U.S. Public Diplomacy:

Key Issues for Congressional Oversight

GAO-09-679SP: Published: May 27, 2009. Publicly Released: May 27, 2009.

Multimedia:

  • GAO: Improving the United States Image Abroad (Content as of May 21, 2009)VIDEO: Improving the United States Image Abroad (Content as of May 21, 2009)
    Jacquelyn L. Williams-Bridgers, GAO Managing Director, International Affairs and Trade, discusses issues related to improving the US image abroad as part of GAO's 2009 Congressional and Presidential Transition work.

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Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. government has spent at least $10 billion on communication efforts designed to advance the strategic interests of the United States. However, foreign public opinion polling data shows that negative views towards the United States persist despite the collective efforts to counteract them by the State Department (State), Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Department of Defense (DOD), and other U.S. government agencies. Based on the significant role U.S. strategic communication and public diplomacy efforts can play in promoting U.S. national security objectives, such as countering ideological support for violent extremism, we highlighted these efforts as an urgent issue for the new administration and Congress.

(1) Strategic and operational planning--The United States' current national communication strategy lacks a number of desirable characteristics identified by GAO, such as a clear definition of the problem, desired results, and a delineation of agency roles and responsibilities. We believe the inclusion of these and other key elements could have helped address several of the challenges and issues discussed below. Prior GAO reports have discussed the need for agency-specific and country-level plans that support national-level planning efforts. We found that such supporting plans have generally not been developed. In the absence of an improved strategy and supporting plans, it remains doubtful that agency programs are strategically designed and executed in support of common goals. (2) Performance measurement--While agencies have made some progress in developing performance measurement systems, limited data exist on the ultimate effect of U.S. outreach efforts relative to the top-level goals outlined in the national communication strategy. (3) Coordination of U.S. communications efforts--Although several mechanisms have been established to coordinate U.S. strategic communication policy and programs, concerns remain regarding the roles and responsibilities of State and DOD; the extent of outreach to the private sector; and whether new leadership mechanisms or organizational structures are needed. (4) State's public diplomacy workforce--State faces a number of human capital challenges that influence the effectiveness of its public diplomacy operations. Specific challenges include staffing shortages, a shortage of experienced public diplomacy officers to fill mid-career positions, administrative burdens and staffing policies that limit the time public diplomacy officers can devote to outreach efforts, and ongoing foreign language proficiency shortfalls. Collectively, these challenges and concerns raise the risk that U.S. interests are not being adequately addressed. (5) Outreach efforts in high-threat posts--Security concerns around the world have led to building practices and personnel policies that have limited the ability of local populations to interact with Americans inside and outside the embassy. For the past several years, State has experimented with alternative outreach mechanisms such as American Corners to alleviate this forced isolation. These efforts raise significant policy, funding, and operational questions, which remain to be fully addressed. (6) Interagency efforts to adopt a new approach to public diplomacy-- Dynamic shifts in how target audiences obtain and use information have led many public diplomacy practitioners to conclude that the United States must more fully engage emerging social networks and technologies (such as Facebook and Twitter) in order to remain relevant. Referred to as "Public Diplomacy 2.0," this new approach to strategic communications is exploring ways to operate in this evolving information environment. However, substantial questions exist regarding the challenges associated with this new approach.

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