The Office of Inspector General for the US Department of State and the Broadcasting Board of Governors just released a report on the State Department’s International Information Programs Bureau (IIP). The report was remarkable in the range of criticism it aimed at one of the pivotal organizations in the US government dedicated to public diplomacy. The report was revealing on a number of levels, and I believe raises some important questions about the relationship between public diplomacy strategy and implementation.
There’s a lot to digest in this report. Much of the criticism is leveled at management, so I really can’t speak to such issues. Suffice to say that the report depicts IIP as a less than pleasant place to work. This is a shame, as I believe IIP can and should have a significant role to play in the conduct of public diplomacy. And buried in the report are lots of good bits about what IIP actually does, especially regarding the use of technology. Outside of managerial concerns – what’s the problem? Here are a few that stand out for me.
First and foremost is the question of strategy. The report highlights a pretty stark disconnect between the practice of public diplomacy and its connection to a broader strategic framework (for both public diplomacy and indeed, diplomacy). The “unresolved” questions about strategy posed by the OIG report are telling.
“What is the proper balance between engaging young people and marginalized groups versus elites and opinion leaders?”
“Which programs and delivery mechanisms work best with which audiences? What proportion of PD resources should support policy goals, and what proportion should go to providing the context of American society and values?”
“How much should PD products be tailored for regions and individual countries, and how much should be directed to a global audience?“
“What kinds of materials should IIP translate and into which languages?”
These are fundamental questions, that have been addressed repeatedly in the deluge of reports, white-papers, and studies on US public diplomacy for over a decade. And yet here we find evidence that public diplomacy is lacking a strong strategic compass. Still, I don’t think the burden of this issue can laid solely on the leadership of IIP (and certainly not on staff). I think the problems facing IIP may also be institutional in nature. This is yet another aspect of the ongoing hangover from the merger of the USIA and State – where there seems to be a noted lack of awareness of IIP activity among other bureaus, and indeed, an implied irrelevance to the larger work of diplomacy.
Sure, the IIP operates under a “strategic framework”, but as the report states: “A strategic framework established concepts and terms, but the Department has not translated the framework into a plan that links resources to priorities.”
The report also takes some pretty big swipes at IIP’s efforts to collect and measure data about its effectiveness. Obviously, the difficulties of measurement and evaluation for public diplomacy are considerable – especially given the often indeterminate time horizons in which to measure effect, and, how ambiguous strategic expectations make it difficult to measure. It’s hard to do research when you don’t know what you research question is. But they did offer an important recommendation. That IIP’s in-house Audience Research and Measurement outfit should formalize its relationship with other analysis units at State. What struck me, nevertheless, was that I didn’t really come away with a sense of what they are actually measuring, evaluating etc. outside of the way the State Department tracks public diplomacy outputs (the Mission Activity Tracker). Curious.
On IIP’s social media activity, the report shared some valuable insights. It rightly questioned the so-called “20/100” strategy to improve Embassy social media profile through essentially buying “likes,” rather than other possible routes to using social media as a public diplomacy tool. While there may be latent benefits to a large network of “likes,” these are not necessarily obvious given the strategic imperatives of public diplomacy to build relations or drive attention to particular subjects, information, or events.
OIG’s advice here is worth note:
The bureau could reduce spending and increase strategic impact by focusing its advertising not on raising overall fan numbers or general engagement statistics but on accomplishing specific PD goals. This approach would entail tying any general page advertising to the promotion of special information content on high-priority issues as well as manually selecting key items as sponsored stories and advertising them only to relevant countries and audiences
The report also weighs in on the qualitative dimension of interaction through social media. It raises questions about the nature of comments or discussions found in social media. While I think this is a valid question, I also think it deserves more critical and indeed scholarly attention. There may be something about the casual and conversational nature of interactions that are important to the relational ambitions of PD that are important – and reflect the cultural dimensions of the medium itself. Facebook or Twitter may not be necessary to engage in rational-deliberative discourse over US foreign policy, but IIP might do something important in the incremental cultivation of attention and social capital that comes from the interactions through these platforms. It’s certainly not a good way to push a press release. Again, it’s still not clear based on this OIG report how these platforms are integrated into an over-arching strategy for public diplomacy.
But what about the good news?
The report states:
With effective use of technology, IIP has made a significant contribution to the Department of State’s (Department) digital diplomacy outreach effort, increased the reach of its publications, and expanded the use of video in public diplomacy (PD) work
Regularizing support for American Spaces overseas has strengthened these platforms for
engagement with foreign publics, a cornerstone of the Department’s 21st century PD effort.
In other words, IIP is doing some things right. And importantly, it has the potential to become a more high-profile and strategically integrated aspect of the nexus between more traditional diplomacy and public diplomacy. It needs good people with talent and energy, and I hope that this report can catalyze the kind of change needed to revitalize its mission.