U.S. Public Diplomacy:

State Department Expands Efforts but Faces Significant Challenges

GAO-03-951: Published: Sep 4, 2003. Publicly Released: Sep 4, 2003.

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The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, focused attention on the need to improve public diplomacy efforts to cultivate a better public opinion of the United States abroad. However, recent opinion research indicates that many foreign publics, especially in countries with significant Muslim populations, view the United States unfavorably. GAO examined changes in the State Department's (State) public diplomacy efforts since September 11, whether State has an overall strategy for its public diplomacy programs, how it measures their effectiveness, and challenges it faces in implementing these programs.

Since September 11, State expanded its public diplomacy efforts in Muslim-majority countries considered to be of strategic importance in the war on terrorism. It significantly increased program funding and the number of Foreign Service officers in South Asia and the Near East. It also launched new initiatives targeting broader, younger audiences--particularly in predominantly Muslim countries--and plans to continue them in the future. After September 11, State acknowledged the lack of, and the need for, a comprehensive strategy that integrates all of its diverse public diplomacy activities. Such a strategy is still in the development stage. The absence of an integrated strategy could impede State's ability to direct its multifaceted efforts toward concrete and measurable progress. Furthermore, an interagency public diplomacy strategy has not been completed that would help State and other federal agencies convey consistent messages and achieve mutually reinforcing benefits overseas. State is not systematically and comprehensively measuring progress toward its public diplomacy goals. Its overseas performance measurement efforts focus on anecdotal evidence and program outputs, rather than indicate progress in changing foreign publics' understanding and opinions of the United States. State's efforts face significant challenges, including insufficient time and staff to conduct public diplomacy tasks. Public affairs officers responding to our survey said that burdensome administrative and budgetary processes divert their attention from public diplomacy programs. In addition, about 21 percent of Foreign Service officers in language-designated public diplomacy positions overseas lack sufficient foreign language skills. We also found that about 58 percent of public affairs officers responding to our survey believe the amount of time to attend public diplomacy training is inadequate.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve the planning, coordination, execution, and assessment of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, the Secretary of State should strengthen efforts to train Foreign Service officers in foreign languages.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2003, the GAO recommended, "to improve the planning, coordination, execution, and assessment of U.S. public diplomacy efforts...the Secretary of State strengthen efforts to train Foreign Service officers in foreign languages...." In response, the Department increased the overall amount of language training since 2003. For example, FSOs previously received around 23 weeks for language training, but can now receive up to 36 weeks of language training for difficult languages. In April 2006, State established an additional language-training program in five languages, including Arabic, called the Director General Language Initiative directed at entry-level FSOs. In addition, State developed its first distance learning language module for public diplomacy in fiscal year 2005.

    Recommendation: To improve the planning, coordination, execution, and assessment of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, the Secretary of State should designate more administrative positions to overseas public affairs sections to reduce the administrative burden.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: State officials are considering a range of corrective actions to reduce the administrative burden on public affairs officers at posts. However, based on current survey data of overseas staff it appears unlikely that the Department will choose (to any significant degree) to create and staff dedicated administrative support positions as originally recommended by GAO. We believe this a reasonable approach based on the updated information the department has collected.

    Recommendation: To improve the planning, coordination, execution, and assessment of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, the Secretary of State should consider ways to collaborate with the private sector to employ best practices for measuring efforts to inform and influence target audiences, including expanded use of opinion research and better use of existing research.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2003, the GAO recommended, "to improve the planning, coordination, execution, and assessment of U.S. public diplomacy efforts...the Secretary of State consider ways to collaborate with the private sector to employ best practices for measuring efforts to inform and influence target audiences, including expanded use of opinion research and better use of existing research." In response, the Department established a new Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs which was approved by Congress in September 2004. This office is responsible for providing long-term strategic planning and performance measurement capability for public diplomacy and public affairs programs. In addition, State revised its 2003 Public Diplomacy Strategy in 2004 to include several sections on methods for cooperating with the private sector on public diplomacy efforts. Also, State's Office of Intelligence and Research conducted a research survey on public opinion dated June 2006, which is similar to the type of opinion research conducted by the private sector.

    Recommendation: To improve the planning, coordination, execution, and assessment of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, the Secretary of State should develop and widely disseminate throughout the department a strategy that considers the techniques of private sector public relations firms in integrating all of State's public diplomacy efforts and directing them toward achieving common and measurable objectives.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2003, the GAO recommended, "to improve the planning, coordination, execution, and assessment of U.S. public diplomacy efforts...the Secretary of State develop and widely disseminate throughout the department a strategy that considers the techniques of private sector public relations firms in integrating all State's public diplomacy efforts and directing them toward achieving common and measurable objectives." In response, the Department established a new Office of Policy, Planning, and Resources for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, which was approved by Congress in September 2004. This office is responsible for providing long-term strategic planning and performance measurement capability for public diplomacy and public affairs programs. In addition, State revised its 2003 Public Diplomacy Strategy by late 2004 to include a section on strategic direction and performance measurement. This strategy also includes various sections on methods for cooperating with the private sector on public diplomacy efforts.

    Recommendation: To improve the planning, coordination, execution, and assessment of U.S. public diplomacy efforts, the Secretary of State should program adequate time for public diplomacy training into State's assignment process.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2003, the GAO recommended, "to improve the planning, coordination, execution, and assessment of U.S. public diplomacy efforts...that the Secretary of State program adequate time for public diplomacy training into State's assignment process...." In response, the Department revamped its public diplomacy training courses to meet the needs of different public diplomacy positions. State created separate courses for the various public diplomacy staff, such as Information Officers and Cultural Affairs Officers in 2003. Similarly, in 2006, State streamlined the courses to focus more on the post-specific needs of the trainees. State officials believe that the new length of training meets State's needs and realities.

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