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A Reliance on Smart Power: Reforming the Public Diplomacy Bureaucracy

Elizabeth Bagley (Ambassador) , Vice Chairman, U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy
Dirksen Senate Office Building
Washington, DC
September 23, 2008

Testimony before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs’
Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia

2:30 p.m.

Mr. Chairman, Ranking Member Voinovich, Distinguished Members of this Subcommittee:

Thank you very much for the privilege to appear before you at this hearing on “Reforming the Public Diplomacy Bureaucracy.” I am honored to represent the United States Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy this afternoon and to brief the Subcommittee on our 2008 report, entitled, “Getting the People Part Right: A Report on the Human Resources Dimension of U.S. Public Diplomacy.”

At the outset, Commission Chairman William Hybl and I would like to ask the Chairman’s permission to enter the entirety of our report into the Congressional Record as the Commission’s “prepared testimony.” Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Let me now move directly into the substance of my opening statement.

Just over a year ago, the Commission reviewed the extensive recent literature on U.S. public diplomacy and determined that few if any observers had ever sought to “look under the hood” and study the impact of internal human resources practices and structures on our Nation’s efforts to communicate with foreign publics. We decided to explore this basket of issues, our thinking being that, in the final analysis, people are the key to the success of our Nation’s public diplomacy. Over a one-year period, the Commission met with scores of State Department officials and outside experts on PD human resources issues and we learned a great deal in the process. Our 2008 report contains our findings and recommendations. In this short statement, I would like to highlight our key conclusions. Later, I’ll be happy to elaborate as necessary and answer any questions Members of the Subcommittee might have.

In sum, Mr. Chairman, we found that the State Department:

  • recruits smart people, but not necessarily the right people, for the PD career track,
  • tests candidates on the wrong knowledge sets,
  • trains its officers in the wrong skills, and
  • evaluates those officers mostly on the wrong tasks.

In terms of personnel structures:

  • State has a PD bureaucracy in Washington that hasn’t been critically examined since the 1999 merger and that may or may not be functioning optimally,
  • its overseas public affairs officers are spending the majority of their time administering rather than communicating with foreign publics, and
  • meaningful integration of public diplomacy into State Department decision-making and staffing remains elusive.

In short, Mr. Chairman, we’re not “getting the people part right.” Let me now take up each of these points in a little more detail.

On recruitment, very simply, the Department of State makes no special effort to recruit individuals into the public diplomacy (or “PD”) career track who would bring into the Foreign Service experience or skills specifically relevant to the work of communicating with and influencing foreign publics. No serious presidential or Congressional campaign, or private-sector company, would hire communications personnel who have no background in communications, but to a large degree, that is exactly what the United States Government is doing. We need to change that.

Turning to the Foreign Service examination process, we found that the Foreign Service Officer Test and Oral Assessment do not specifically test for public diplomacy instincts and communication skills. Since we neither recruit for, nor test for, these skills, it is thus possible for candidates to enter the PD career track – and, for that matter, the other four Foreign Service career tracks – without having any documented proficiency in core PD-related skills. This is problematic. The Commission believes we need to modify the exam – particularly the Oral Assessment – to include more substantive PD content.

In terms of public diplomacy training, though there have clearly been some improvements in recent years, a number of conspicuous, and serious, blind-spots persist. For one, we make virtually no effort to train our PD officers in either the science of persuasive communication or the nuts and bolts of how to craft and run sophisticated message campaigns. The Commission believes we need to rectify this. We would like to see more substantive PD offerings at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute, including a rigorous nine-month course analogous to the highly regarded one currently offered to economic officers.

With respect to the State Department’s employee evaluation report (or “EER”) form, the essential problem is that it lacks a section specifically devoted to PD outreach, and thus contains no inherent requirement that State Department employees actually engage in such outreach. Until it does, PD officers overseas will continue to spend the overwhelming majority of their time behind their desks administering, rather than out directly engaging foreign publics. The Commission wants to see outreach built into the EER form and we also want to see at least one substantive PD communication task built into the work requirements of every PD officer in the field. A one-line change in the EER form of the type we have proposed could result in thousands more outreach events per year than we are seeing at present. Now is the time to put direct outreach at the center of American public diplomacy – right where the current and previous Secretaries of State have said they believe it should be.

Let me now turn to the public diplomacy area offices. At present, the mechanism by which public diplomacy considerations are ostensibly brought into State Department policymaking is the PD area office – a self-standing office within the regional bureau. The Commission looked at this structure and concluded that though PD now has a higher profile within the State Department than it did some years ago, the jury is still out as to whether that higher profile has been translated into appreciable differences in policy outcomes. The current bureaucratic arrangement is anomalous in two ways: first, Washington-based PD officials take policy direction not from the official to whom they nominally report – the under secretary for political affairs; but rather, from an official to whom they do not formally report – namely, the under secretary for public diplomacy and public affairs; second, PD is the only substantive function not permanently represented on the country affairs desk – the locus of Department policymaking. We think it is time to revisit the current arrangement to see if it is working as it should.

With regard to the role of public affairs officers (or “PAOs”), particularly at large posts, the Commission was surprised to find that, notwithstanding the job title, most PAO responsibilities were inwardly, not outwardly, oriented. In short, our PAOs are essentially administrators, not communicators. The Commission recognizes that program administration is an important component of public diplomacy that will always be a part of the job. Nonetheless, we would like to see the Department take a critical look at the PAO position, particularly at large posts, to see if these senior officers are playing the role they ought to be playing and if this expensive managerial layer is cost-effective and adding value.

Finally, a few words about the integration of public diplomacy officers into State Department staffing. The stated goal of the 1999 merger of the USIA into the State Department was to integrate PD considerations, and PD personnel, more fully into the “mainstream” of State Department planning and policymaking. The Commission has found that this integration remains largely elusive, and, concomitantly, that PD officers continue to be significantly under-represented in the ranks of the Department’s senior management. As we put it in the report, “The PD career track is no longer ‘separate,’ but it certainly is not yet ‘equal.’” If the Department is to attract and retain first-rate PD officers, then it needs to demonstrate that these officers will be regarded as capable of holding senior Department positions.

Let me conclude. Getting the people part right can go a long way toward enhancing the overall effectiveness of America’s outreach to the world. As our report suggests, there is much work to be done. That said, most of the needed fixes are feasible; with some political and bureaucratic will – and perhaps some Congressional attention – they can be made. We certainly hope they will be.

Mr. Chairman, thank you very much again for this opportunity. I look forward to responding to the Subcommittee’s questions. Thank you.

Released on September 23, 2008

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