U.S. Public Diplomacy:

State Department Efforts to Engage Muslim Audiences Lack Certain Communication Elements and Face Significant Challenges

GAO-06-535: Published: May 3, 2006. Publicly Released: May 3, 2006.

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Public opinion polls have shown continued negative sentiments toward the United States in the Muslim world. Public diplomacy activities--led by the State Department (State)--are designed to counter such sentiments by explaining U.S. foreign policy actions, countering misinformation, and advancing mutual understanding between nations. GAO was asked to examine (1) what public diplomacy resources and programs State has directed to the Muslim world, (2) whether posts have adopted a strategic approach to implementing public diplomacy, and (3) what challenges remain to be addressed.

State has increased public diplomacy resources to countries with significant Muslim populations in recent years and launched three major initiatives directed at the Muslim world. Comparing data for fiscal years 2004 and 2006, overseas operations budgets have increased, with the largest percentage increases going to regional bureaus with significant Muslim populations. However, the number of authorized overseas positions in all regional bureaus increased slightly or not at all. As part of the Secretary of State's newly announced transformational diplomacy initiative, the department intends to reposition staff to better align with policy priorities. Since 2002, State has initiated three public diplomacy activities focused on the Muslim world--a media campaign, a youth-oriented magazine, and a group of youth-focused exchange programs--but these initiatives have been largely terminated or suspended. However, several exchange programs continue to target youth in the Muslim world. In addition, posts in the Muslim world use a range of standard programs and tools which the Under Secretary plans to supplement with several new initiatives. GAO's fieldwork revealed that posts' public diplomacy efforts generally lacked important strategic communication elements found in the private sector, which GAO and others have suggested adopting as a means to better communicate with target audiences. These elements include having core messages, segmented target audiences, in-depth research and analysis to monitor and evaluate results, and an integrated communication plan that brings all these elements together. These findings were reinforced by State's own post-level review. State established a new strategic framework for public diplomacy in fiscal year 2006, calling for, among other things, marginalizing extremists and demonstrating respect for Muslim cultures. However, posts have not been given written guidance on how to implement this strategy. Such guidance is a critical first step to developing in-depth communication plans in the field. Posts in the Muslim world face several challenges in implementing their public diplomacy programs, including the need to balance security with public outreach and concerns related to staff numbers and language capabilities. For example, we found that 30 percent of language designated public diplomacy positions in the Muslim world were filled by officers without the requisite language skills. State has begun to address many of these challenges, but it is too early to evaluate the effectiveness of many of these efforts. Further, State lacks a systematic, comprehensive means of sharing best practices in public diplomacy, which could help transfer knowledge and experience across posts.

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 delivery of public diplomacy messages to Muslim audiences around the world, the Secretary of State should direct the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to increase the sophistication and effectiveness of U.S. outreach efforts, develop written guidance detailing how the department intends to implement its public diplomacy goals as they apply to the Muslim world and incorporates the strategic communication best practices discussed in this report. This guidance should be developed in consultation with the White House, affected government agencies, and outside experts who have a practical knowledge of what is needed to translate private sector best practices into practical steps which can be taken in the field. To accompany this guidance, State should develop a sample country-level communication plan that posts can tailor to local conditions.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2009, the President articulated an overarching vision for U.S. engagement with Muslim-majority countries in a speech in Cairo. Following the speech, the State Department directed overseas posts to hold outreach meetings with Muslim audiences and report back on potential areas of focus, such as English language training, and exchange programs, which State then prioritized. In 2010, the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs developed a new strategic framework for public diplomacy, which includes outreach to Muslim communities. According to State officials, the strategic framework supports the President's vision outlined in Cairo. The department has begun to implement some private sector best practices, such as the use of target audience and market research. In addition, State has developed country-level strategic communication plans for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

    Recommendation: To improve the delivery of public diplomacy messages to Muslim audiences around the world, the Secretary of State should direct the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs to meet the challenges facing public diplomacy officers in the field, including the need to balance security with outreach and short tours of duty at certain posts, strengthen existing systems of sharing best practices in order to more systematically transfer knowledge among embassies around the world.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In May 2006, GAO reported (U.S. Public Diplomacy: State Department Efforts to Engage Muslim Audiences Lack Certain Communication Elements and Face Significant Challenges) that State Department efforts to communicate with the Muslim audiences faced challenges related to staffing and security at posts in the Muslim world and that State lacked a systematic mechanism for sharing best practices, which could help address these challenges. GAO recommended that State strengthen existing systems of sharing best practices in order to more systematically transfer knowledge among embassies around the world. In response, State expanded its INFOCENTRAL Web site for public diplomacy practitioners; this site now prominently features a link to a best practices database intended for public diplomacy staff to share ideas and find information on managing programs. In addition, in January 2007 State held a worldwide Public Affairs Officer conference, which, according to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, was intended for officers to share best practices and to hear updates from State Department and interagency colleagues from the field and in Washington.

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