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Public Diplomacy Alumni Association
Formerly USIA Alumni Association

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Making U.S. Public Diplomacy Work

David I. Hitchcock

Comments: Harry Britton, 21 March 2009

The Obama Administration advocates increasing resources for public diplomacy (and other State Department functions), as recommended by recent studies. For such new resources to be effectively utilized, however, there must be important organizational changes that will enable public diplomacy, once again, to fulfill its mission.

Objectives of Public Diplomacy:

  1. Strengthen foreign understanding of the U.S., its people, culture and institutions; and build support overseas for U.S. foreign policies.
  2. Advise U.S. foreign policy leaders and planners on foreign attitudes and opinion trends towards the U.S. and its policies.
  3. Achieve greater mutual understanding by encouraging the U.S. private sector to engage peoples of other countries more widely.

Former Organization: An Integrated, Cohesive Agency

Under the U.S. Information Agency, these objectives were pursued through the equivalent of State Department bureaus for cultural/educational exchanges, private cooperation, television, policy and information, opinion research, management (budget, security, administration, personnel) and the Voice of America. Six geographic area offices, paralleling the State Department, supervised USIA field offices and their Foreign Service officers and local employees, as well as all overseas USIA budgets and programs. Each area office ensured that all the tools of public diplomacy from Washington were engaged and tailored, so each field post – the vital center of most public diplomacy - could carry out a coherent, Embassy-approved "Country Plan". These plans supported short and longer U.S. objectives towards each country, and U.S. regional and global goals.

The exchanges office managed academic/professional exchanges, private cooperation and the International Visitor Program; the office also supported libraries, book translations and internet support. The information office arranged overseas visits of American speakers, printed several USIA periodicals, provided rapid guidance on current news developments; and ran several U.S. press centers for foreign correspondents.

USIA officers moved from junior assignments as Assistant Cultural or Information Officer, branch post Center Director, CAO, Information Officer, to PAO (Public Affairs Officer). Officers often served in the same titled position in different countries, gaining critical experience and gradually moving to larger posts and more senior positions. Some served a tour in the State Department – and vice versa.

When rotated to Washington, officers served in the various functional and area offices. Some eventually ran the entire bureaus for Exchanges, Policy/Information, Management, and the Areas. The first three positions – plus the VOA Director - required Senate confirmation. A few became Career Ministers, the highest rank available to USIA's Foreign Service; fewer became Ambassadors.

USIA's Director was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate. USIA's Congressionally appropriated funds were specified in the Foreign Affairs 150 account, but separately identified from the State Department's. The Director, depending on the Administration, attended National Security Council meetings.

USIA's Foreign Service officer evaluation system required the Area Director to prepare an assessment of the PAO in each country. The Deputy Chief of Mission would prepare a separate evaluation on that same PAO, with the Ambassador adding a review. There was a direct line of authority between the USIA Washington area office and the USIA posts and personnel in each area; but the Ambassador and DCM had their say.

This USIA organization became increasingly cohesive and purposeful. There was discipline and design in a career service, with officers growing in PD skills, management experience and area expertise, abroad and in Washington. As their careers advanced, officers would move from a small post, to PAO in Germany or China; or from Desk Officer, to Area Director. They understood the potential of public diplomacy, and how to employ all its tools in concert. They were professionals, increasingly recognized as such at the State Department and throughout the government.

Present Problems of Public Diplomacy: What Should Be Done

Since the merging of USIA into State in 1999, the line authority and responsibility of the Under Secretary of State for the Department's public diplomacy offices, personnel, programs and budgets has been inadequate. The Under Secretary's authority over personnel, including evaluations and assignments, in Washington and at field posts, has been severely limited or is totally lacking.

Today, the office of the Under Secretary (PD) is modeled more closely on State's traditional Undersecretaries (Economic, Management, Non-Proliferation) than after the former Director of the USIA. Only the Political Affairs Undersecretary has any solid, operational authority over the regional Bureau Assistant Secretaries (but these senior officers often work more directly with the Deputy Secretary). Generally, these four Undersecretaries focus largely on policy advice upwards to the Secretary, and policy direction downwards, to the Assistant Secretaries.

The State Department's regional Assistant Secretaries are now directly responsible for all public diplomacy activities in each area. In Washington, however, they do not report to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy, but to his/her Political Affairs colleague.

There really is no need for these busy, senior officers to be burdened with managing the details of overseas PD programs and activities; but they should be informed of the policy implications of PD programs, making sure that public opinion analysis and polling results from overseas PD offices are factored in to Public Affairs (PA) and Policy Planning (S/P), and to reports from the Bureau of Intelligence (INR).

PD overseas offices now interact informally with the public diplomacy offices of each regional bureau's Assistant Secretary; and they have a dotted-line relationship with the Educational/Cultural Affairs Assistant Secretary and the International Information Coordinator (for libraries, U.S. speakers, policy guidance, internet support). But the directors of these public diplomacy offices have no real authority over the PAOs, they do not evaluate their performances, or approve their annual Country Plans. In fact, at this time, PD field posts and their PAOs have no solid line of responsibility to any one in Washington – only to their Ambassador – who really has no line, dotted or solid, to the PD Undersecretary. Their bureaucratic isolation from Washington is illustrated by the fact that a PAO's only evaluation is prepared by the DCM, reviewed by the Ambassador.

An organizational chart today shows that Public Diplomacy is entwined in myriad dotted lines, and stuck in Bureaus with much heavier political and economic responsibilities, and for whom the work of their PD staffs is often an afterthought.

The once-integrated, now dispersed tools of public diplomacy are thus not marshaled effectively to achieve a maximum impact on attitudes of overseas opinion leaders and audiences. The ingredients (tools) are cooking away, on different Washington stoves, even in different kitchens – and with no experienced, responsible chef. The result: a cold, unattractive menu, far less than the sum of a square meal.

The Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy should be operational, directing all public diplomacy offices in Washington and overseas, with a solid chain of command, through a new Assistant Secretary for Field Operations. This official would supervise six Deputy Assistant Secretaries for public diplomacy, who would direct all PD offices abroad – and would ensure that public diplomacy country plans are fully using all available tools. The Under Secretary should (continue to) supervise Washington offices that run educational exchanges and international information programs; and play an active role (on policy only) towards the Voice of America. The Under Secretary should be responsible for an annual budget from Congress for all public diplomacy purposes. The Under Secretary should (continue to) supervise the Bureau of Public Affairs (Spokesperson and Assistant Secretary addressing U.S. publics).

PD offices overseas must be able to plan ahead and respond rapidly to new opportunities, or breaking crises. State's administrative channels are not organized to deal with budgetary public diplomacy field requests, some urgent, others involving intricate fund transfers to cooperating NGOs. The Area PD field support offices should have this authority; and the PD resources now held by the geographic bureaus - that in any case, can only be used for PD purposes - should be transferred to them. To ensure a close working relationship between the geographic bureaus of the Department and the newly separated public diplomacy area offices next door, there should continue to be a public diplomacy adviser with each Assistant Secretary, as well as the public affairs advisor, who prepares daily press guidance for the spokesman and maintains press relations.

The career system that worked so well before integration has now been hollowed out. All officers are expected to serve in "cones" – political, economic and consular - to get promoted. With no incentive to spend all but one or two tours "in-cone", few ambitious PD officers will choose to do so. A senior PAO may not have had any previous PD experience, or must spend valuable time training a staff with none. And there is little motivation for a PD officer to seek more than one PAO assignment.

At present, there truly is no Public Diplomacy "corps" – or esprit de corps either. Bright, young FSOs simply bounce among the Department "cones", perhaps, after the required first overseas tour in a Consular section, taking a public diplomacy assignment along the way. Not surprisingly, training in public diplomacy is almost accidental and often not in time for the next bounce.

The entire concept of a career in public diplomacy – within the State Department, but operating at the side of "traditional" diplomacy – simply does not exist. A PD career ladder, with officers gaining experience as they move up to senior positions (with occasional political or economic officer assignments along the way) has not been developed.

The re-professionalizing of a properly trained and dedicated public diplomacy corps, is essential.

The changes needed are not dramatic. No one's "rice bowl" must be broken. What is vital is the rebirth of a coherent, cohesive, career-enhancing public diplomacy dimension to our foreign policy, with the human and budgetary resources to effectively advance U.S. national interests abroad.

Comments: Harry Britton

21 March 2009

Dave Hitchcock's structural analysis of the need for a separate organization to deal with information and cultural affairs as an integral part of an effective foreign policy for the United States wins my applause and admiration. However, there is a vital element not covered in the PDAA summary: namely the people who fill the slots.

A typical State Department officer is essentially a collector; an ideal information/cultural officer is a giver. To put it another way, a political/economic/generalist officer gathers material to make the salami (policy) which is then prepared by the administration; the public affairs officer slices and dices it (following a Country Plan) to fit the on-the-ground circumstances and needs. To be effective requires a different personality entirely and set of abilities. Crossover is not easy, although many examples exist of those few who were able to handle it.

Back around 1960, USIA commissioned an outside study by psychiatrists other experts to try to get a handle of what type of personality to recruit, thereby avoiding dropouts and errors. As I understood it, the panel concluded that the most effective and content officer was just a little off the norm, able to try new techniques and "think outside the box." But the conclusions never saw the light of day because it was apparent that they would be distorted--"USIA Seeks Crazies" might be predicted as a typical headline.

From my own experience, the transition from the State track to information/cultural officer was possible but hardly ideal. Even the switch from information to cultural in a line officer was often a high hurdle.

Open for discussion. Thanks for the opportunity to get these thoughts on paper, Dave.

David I. Hitchcock served 35 years with USIA, retiring with the rank of Career Minister. He also served as a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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Updated: 21 March 2009.

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