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U.S. Public Diplomacy: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight

U.S. Capitol

(A. Kotok)

U.S. Government Accountability Office
Cover letter to GAO-09-679SP, prepared for the chairs and ranking members of relevant House and Senate committees. 27 May 2009

Congressional Committees

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 [Footnote 1] 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.[Footnote 2] To assist Congress with its oversight agenda, we have enclosed a series of issue papers that discuss long-standing and emerging public diplomacy challenges identified by GAO and others.[Footnote 3]

While the prior administration issued a national communication strategy in June 2007, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009 requires that the President issue a new comprehensive strategy by December 2009 to guide interagency efforts. The issues discussed in the enclosures to this report should be considered in the development of the new strategic plan, related agency and country-level plans, and other areas such as State’s human capital and security policies. Key issues include the following:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.

We reviewed current agency documents related to the issues discussed in the attached enclosures. We discussed these issues with State, BBG, USAID, and DOD officials in Washington, D.C. We reviewed reports related to public diplomacy by various research institutions. We also applied national planning criteria developed by GAO to the United States’ current national communication strategy to highlight deficiencies that we believe should be addressed in the President’s new interagency strategy. Further information on the scope and methodology for this particular analysis can be found in appendix I.

We conducted this performance audit from October 2008 through May 2009 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions.

We provided a draft of this report for review and comment to State, BBG, USAID, and DOD. Each agency declined to provide formal comments. State, BBG, and USAID provided technical comments, which we incorporated in the report, as appropriate.

We are sending copies of this report to interested congressional committees. In addition, we are sending copies of this report to the National Security Council and executive branch agencies. The report also is available at no charge on the GAO Web site at If you have any questions, please contact Jess T. Ford at (202) 512-4128 or Contact points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public Affairs can be found on the last page of this report. For press inquiries, please contact Chuck Young at (202) 512-4800. Key contributors to this report are included in appendix II.

Signed by:

Gene L. Dodaro
Acting Comptroller General of the United States

1We use the terms “public diplomacy,” “outreach,” and “strategic communication” interchangeably in this report.

2This report expands on issues discussed on GAO’s transition Web site,

3These papers are based on the continuing work of GAO, the 10 related reports we have issued since July 2003 (see list of related GAO products), and select studies conducted by outside groups.


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