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Answers to FAQs about "Getting the People Part Right: A Report on the Human Resources Dimension of U.S. Public Diplomacy"

William J. Hybl, Chairman, Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy
Washington, DC
September 24, 2008

September 2008 Testimony

Q1: When you say that the State Department is recruiting “smart people,” but not necessarily the “right people,” what do you mean by that?

A1: To begin with, we have to start with the basic construct that undergirds the Foreign Service personnel system, and that is the “generalist” construct. The system seeks to bring in “generalists” who will, over the course of a 25- or 30-year career, be able to serve effectively in a number of geographic regions and in a number of functions. And thus, no one at State ever sits down and says, “Hey, public diplomacy is the most important thing we’re doing now, so let’s figure out a way to get people with that particular skill-set into our ranks”; the same is true vis-à-vis political officers, economic officers and all the career tracks. Basically, the State Department wants to bring in people who are intelligent, who know something about America and the world, who can write well, and who have good judgment and common sense. That’s fine, as far at it goes, and for the most part, we are accomplishing that objective. But the problem is that the Department makes no special effort, according to recruiting officials themselves, to go out and target in its recruiting efforts people who have particularly strong backgrounds in the relevant field – in our case, public diplomacy. And so we bring in generalists, but then express surprise when those generalists do not achieve experts’ results. The problem is not with the people, per se. We do, in fact, have some very bright, talented and capable people serving in the ranks of the Foreign Service, and in the PD career track – there’s no question about that. The problem is with our system, which places an institutional premium on “generalism” over specialized expertise. The Commission recognizes that this problem – and, in fairness, I should add that not everyone would necessarily view it as a problem – is rooted in the entire intake system, and it affects not only PD officers, but all Foreign Service officers (“FSOs”). Philosophically, the Commission believes we need to be going after more specialized expertise, particularly in as sensitive a field as PD – an area in which most graduate students and young professionals rarely have much grounding prior to joining State. We understand, however, that this will be hard to do absent a significant reform of the current intake system. But we raised the issue because we think it is important. The State Department doesn’t just need “smart people” – it needs, and our Nation needs, the right smart people.

Q2: You talked about the Foreign Service exam. I know the exam is generally fairly well regarded. What, specifically, would the Commission suggest by way of building greater PD content into it?

A2: First of all, let me say that I agree with the premise of your question, namely, that the Foreign Service examination process is generally well-regarded. The Commission, too, regards the examination – and, in particular, the Oral Assessment – as a “best practice,” and we made that clear in our 2008 report. The problem with the examination process, from the standpoint of public diplomacy, is that there really is very little PD content in the exam, and thus, we have a situation in which 1) we recruit generalists, as we have noted; and then 2) we fail to test those generalists on the skills that, presumably, lie at the heart of effective public diplomacy. Of course, this begs the question, “Well, what skills do lie at the core of effective public diplomacy?” That’s a big topic, but let me just observe that, frankly, I’m not sure the Department has thought through that question with the rigor it deserves. If one takes the Commission’s basic position – that a PD officer ought to have proven aptitude in persuasive communication, a penchant for creative and effective outreach, an understanding of how message campaigns are crafted and run, and so on – then it is clear that we are not testing for these things on the exam as the exam is currently constituted. One might take issue with the premise – that PD officers ought to have these skills, though, frankly, I think it would be hard to defend that position – but if one grants that premise, then the question arises, how do we build these types of skills into the exam process? The Commission believes that it is most appropriate to build them into the Oral Assessment, and that is what we have recommended. We have a negotiating exercise in the Oral Assessment, and we have other exercises in there, but we don’t, at present, have a straight PD component to the exam. Why not have the candidate deliver a speech, or respond to tough questions from a hostile media, and so on? This is doable. The State Department could modify the exam process to bring PD into it to a much greater degree, and we think it should. Otherwise, we’ll continue to have a situation in which people are able to join the PD career track, and the Foreign Service itself, without ever having had to prove that they can deliver the USG’s message effectively. And that does not make a lot of sense to us.

Q3: I am intrigued by the Commission’s comments on the current state of PD training. If FSI is not training PD officers in what the Commission terms “the science of communication,” then what, exactly, is FSI training them in?

A3: Well, that is exactly the question the Commission asked at the outset of our exploration of this issue. Before I get to the answer, let me reiterate a point that our report made and that I made in my opening statement. The fact is, public diplomacy training is much stronger today than it was even a few years ago. There are more courses, and better courses, on the books today than was the case in the years right after the 1999 consolidation of USIA into the State Department. So, in fairness, I think FSI deserves a lot of credit – and, in particular, Secretary of State Powell deserves a lot of credit for this leadership in this area – for realizing that we needed to do a better job of training our PD officers and getting those courses on the books. Having said that, however, the fact remains, FSI PD training continues to focus almost exclusively on administration, rather than substantive communication. There are precious few courses offered at FSI on such substantive communications-related disciplines as communication science, political communication, advertising, marketing, the use of public opinion polling in the development of message campaigns, the management of message campaigns more generally, and so on. Instead, to get back to your question, we train our outgoing PD officers on such matters as how to administer programs and grants, run press conferences, or, perhaps, how to give an interview. But the bigger picture knowledge sets are unaccounted for. The fact is, communications is a serious discipline, with an enormous literature and a host of well understood principles and best practices. There are proven ways of communicating more effectively, just as there are proven ways of doing so less effectively. The multi-billion-dollar-a-year advertising industry – and, indeed, the political advertising industry – wouldn’t exist, or be so profitable, if that weren’t the case. But rather than train our people and arm them with this body of knowledge as they go out to communicate with the world on behalf of our Nation, we essentially say to them, in effect, “Just wing it!” The Commission knows we can do better than that, and we genuinely hope that the Department will act on our proposals in this area. We believe that PD, like politics and economics, is a discipline that has associated with it a significant corpus of knowledge, and we need to do a better job of instilling this knowledge in our Nation’s professional communicators.

Q4: Please elaborate on the Commission’s proposal with respect to the Employee Evaluation Report, or “EER.” What changes would the Commission want to see made?

A4: The Commission believes that, all things being equal, employees work to their evaluations. That is, they spend the most time and effort trying to achieve the objectives laid out, in agreement with their supervisors, in their work requirements. In fact, when you think about it, that fact is exactly what the entire performance evaluation process is predicated upon. In the Foreign Service EER, there is no section specifically devoted to public diplomacy outreach – even for PD officers. Indeed, the form itself is standardized; the same form is used for PD officers, political officers, consular officers and everyone else. Thus, at present, there is no requirement inherent to the form itself that says, “You have to reach out to foreign audiences.” So the issue becomes, “What do the individual officer’s work requirements say?” And what we found was that, too often, these individualized work requirements, even for PD officers, gave short shrift to public outreach and substantive communication with foreign publics. And, in terms of the rubber meeting the road, what that means is that, for the PD officers, or any officers, who genuinely want to undertake outreach, they are really swimming upstream, because they are going to be held to account for – and evaluated on the basis of – the administrative tasks they are required to complete, and in a sense, they have to “carve out” time to undertake PD outreach, if they are able to do it at all. In a sense, it is not their “real job.” The result of all this is that there is an institutional, or at least corporate cultural, bias against outreach and in favor of administration. And the result of that is, predictably, we do less outreach than we otherwise might. That is what the Commission is attempting to change. We want to see the form itself require outreach of every officer; and we also want to see PD officers’ work requirements statements mandating at least one ongoing outreach objective per rating period. These proposed fixes are neither complex, nor costly – in fact, they’re essentially no-cost – but they would result in an dramatic up-tick in outreach events literally overnight. That’s because officers would know they are being evaluated on their performance in this area. Right now, the most underutilized resource in our PD arsenal is the PD officer himself – our proposal would go a long way toward rectifying this and generating greater value out of our Nation’s investment in cultural and language training in that officer.

Q5: I don’t quite understand the issue with the PD area offices. Can you explain it to me? How, exactly, is it not working?

A5: This is a fairly complex issue, and at the outset, let me say that the Commission would be delighted to arrange a stand-alone briefing on this topic at any time; there is a lot of detail and nuance to it. I think the main thing to understand is that the PD area offices, which exist within each of the regional bureaus, e.g., the bureaus for Asia, Europe, and so on, are the places where, at least in theory, PD considerations are brought into the policymaking process. Let’s go back to what former USIA Director Edward Murrow once said, and I’m paraphrasing closely: “If you want PD to be there for the crash landings, then you need to have us there for the take-offs, as well” – the idea being, PD considerations need to be brought to bear in the process of policy formulation, rather than merely in the ex post facto explication of the policy. The 1999 merger was, in large measure, undertaken with this objective in mind. With the merger, the PD area offices became fixtures in the regional bureaus, but they did so in their original form – namely, as stand-alone offices – and that basic structure remains in place today. The Commission looked at this structure carefully, and indeed, met with the directors of these six offices. What we found was that, while these offices are staffed with some very talented officers, the offices don’t seem to have a major role to play in policy formulation in the regional bureaus. As one concrete example, we would point to the fact that political and economic officers, and not PD officers, generally take the lead in the daily task of preparing country-specific press guidance for the State Department’s noon briefing. Given the presence of PD area offices in the regional bureaus, why wouldn’t this public affairs task fall to them? In our report – actually, in a footnote of our report – we refer to an internal e-mail, circa 2006, in which a PD officer candidly laments the lack of access that the PD office has even to its own deputy assistant secretary (or “DAS”) – a sad state of affairs, when the DAS is the next-level supervisor of the PD office. In short, the Commission is not sure that these offices are adding much value, as currently constituted; they seem quite marginalized. Here, let me hasten to add that some of the senior-most PD officials in the Department have expressed strong agreement with this basic assessment. So again, the Commission has asked the Department to take a critical look at this structure and see if it is functioning optimally. Certainly, we can continue to “muddle through,” if needs be, but the Commission wanted at least to pose the question and see if there might not be a better way to run things and bring PD into the policymaking process.

Q6: In your report, you call for a reexamination of the position of public affairs officer (PAO). You argue that the PAO is essentially a managerial function. What, in the Commission’s view, should it be?

A6: The job title, “public affairs officer,” would itself seem to imply that the person encumbering that position has, as a principal task, the responsibility of interacting with the public. When we looked at PAO position descriptions and spoke with PAOs and former PAOs, we found that, in fact, PAOs spend the overwhelming majority of their time on internal tasks, such as, quote, “supporting” or “managing” the ambassador, “running interference” vis-à-vis Washington, and so on. We were, frankly, very surprised to learn how little public engagement is built into these positions. As we noted in the report – and I made allusion to this in my opening statement, as well – there are PAOs out there whose formal job requirements are exclusively inwardly oriented. Indeed, there was no inherent requirement for these officers even to use the foreign language facility that, in many cases, the Department had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars training them to develop. Taking a step back and looking at the bigger picture, what struck the Commission was this basic fact: with the possible exception of a small number of “American Presence Post” (APP) officers, there is virtually no one in the State Department whose primary job it is to directly engage foreign publics on matters salient to U.S. policy. And to the extent some officers do have some responsibilities in this area – for example, information officers – those officers are not the PAOs. We understand that management is important, but we see the balance between internal and external exertion as being very out-of-kilter at present. I should note that Department officials generally agree with our assessment of the issue, as well, and rather than rebut the point, they tend to explain why this is so – with one common explanation being that the old USIA-era “executive officers” who handled a lot of the administration went the way of the dinosaur with the 1999 consolidation. But the question remains: does the Department – and does Congress – believe that, say, “managing the ambassador” is the kind of thing that highly-paid PAOs should be spending the great majority of their time doing? If so, then the system is working well. If not – and if, instead, we’d like to have these capable, and often foreign language-proficient, senior officers engaging foreign publics in support of our top foreign policy objectives – then, the system isn’t working. This is the issue that we wanted to flag.

Q7: You make a compelling point about the enduring under-representation of PD officers in the senior-most ranks of the Department. But isn’t there some tension between, on the one hand, your call for PAOs to engage in less management and more communication; and, on the other, your exhortation for the Department to bring more of these officers into the senior ranks?

A7: That is a fair question, certainly. But the argument that the Commission is making is a somewhat different one. First of all, yes, we believe PAOs ought to be engaging in at least some outreach, and we have made a recommendation to that effect. We also believe that PD officers ought to be able to rise to the top of their career track, and the Department, in approximately the same numbers that officers from the other four career tracks routinely do. With respect to the latter point, the facts speak for themselves, so I won’t belabor that issue here. But the basic idea is twofold: first, we ought to incentivize the actual performance of substantive communication by saying, in effect, “Look, if you spend time speaking to large groups and taking on the tough interlocutors on television and radio and in webchats, the system will reward you”; second, by bringing people with this more activist vision of PD work into the top leadership echelons, you can begin to change the corporate culture of the PD career track and, perhaps, move it away from its heavy current emphasis on administration and toward a better balance between administration and outreach. So, the Commission does not view these two goals as antithetical. What we are trying to do, however, is in fact, fairly ambitious: in short, we are trying to get the Department essentially to redefine what it means to be a successful public diplomacy officer. At present, without question, the easiest way to the top – such as it is – for PD officers is administering programs. We would like to see a redefinition of what PD success looks like; we’d like to see PD officers having to communicate their way to the top.

Q8: Your report contains a number of bold recommendations. Given the perennial limitations on time and resources that always constrain policymakers, what would you say are your top priorities – in other words, if the Commission could pick just two or three of its recommendations for “fast-tracking,” which ones would they be?

A8: First of all, let me make a general point. The Commission sees the seven issues we identified and focused on in our report as being very directly inter-related. In fact, we would argue that all seven issues need to be addressed concurrently, as part of a holistic approach to “getting the people part right.” Each issue we identified has an impact on the others, often in very direct ways. For example, merely recruiting the right people, but then not testing them or training them on the right substance solves part of the problem, but obviously, not all of it. Eliminating the PD area offices, if management were to want to go that route, would have a major impact on the ability of PD officers to rise to the top, because there would no longer be a senior-level outlet for PD Senior Foreign Service officers as there is now – and thus, the best PD officers would be forced to compete for country desk officer director positions, ambassadorships, and so on. Revising the EER form to mandate outreach would ensure that these officers then bring an outreach mentality to the Department’s senior decision-making. And so on. So, again, the Commission advocates a holistic approach to these problems. That said, let me nonetheless try to answer your question. I think the three top priorities of the Commission would be: 1) beefing up our PD training and, in particular, adding a multi-month intensive long-term training course that focuses on substantive communication; 2) revising the EER form and work requirement statements, as we have described, so that they are better aligned with the Secretary’s vision of PD outreach, which they are not at present; and 3) taking a fresh, and honest, look at the PD area office structure to determine if real value is being added – and then going where the answers take us, rather than viewing the matter through the prism of parochial bureaucratic interests or simply continuing to do what we’ve been doing “because that’s how we’ve always done it.” With a few tweaks to our system, along the lines of what the Commission has recommended, we can significantly enhance the quality of our PD outreach within a relatively short period of time. In the end, that is what the Commission wants to see.

Q9: Looking ahead to the 2008-2009 period, on what issues does the Commission plan to focus?

A9: We have a very full agenda. First, we plan to work closely with the State Department on implementation of our report proposals. Though the Commission has no “teeth” and can do little more than use our bully pulpit, such as it is, we do sense that senior State leaders recognize that we have raised some serious issues and they seem to be keen to do what can be done to deal with those issues – particularly those that might be characterized as the “low-hanging fruit.” Second, we are working on a “Memorandum to the President-Elect,” which will lay out the Commission’s perspective on the key PD-related issues of the day. We also have open meetings scheduled for October and November, at Yale University and the University of Texas, respectively, where we’ll hear from a wide range of distinguished interlocutors on transition-related issues, as well as other topics. These meetings follow on successful meetings we have held over the last year at two of the country’s top centers of academic expertise in public diplomacy, the University of Southern California and George Washington University. In terms of longer-term projects, we have three main priorities: 1) we want to play a significant role, in collaboration with the State Department and academia, in developing the substantive PD training course that we are calling for; 2) we are developing a “Country Music Initiative” designed to leverage the power of America’s most popular genre of pop music – 60 million daily listeners! – and the desire of the country music industry to get more involved in public diplomacy; and 3) we intend to host a “National Public Diplomacy Summit” in the summer of 2009 that will bring together the country’s top minds and produce a proceedings paper that can serve as a useful reference for the new Administration. Without a doubt, this is an ambitious agenda, and we will work with Congress to ensure that the Commission has the resources it needs to undertake these and other projects, but for now, let me just say that the Commission is excited about the year ahead and very much looking forward to working closely with Congress to ensure that U.S. public diplomacy is as strong and effective as it can be.


Released on September 25, 2008

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