Unfilled U.S. Public Diplomacy Position Requires Rethinking

Matt Armstrong, author of the mountainrunner.us blog, shares his view that the U.S. Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs should be abolished.  Noting that the position, established in 1999 by direction of Congress to centralize leadership for the execution and coordination of government information and engagement programs abroad and at home, has gone unfilled almost as long as it has been occupied, Armstrong argues that the lack of government commitment signifies it is time to abolish the position and better integrate informational responsibilities across the State Department. Armstrong and collaborator Cole Livieratos wrote in an unpublished piece:

“Properly employing the information element of national power is more than reacting to disinformation, anticipating adversarial actions, or exploitable opportunities. It requires integration from the identification of objectives across the policymaking process of our political, military, and economic agencies and through the execution and support of these policies.”

Armstrong’s post, available here, recommends elimination of the position. At the very least, the history of neglect, failure to fill the Under Secretary position consistently, and an overall lack of leadership and integration during the times it has been filled leaves open the door for re-envisioning or rethinking the U.S. government’s approach to public diplomacy and public affairs. Others in the community have called for the recreation of the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) or establishment of a new “whole-of-government” agency to tackle the information domain globally.

IPA welcomes ideas and recommended approaches from among the broad membership. Feel free to leave a reply on this post on our blog.

2 Responses
  1. Cathy Downes

    Simply because prior administrations have failed to invest in public diplomacy and in creating a State Department position that provides oversight, resourcing, prioritization, and collaboration between all the useful tools of public diplomacy (while other countries such as Russia and China have), does not constitute a sound reason for abolition of the position of Under Secretary. In fact, I would suggest that the appointment of a new person to the position, (a champion advocate) and a commitment to properly resource it is what is needed. While certainly re-establishing the USIA would be useful it would need to be a totally different organization to principally hard copy book libraries in US Embassies. Today, US Embassies are like fortresses – the ordinary public of a country who want to borrow a book? – good luck with that. There are risks of a “whole-of-government information agency. Look at the “wonderful” experience of creating the Department of Homeland Security – 22 agencies jammed into an Industrial Age 2.0 bureaucratic box and told to be big boys and make it work. This is where the real advantage of the internet and cyberspace needs to be called upon – Ann Marie Slaughter had the right idea with her focus on networked groupings. The Federal Government’s antiquated border/boundary budget based authorities do not lend themselves to effective networked collaboration, so everyone ends up with the build a new box routine. Wrong. We need to leverage the digital age advantages not to be build a 1984 style information agency – that’s what the Chinese are doing with their state surveillance program and their selling of it to other authoritarians. There are many examples of extensively large online groups of contributors that could be used as the model. Don’t through the baby out with the bathwater – the U.S. government works on political patronage – don’t throw out the patron; resource, enable, authorize, empower the patron, and leverage the digital age advantages that we have somehow forgotten that we created.

  2. A.Haleem Osadolor

    I am not familiar with organizational diagrams of federal agencies. It would be productive to mandate the creation of a dedicated office or desk that is tasked with filtering and managing the information risks and concerns that are related specifically to that agency. This would avoid having to resurrect the USIA, or any other appointments that will most likely be neglected. Then there is the need to build a body of knowledge around these risks and concerns, to where they become apart of training for any communications roles within any agency. The more it becomes apart of the organizational behavior of an agency, accountability will fall on any and everyone.
    The general information environment is already corrupted with ratings/views, commerce-based, disinformation/misinformation. I would imagine that so many people are being strung along in a way that they can’t perceive because of it. Creating a new government agency, or appointing a secretary for an unfilled position in a neglected agency means, having the ability to investigate and enforce those objectives. There is no money for this.