Saturday, August 08, 2009

Public Diplomacy Reserve Corps

An interesting article on public diplomacy at Understanding Government:


By Mitchell Polman

Washington, D.C. — Defining “public diplomacy” is almost a cottage industry among bloggers and others interested in the way America interacts with foreign states and audiences. The term "public diplomacy" was first coined by Dean Edmund Gullion of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in 1965. Gullion called it " . . . influencing the way groups and peoples in other countries think about foreign affairs, react to our policies, and affect the policies of their respective governments." Public diplomacy blogger Matt Armstrong has devoted thousands of words to this topic, including these: "The purpose of public diplomacy is to identify, empower, encourage (and possibly equip) self-organizing systems." Perhaps the most widely accepted definition today is the one offered by retired diplomat and public diplomacy expert Hans Tuch, in his book Communicating with the World: U.S. Public Diplomacy Overseas says public diplomacy is "a government process to communicate with foreign publics in an attempt to bring about understanding of its nation’s ideas and ideals, its institutions and culture as well as its national goals and current policies.”

While the definition may be debated, there is one aspect of America’s public diplomacy efforts that is not subject to much argument: the need for the department to recruit more people to work on it. Given the wide range of issues “PD” foreign service officers are responsible for – they serve as press and information officers, sign people up for government-sponsored exchange programs, conduct cultural programs, promote English language education, and oversee American libraries and other cultural resource centers, among other things – it’s no surprise that, given the State Department’s overall Foreign Service staffing problems, the public diplomacy area is also feeling squeezed.

To address this problem, the State Department needs both to revamp its traditional hiring procedures and to look at some innovative approaches.

When candidates for the department’s Foreign Service register take the entrance examination, they select the area of expertise they wish to build their careers in from five "cones," including administrative, consular, economic, political, and public diplomacy. The staffing shortage mentioned above is particularly acute in the public diplomacy cone. The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy in 2008 published a report called "Getting the People Part Right," which states that as of 2007, public diplomacy had the second fewest number of officers of among Foreign Service cones.

The shortage is seriously hampering the State Department’s public diplomacy mission because most public diplomacy work is currently being carried out by junior level officers who are stretched too thin. As a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, entitled U.S. Public Diplomacy: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight, asserts, the State Department is facing a shortage of mid-level public diplomacy officers that will take years to erase. Even more significantly, the GAO notes that this lack of public diplomacy personnel is preventing the State Department from effectively spending the funds Congress has allotted specifically for public diplomacy. So the nation’s ability to communicate and interact with foreign publics is clearly hampered by the lack of personnel.

Of course, this is about more than just the number of public diplomacy personnel. The State Department also needs people with the right mix of skills. Some public diplomacy officers, for example, have strong media relations skills, but lack foreign language training. Others may have strong language skills, but little in the way of media outreach experience.

State Department Tests a Better Test

Gaps like these were one of the reasons that the Foreign Service in 2007 moved towards a "total candidate approach" in its examination process. The new Foreign Service examination places a greater emphasis on actual work experience. For example, the newly revised Foreign Service Oral Exam includes a "Qualification Evaluation Panel" (QEP) that factors the actual real world experience of a candidate into the exam score. Consequently, a candidate for the public diplomacy cone who has media or cultural exchange experience, for example, gets a higher score because of that experience. This has made it easier for the Foreign Service to identify and recruit candidates who would make suitable Public Diplomacy officers. The Advisory Commission reports that public diplomacy is now the second most popular cone choice of those taking the oral exams (political being most popular).

There is, however, still room for improvement in the examination process. David Firestein, a career foreign service officer, is also Deputy Executive Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Firestein believes that the QEP has been instrumental in helping the department identify suitable candidates for public diplomacy work. However, he comments that "…even today the public diplomacy knowledge does not come through on this exam to the degree that it probably should" and adds that those designing the foreign service exam “ . . . haven’t yet built . . . a public diplomacy exercise” into the test. Finally, Firestein notes that State is “not recruiting specifically for PD expertise or testing for it either." Thus, the advisory commission report recommended that State test candidates for specific public diplomacy skills and criticized the department for not actively promoting Public Diplomacy Officers to senior level positions within the department.

Congress has been listening closely to the Advisory Commission on this issue. The FY2010 appropriations bill for the Department of State (H.R. 2410) contains most of the commission’s proposals for strengthening U.S. public diplomacy. Amongst those proposals is a long standing recommendation to create a Public Diplomacy Reserve Corps (PDRC) that would recruit Foreign Service retirees and others with public diplomacy experience to fill public diplomacy related vacancies at the State Department. The act specifically states: "The Secretary of State is authorized to establish in the Foreign Service a Public Diplomacy Reserve Corps consisting of mid- and senior-level former Foreign Service officers and other individuals with experience in the private or public sector relevant to public diplomacy, to serve for a period of six months to two years in postings abroad."

But would a PDRC make it difficult for more junior level public diplomacy officers to move up in the ranks? Firestein calls that "a fair question" and says that it’s a concern that "…deserves attention and a longer term strategy." But given that the House resolution on DOS funding specifically mentions “other individuals with experience in the private or public sector relevant to public diplomacy,” it is time for creative solutions.

A Good Time for Change and Innovation

Some suggest that the best use of a reserve corps would be at home, rather than abroad. William P. Kiehl, a former Foreign Service Officer and public diplomacy specialist, commented that the best use of a public diplomacy reservist might be as a "… desk officer in Washington for an area that he or she knows well and has served in multiple times.” Kiehl said this kind of reinforcement at Foggy Bottom would help ensure a higher degree of “background in the country and culture of the region currently lacking as most Country Affairs Officers currently have little or no expertise in either the region/country or in public diplomacy." But given the language problems the Foreign Service still faces – the May 2009 GAO report said that fully 25% of officers designated for public diplomacy positions did not meet the language requirements – sending experts abroad to help may be more important. Retired Foreign Service Officer and public diplomacy blogger John Brown said he feels the proposed PDRC makes a lot of sense, "especially if the chosen officers are sent to countries where they would be able to speak the local language."

This is an ideal time not just for revamping public diplomacy, but for exploring fresh approaches to staffing this area of the State Department’s portfolio. It looks like the growing focus on public diplomacy – after several rocky years in the Bush administration, especially early on, when public diplomacy was not in favor – is dovetailing with the Foreign Service’s own personnel requirements. The State Department might consider developing the PDRC not just as a way for retirees and public diplomacy professionals to pitch in, but as a channel for both younger people and mid-career professionals from outside the department who are interested in public diplomacy careers. The number of Foreign Service candidates expressing an interest in public diplomacy is on the rise, but until now the State Department has not even had enough staff on hand to expend all the funds allotted for public diplomacy.

The PDRC could serve as an ideal training program for candidates awaiting background checks, recent graduates, and people considering a career in public diplomacy, including mid-career professionals who may be interested in a State Department career. These might be public diplomacy fellows, or trainees, who would be drawn from outside the Foreign Service and might then go on to enter the service itself as career officers. If these people brought in media and public relations skills fundamental to public diplomacy, the State Department would benefit and its public diplomacy efforts would be more effective. As it is currently, the State Department hires many independent contractors to perform work on its public diplomacy programs. A number of those positions could be filled by PDRC members.

The Public Diplomacy Reserve Corps appears to be a step in the right direction, but it could also be used as a recruiting tool for the department, as well as a way to fill gaps in personnel. The political stars are aligned in such a way as to make bold changes on the public diplomacy front possible. The State Department has the support of the new administration and Congress to come up with creative solutions to longstanding and very persistent problems – just at the time when the world is opening up to a new image and understanding of America.


Aspiring FSO said...

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roysie said...

Really helpful and informative blog post. I'm a PD coned ELO and I'm very excited to see PD become an increasingly important and ever-evolving part of our diplomatic toolbox!

Katharine said...

Thanks so much for this post, and your others that I am going to share on blog as well. And thanks for sharing mine here!

I would love to discuss this idea with you of a PD Corps, some classmates and I are trying to start up just such a thing. Are ideas are here