the InterMedia research organization on military and foreign affairs issues and manages communication strategies for private clients. 


Ambassador Brian E. Carlson, a former Career Minister in the United States Foreign Service, currently assists international media and audience analysis firm InterMedia on defense and diplomatic sector activities. 

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Advisory Commission Thrown Under Megabus?

I guess with fiscal austerity, our esteemed Congress is looking to cut those wasteful government commissions.  Perhaps the budget is now balanced.

One Senator's Folly

Sources report that this action was the result of an effort by one senator who wanted to prove his fidelity to the concept of a balanced budget.  

According to sources, Senate staffers told people at State that they don't "believe in"  organizations as small as the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.  

Moreover, one said something along the lines of "Well, if we can't cut out this little activity (the advisory commission), what can we cut?"  

The move seems even more silly if you figure that it probably cost more in Congressional staff time to write the language eliminating the Advisory Commission than the approximately $135,000 it saves. 

Public Diplomacy Will Survive

While I must admit that it was something of a shock to learn of the demise of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, I must also be frank and admit that there is no evidence that the Advisory Commission has done anything of great note over the past couple of decades.  Perhaps in sober reflection brought on by debt and deficit we should take a closer look at all sorts of commisions, committees and sundry bodies perporting to be important to the running of government to see just how many of them actually do make a difference.  In the case of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, even with a skilled and knowledgeable staff executive director, apparently they could not make the case well enough to stay in business.  Let's hope that Public Diplomacy itself can learn to make a better case for its own exisitence in the years to come.  The $135,000 is presumably the salary of the staff but surely there are other costs that were associated with the Advisory Commission too.  Sometimes it is easier to cut a few hundred thousand from the budget than a few hundred million--or so it would seem.

Relevancy and Value

Bill, I agree with your assessment of the ACPD's past. When I came on I was asked to put together a memo of the Commission's accomplishments for the past four years. I advised that there was one notable accomplishment that might be considered for any list, and that occurred three years prior. I never wrote that memo.

Since then, the Commission has been vigorous engaged across the Government and I heartily disagree that your assessment applies to the ACPD since April 2011. Perhaps ironically, the Commission has been engaging in extensive "diplomacy" working behind the scenes and little "public diplomacy" with and among the public. We have become a useful resource to the Hill (a single Senator notwithstanding, a Senator that a) does little to nothing with Foreign Policy and b) changed his mind and now concedes our value), to State, Defense, and other organizations. We have been building bridges, providing informal briefings and facilitating discussions within and across the Legislative and Executive Branches.

Our public meetings - four since I came on - have not been haphazard topics and have resulted in or were the culmination of other behind the scenes discussions.

Our website, state.gov/pdcommission, does not reflect the extent, volume, or reach of our work. Until last week, my four person office was about to grow +1 with plans for more. Each person, as they can tell, were not wanting for work. (In fact, I had planned on December being a bit of a slow period in the office, a recovery if you will, in prep for our aggressive 2012 agenda.)

The support within State including and, more importantly beyond, R over the last couple of weeks has been surprising (even to me). This reflects our increased prominence and connectivity within and across the Department. Similarly, the comments I've received from other agencies regretting our demise is also indicative of our new vigor and position.

Bear in mind that since April 2011, the Commission has *not* been constrained to "public diplomacy" or the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Publics Affairs. This is not because I pushed the envelope but because I returned the Commission to its purpose. Our Charter states that we are to appraise US Government activities that intend to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics, and to advocate for those same activities. The ACPD limited itself to R in the past. That self-restraint was so great that I had to remind a Commissioner that, yes, in fact we do have authority to look into the activities of the BBG. (The BBG is another body where we have been actively engaged with and focused on.)

As a result of the return to our purpose, we have been actively engaged with bureaus and offices across the Department, across Defense, with National Security Staff, with Members and staff in Congress from various committees and individually (well beyond Foreign Affairs and Foreign Relations), and think tanks and academia.

As the Designated Federal Officer for the Commission, I have had to suffer through meetings on the Federal Advisory Commission Act, which governs the ACPD. I will heartily agree with you, as I have with a certain Senator who is fundamentally opposed to commissions (not the same one mentioned above), that there is a lot of junk in the way of Commissions.

However, this is not "your Father's" Advisory Commission and we have, in my opinion that is supported by the broad support we have from senior Senators of the major committees among others in the Senate and House, separated ourselves from the chaff that comprises what seems to be the bulk of advisory commission-land, as well as separated ourselves from our past.

By the way, the Senator that is fundamentally opposed to commissions? He supports a two-year authorization of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. And, the Senator that blocked our reauthorization admitted he did so not because our merit or value (or lack of), our mission, or demand (for or against), or even our actual cost. In follow up conversations it was admitted the gesture was symbolic and that we happened to cross his sights at the wrong time.

In short, there is no other body in Government that has the responsibility over or the relationship with or the authority to engage the entities that need to be better understood and advised, this includes both Executive Branch agencies and the Congress. It may sound a bit grand, but to shut down the Commission when it was being reestablished as the entity the Congress wants and needs, that the President and the Secretary want and need, is a bit like cutting out an eye to spite the face. But that's just my opinion.


A Good Defense

Matt Armstrong has penned a strong defense of the Advisory Commission since April 2011 and perhaps Congress can be persuaded to reinstitute the AC at some point in the future.  But we know that just because members of Congress admit that they may have made a mistake after the fact does not mean that they will right the wrong or roll back the decision--the demise of USIA is a good case in point.  There is almost no one associated with that stupid decision that  does not admit it was a mistake but I don't see anyone lining up to resurrect USIA or a similar entity.  The bottom line is, as Dennis Murphey alludes to, that public diplomacy just doesn't get the respect it deserves.  That is why information is the poor relative at the DiME table.


In a resource constrained environment keep your eye on our national instruments of power (diplomacy, information, military, economic=DIME). There is a loud message in this action. I think information element of power practitioners should be looking over their shoulder and holding on tightly to their wallets. I've always perceived that we pay lip service to public diplomacy, strategic communication, information operations. This is but one datum that reinforces that perception. I think there will be more. So, are we really about DIME...or DME?

Congress Left Town, Public Diplomacy Let Down

As best I can figure out, the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy remains struck from the authorizing legislation, therefore unfunded, and therefore out-of-business.

As some readers know, there was a specific 2010 sunset clause in the legislation that last authorized the ACPD.  So long as the CR's (continuing resolutions) continued, so did the ACPD.  But the Commission was not re-authorized in the legislation passed last week, so it is kaput.

I gather one key senator actually had a change of heart and agreed to reverse himself and authorize the Commission.  But another budget hawk senator still had it on his hit list among a bunch of other budget reduction items.  

The budget cutting is picking up steam.  Some readers may have seen that today (December 21)  Senator Tom Coburn released a list of over a 100 federal programs that he believes deserve to be cut.  There are a distressing number of public diplomacy programs on Coburn's list, especially including ECA arts items and grants that fund civilizing activities (Sesame Street, for example) in places like Pakistan.

Senator Coburn is normally a friend of public diplomacy, but he is first and foremost skeptical of government spending. He also has never hesitated to hold public diplomacy hostage to his own narrow interests, as when he delayed Jim Glassman's confirmation as Under Secretary of State for months in a petty quest to get the State Department to pay for Voice of America transcripts.

And public diplomacy's supporters have hardly run to the Commission's defense this week.  More than one Hill staffer expresses some degree of ennui about the Commission, probably as a result of its abysmal record under previous executive directors and chairmen.  

Still, it's not good to have the Congress expressing such clear disdain for public diplomacy.  We need to think about how to get the Commission re-authorized.

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