Last week offered two glimpses of U.S. public diplomacy’s gradual evolution.
The State Department received confirmation that a merger between two of its three public diplomacy bureaus will move ahead. International Information Programs and the Public Affairs bureau will become the Bureau of Global Public Affairs.
A less visible but deeper change went public Thursday, courtesy of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. The congressionally mandated body called leaders from the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to discuss the “modernization of public diplomacy.”
Chairman Sim Farar, Commissioner Anne Terman Wedner and about 100 audience members heard four staffers from the office – called “Ripper” after its acronym R/PPR — describe three initiatives that may be transformational in nature for the 185 public diplomacy offices around the globe.
- Realigning Public Diplomacy Sections and Locally Engaged Staff
- Integrating Online Planning and Management Tools
- Increasing Monitoring and Evaluation Capabilities
Boring? For some, perhaps, but not for those who know how public diplomacy works today.
A new set of job titles for locally engaged staff focuses on audiences and resources. Skills in research, management and evaluation will be stressed over the “how to” skills of press relations, TV production, or the knowledge of our myriad exchanges programs. R/PPR’s four-part Strategic Framework doctrine mirrors the standard process taught at schools of public relations.
Panelists described some of the specific efforts underway.
- Every Locally-Employed Staff member’s job title and job description is being changed from one denoting a media or cultural function to focus on reaching specific audiences and reporting results. Foreign Service job descriptions will be reconsidered in the future.
- Several current reporting and management systems are being merged into a single Customer Relations Management platform hosted in the cloud by Salesforce.com. This is meant to simplify reporting and to allow Washington offices to pull granular data on posts’ activities, contacts and compare those to stated planning priorities.
- An audience research unit, coordinating with others throughout the department, is boosting assistance to the individual posts overseas. An evaluation unit is assisting posts with monitoring, data collection and evaluation methods. This has been a weak point for public diplomacy (and the public relations industry as well.)
Robert Kelley of American University asked how such important changes could possibly go forward without a confirmed Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. Operational control of the overseas posts lies with the regional bureaus, overseen by the Under Secretary for Political Affairs. The ranking State panelist, Brian Heath, answered that there is a designated “senior R official,” Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Michelle Guida. He added that the modernization initiatives are moving forward.
That’s probably because PD professionals throughout the Department have been developing some of these ideas for ten years or more. The initiatives are non-partisan, the costs are comparatively modest, and they promise results that Congress and successive administrations have always called for: better data on what the taxpayers get for their dollar.
Below the surface, though, the R/PPR initiatives and the bureaus’ merger all face uncertainties.
- The IIP Bureau has always striven to tailor its media support to the varied agendas of posts overseas, which are in turn driven by bilateral relations. Our 185 public affairs sections, attuned to local audiences, have made U.S. public engagement the most effective on the planet. Public Affairs, in contrast, must support a Secretary of State’s agenda driven most often by Beltway politics. Can the new, single bureau find a balance that preserves support to the field? (I’m a former principal deputy coordinator of the IIP Bureau.)
- The new reporting platform goes well beyond the contact management system for which Salesforce is known. The Department (including the Information Resources Management Bureau) is trying to customize Salesforce to incorporate program planning and reporting of activities and results, and to do so by autumn of 2020. The federal government’s record of success with this type of IT project is very poor.
- Finally, R/PPR’s wizards of modernization are aiming well beyond the mechanics of job descriptions and reporting tools. They want to work a fundamental cultural change in overseas posts that are struggling to keep programs going and fill Washington’s insatiable demand for reporting. For example, the evaluation unit has embarked on a series of trainings at individual posts, without any apparent needs assessment and disconnected from the Foreign Service Institute (where I now work). The transformation they seek will require years and will also need a broader approach than simply training. Can they go the distance?
The revolution in global communications makes it easy to justify changes to organization and process. And they are needed. The tricky part is to take the right steps and remain on course over time.
Joe B. Johnson consults on government communication and technology after a career in the United States Foreign Service. He is an instructor for the National Foreign Affairs Training Center, where he teaches strategic planning for public diplomacy. Read More