Thursday, September 25, 2008

Reliance on Soft Power: Reforming Public Diplomacy

Earlier this week, Ambassador Elizabeth Bagley, the Vice Chairman of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy gave a 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) on Reliance on Soft Power: Reforming the Public Diplomacy Bureaucracy.

This is part of what she said in her opening statement: “[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.

In sum […], 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.”

Big ouch! This is bad -- not the bad, bad kind, but the bad, good kind; that is, it’s good that this is out in the open; though some folks may get bitey reading this.

My former boss would simply ask, “Do we have the right people on the bus?” Unfortunately, more than a few would answer “no,” but would argue the Rumsfieldian view that "you go to war with the staff you have, not the staff you might want or wish to have at a later time." And then you just chug along, over the EER humps and everything else.

"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."

In fairness to the State Department, the agency makes no special effort to recruit folks into the PD track or any other track based on experience or skills relevant to the work in the other four career tracks (political, economics, management, consular). I do think that State prides itself with growing its own people which has its merits. But whereas in the past we have the luxury of time to grow and teach new graduates on how the world works, in this new universe of constant change, we don’t have that luxury. Why spend two years training an Arabic speaker, if you can hire somebody who already speaks Arabic, or Chinese, or Urdu?

"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."

Actually, not just core PD-related skills but other skills as well. The thing that’s inherently problematic in the process is applicants for entry level jobs in all the career tracks have to select their cone/track during the application stage. I have seen some officers with minimal interpersonal skills ending up as Consular Officers, or folks with no stage presence ending up as communicators in chief. How that happened? Blind spots. What we think we know and how we think we are, or where we are good at, does not always reflect as clearly when we peer into the looking glass of real life. Exacerbating this is the fact that switching cone is as fun as having a root canal.

"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."

We have some missions where entry level officers on their first tour are sent out to perform public outreach in print/online media, tv, and radio with close to no training. Well, actually as I’ve heard it told, one boss saw it fit to work with the PD officer to give one batch of officers some training, including apparently “murder boards,” but after that outreach program received an award, the next batch of officers got zero guidance (short term goals are terribly popular in some parts of this universe) but the public outreach nonetheless continued. I can understand why an officer, even a smart one who’s never been on television would lose sleep and sweat bullets over this one. Public diplomacy is not the area where you want to throw your staff members into the water to see who sinks or floats! Good grief! If we don’t send a soldier to war without training them how to shot, we definitely should not send any of our officers to fight the war of ideas without "weapons" training. In a war zone, bullets are fired and spent and you die, in this other war, ideas, even the unkind ones have the tendency to live on and thrive. Seriously, if our officers have to be effective warriors of ideas, we cannot afford to let them simply wing it -- no matter how smart they may be.

"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."

Drat! Don’t get me started on this one. The EER is supposedly a performance evaluation report but in reality, it is performance negotiation document that flies back and forth between the ratee, the rating officer and the reviewing officer. I’ve seen folks negotiate to remove a damning line; negotiate to insert a favorable line, rating officers fluffing the accomplishments of protégées, and I’ve also seen rating officers who worked hard and long on an accurate evaluation of performance. But it takes all kinds to make the world go round, even this one. Suffice to say that EER time sucks a lot of energy, and endless milliseconds out of human existence. If you read, Chris Argyris’ “Some Causes of Organizational Effectiveness Within the State Department,” from the 1960’s, you’ll be surprised how things have changed, and have not really changed (sorry, can’t provide a link; you’d have to hunt this paper down at the Bunche Library in Main State).

It is true that there is no specific box for PD outreach in the EER form, but the promotion precepts list public outreach as a subset under Communication and Foreign Language Skills. The form is also used by all officers not just PD officers. However, should the PD outreach becomes a primary or secondary requirement for all officers, then I see the need to tweak the form. Alas, I see a need to tweak more than the EER form.

"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."

I don’t have the stats for this but my bare understanding was that when USIA was folded into State in 1999, a considerable number of old hands left. If true, I deduce that some mid-level officers in 1999 who would have been in the Senior Foreign Service now are no longer working for State. Public Diplomacy, the first fifth generalist cone also did not come into being until USIA was abolished in October 1, 1999. If I remember correctly, the average time between promotions is 7 years. Even if State hired PD officers in 1999, and I don't know offhand if it did, that leave us with mid-level folks anywhere between the FS01-FS03 ranks. Add to that the mid-level staffing deficits that State has been experiencing and you get to the country of "no longer separate but not yet equal" that the report is talking about.

I actually would really like to revised the report's last line above: If the Department is to attract and retain first-rate PD officers, then it needs to demonstrate that career Foreign Service Public Diplomacy officers not political appointees or Fifth Avenue marketing hacks, will be regarded as capable of holding senior Department positions. And State could start the broom in its Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Bureau (“R”) as a brilliant example.

I’m still hunting for the copy of the full 2008 report but you can read the full text of Ambassador Bagley’s testimony here. Gotta run, have to feed a screaming baby and hamster.


Digger said...

Excellent post! I have quoted and commented on your post here:

DS said...

Thanks for the mention and the link, Digger. I cross posted this comment in your blog.

The larger question that I have is how State continues to make the case that it will have the diplomats of the 21st century without reviewing how it hires and trains people.

It does not look at strengths/talents, it presumes that anybody that it accepts into the service, it can successfully train/mold into an effective officer. That won't always be true.

If we have a PD-coned officer with no talent for public communications, State could send that officer to a thousand training courses, and at the end, State would still end up with a mediocre officer -- who probably won't make much crater-like mistakes, but won't be an effective spokesperson for USG policies either.

I supposed I could not blame State for all this, after all, we are a remedial society fascinated more with the things we are not good at (that needs fixing) rather than working on the talents we are good at (that needs practice).