U.S. Public Diplomacy:

Actions Needed to Improve Strategic Use and Coordination of Research

GAO-07-904: Published: Jul 18, 2007. Publicly Released: Jul 18, 2007.

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U.S. strategic communication efforts are supported by media and audience research efforts conducted by the State Department (State), U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), Department of Defense (DOD), and Open Source Center (OSC). GAO examined (1) how research is used to support U.S. strategic communication objectives; and (2) how agencies identify end-user needs, assess end-user satisfaction, and share available research. GAO examined program documents and met with key officials.

Agencies rely on an array of media monitoring products to support daily communication activities. DOD and USAID use program-specific research to design, implement, and evaluate the impact of thematic communication efforts created to influence the attitudes and behaviors of target audiences. In contrast, we found that State has generally not adopted a research-focused approach to implement its thematic communication efforts. For example, in a recent major thematic communication effort, 18 posts participating in an ongoing pilot initiative developed country-level communication plans focusing on the broad theme of countering extremism. Although broad attitudinal polling is available to inform these efforts, these plans were not supported by the types of program-specific research inherent in the "campaign-style" approach utilized by both DOD and USAID, which stipulates that communication efforts should follow a logical and predictable series of steps. The pilot country plans GAO reviewed did not include program-specific research such as attitudinal polling of specific target groups, focus group data on which messages would most resonate with target audiences, or detailed media environment analyses that could provide the basis for developing in-depth information dissemination strategies. State commitment to the development of a defined approach to thematic communications, centered on program-specific research, has been absent. However, there is evidence to suggest that State's approach is changing. A June 2007 interagency communication strategy developed under the guidance of State's Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs describes a communication process model similar to the campaign-style approach, with the major exception that it does not describe how and to what extent research should be used to support each step in the communication process. U.S. government agencies conducting research on foreign audiences currently do not have systematic processes in place to assess end-user needs or satisfaction pertaining to research products, or to coordinate or share research. In the absence of systematic processes to understand the needs or level of satisfaction of policymakers, managers, and program staff, agencies generally rely on ad hoc feedback mechanisms, such as conversations with individual users and irregular e-mail submissions. Agencies utilize certain mechanisms to coordinate and share research information, for example, the Open Source Center aggregates media monitoring data from more than 30 organizations on its Web site. However, efforts to coordinate and share audience research data are hampered by the lack of interagency protocols for sharing information, a dedicated forum to periodically bring key research staff together to discuss common concerns across all topics of interest, and a clearinghouse for collected research. DOD is currently reviewing the organization and effectiveness of its media monitoring efforts and agency officials indicated that an improved approach to both internal and external coordination will be developed once a department-wide inventory of media monitoring activities is completed.

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 help State adopt a more strategic approach to its communication efforts, including the strategic use of research, the Secretary of State should formally endorse and adopt a research-based campaign-style approach to thematic communications.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In early 2010, the State Department began rolling out a new approach to public diplomacy and strategic communication. The basic tenets of this approach are summarized in Leading Through Civilian Power: The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR) and adopted in Public Diplomacy: Strengthening U.S. Engagement with the World, A Strategic Approach for the 21st Century. The goals of this approach include developing proactive outreach strategies to better inform, inspire, and persuade foreign audiences; strengthening people-to-people relationships; combating violent extremism; better informing foreign policy decisions; and deploying resources in line with priorities.

    Recommendation: To help State adopt a more strategic approach to its communication efforts, including the strategic use of research, the Secretary of State provide public diplomacy staff with written guidance and related training on the campaign-style approach, as well as how to identify and use actionable research to support these efforts.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In early 2010, the State Department began rolling out a new approach to public diplomacy and strategic communication. The basic tenets of this approach are summarized in Leading Through Civilian Power: The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR). More guidance is found in Public Diplomacy: Strengthening U.S. Engagement with the World, A Strategic Approach for the 21st Century. The goals of this approach include developing proactive outreach strategies to better inform, inspire, and persuade foreign audiences; strengthening people-to-people relationships; combating violent extremism; better informing foreign policy decisions; and deploying resources in line with priorities. Since that time, the Office of the Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs has provided more than 75 briefings on this new approach to its public affairs officers. This office is currently working with the Foreign Service Institute to develop a strategic communications course for public affairs officers. The course outline includes training on developing a strategic communications plan and methods on how to use audience research and apply it to a post's strategic communications goals.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the government's research efforts meet the needs of users, we recommend that State, BBG, DOD, and OSC implement systematic strategies to assess user needs and satisfaction.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Assessing Department of Defense-user foreign media analysis was a core task of the Quadrennial Defense Review Strategic Communication Roadmap. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Joint Staff, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs surveyed combatant commands' foreign media analysis uses, needs, and structures. In January 2008, the Deputy Secretary of Defense notified Congress that the Strategic Communication Roadmap was complete. The Roadmap was intended to provide strategic direction, a plan of action, and milestones to close strategic communication capability gaps. In August 2008, the Department of Defense initiated a review of its previous directive on public affairs operations to formalize communication analysis, assessment, and evaluation policy. In February 2011, the order was reissued, and the revised directive establishes Department policy of including formal user assessments in its communication activities.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that officials from the Office of Support to Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs follow through on plans to develop a new approach to guide the department's media monitoring activities, including working to improve coordination of this work both within the department and with other U.S. agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Assessing Department of Defense-user foreign media analysis was a core task of the Quadrennial Defense Review Strategic Communication Roadmap. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Joint Staff, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs surveyed combatant commands' foreign media monitoring and analysis uses, needs, and structures. In January 2008, the Deputy Secretary of Defense notified Congress that the Strategic Communication Roadmap was complete. The Roadmap was intended to provide strategic direction, a plan of action, and milestones to close strategic communication capability gaps. In August 2008, the Department of Defense initiated a review of its previous directive on public affairs operations to formalize communication analysis, assessment, and evaluation policy. In February 2011, the order was reissued, and the revised directive establishes Department policy of including formal user assessments in its communication activities. In addition, DOD's Support to Public Diplomacy Office has been working with DOD components and Open Source Center (OSC) staff to make the OSC the focal point for U.S. government foreign media monitoring and analysis efforts. This office is also working with the Department of State and others to consolidate research and polling data.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the government's research efforts meet the needs of users, we recommend that State, BBG, DOD, and OSC implement systematic strategies to assess user needs and satisfaction.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The BBG has taken steps to improve audience data dissemination for internal agency stakeholders and has been systematically looking at ways to serve them and the needs of interagency colleagues at the Department of State and other agencies. The BBG is currently experimenting with a hosted, shareable data system developed by its primary research contractor (InterMedia) that provides a web-based data-query tool, populated with BBG audience data. Over the past year, BBG has examined designs for the creation of a web-based data portal with multiple levels of access. Although a version has existed within BBG for some years to directly support its research and analysis staff, the current system lacks the interactivity and dynamic structure that multiple users within multiple agencies would require. In order to assess the need and develop more specifics about the type of solution required, the BBG took five steps in 2010 and early 2011: 1. Conducted formal and professionally moderated focus groups among staff across BBG and its broadcasters about their experience with using BBG audience data. 2. Tested in-house web-based data-query tool for strengths and weaknesses. 3. Continued to communicate with colleagues on the interagency working group, which the BBG co-chairs, on their preferred methods and formats for receiving audience data. 4. Conducted regular meetings between BBG Research Manager and the BBG information technology staff responsible for enterprise knowledge management systems. 5. Conducted regular market research meetings with private industry and governmental solutions experts to learn about technical options and best practices. According to the BBG, these steps have provided new insight, but the agency is still refining the specific technical parameters of a system for its own and for interagency use. Accordingly, the BBG issued a requirement for a robust needs assessment and technical plan for a web-based, interactive data portal in its July 2011 solicitation for procurement of a new global research contract. Proposals are currently under review. It is expected that a new research contract will be issued in fiscal year 2012, with the goal of having a user-friendly, interactive data portal for BBG global audience and market data provisioned within a year.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the government's research efforts meet the needs of users, we recommend that State, BBG, DOD, and OSC implement systematic strategies to assess user needs and satisfaction.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The State Department's Policy Coordinating Committee/Subcommittee on Analysis, Research, and Polling, established in 2007, has taken steps to improve coordination of U.S. government research activities and the promotion of information sharing. Chaired by State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), these meetings bring together 15-25 representatives of U.S. government agencies with an interest in overseas public opinion, market, and audience research. According to State and BBG officials, strong relationships have been formed since that time with a process that continues to improve coordination, data sharing, and a more systematic approach to assessing user needs. In addition, five interagency in-depth analyses (known as "deep dives") focusing on specific countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen) have been conducted in the past year, and more are planned. Deep dives are intended for strategic communication practitioners. The goal is to bring together as much current research as possible and deliver concrete takeaways to inform strategic communication strategies. These deep dive meetings are also steps toward reviving the formal structure for research coordination at the subcommittee level and continuing to assess the needs of interagency stakeholders and their satisfaction with this in-depth country approach.

    Recommendation: To improve the coordination of U.S. government research activities and promote the sharing of information across agencies, the Secretary of State should direct the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, in conjunction with other members of the Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Policy Coordinating Committee, to develop interagency protocols regarding the sharing of audience research information, including establishing a forum that would bring audience research staff together on a regular basis to discuss plans and concerns across all topics of interest.

    Agency Affected: Broadcasting Board of Governors

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The State Department's Policy Coordinating Committee/Subcommittee on Analysis, Research, and Polling, established in 2007, has taken steps to improve coordination of U.S. government research activities and the promotion of information sharing. Chaired by State's Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), these meetings bring together 15-25 representatives of U.S. government agencies with an interest in overseas public opinion, market, and audience research. According to State and BBG officials, strong relationships have been formed since that time with a process that continues to improve coordination and data sharing. In addition, five interagency in-depth analyses (known as "deep dives") focusing on specific countries (Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen) have been conducted in the past year, and more are planned. Deep dives are intended for strategic communication practitioners. The goal is to bring together as much current research as possible and deliver concrete takeaways to inform strategic communication strategies. These meetings are also steps toward reviving the formal structure for research coordination at the subcommittee level.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that the government's research efforts meet the needs of users, we recommend that State, BBG, DOD, and OSC implement systematic strategies to assess user needs and satisfaction.

    Agency Affected: Open Source Center

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: CIA's Open Source Center (OSC) launched a Public Diplomacy initiative to provide strategic communicators in the White House and State Department with "master narrative" reports that capture historically-grounded stories reflecting a foreign community?s identity and experiences as well as explain its hopes, aspirations, and concerns. The narratives provide some structure in understanding why foreign audiences believe stories that, from an American perspective, may appear surprising, contradictory, or outlandish. The process for identifying subjects for these reports demonstrates OSC's strategic approach to assessing user needs and satisfaction in the area of public diplomacy. To date, reports have been published on Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Iran. These countries were selected in consultation with U.S. government public diplomacy agencies, and timing of publication for the reports was keyed to the President's travel schedule and key foreign policy initiatives. OSC regularly consults senior White House staff responsible for global engagement, State Department public diplomacy officials, and socio-cultural studies leaders at the US military commands to learn their priorities for master narrative reports, as well as their reaction. In addition, OSC receives feedback on the reports from other interested parties in the U.S. government through comments posted on its web site (www.opensource.gov) where the reports reside.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should ensure that officials from the Office of Support to Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs follow through on plans to develop a new approach to guide the department's media monitoring activities, including working to improve coordination of this work both within the department and with other U.S. agencies.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Assessing Department of Defense-user foreign media analysis was a core task of the Quadrennial Defense Review Strategic Communication Roadmap. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence, the Joint Staff, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs surveyed combatant commands' foreign media monitoring and analysis uses, needs, and structures. In January 2008, the Deputy Secretary of Defense notified Congress that the Strategic Communication Roadmap was complete. The Roadmap was intended to provide strategic direction, a plan of action, and milestones to close strategic communication capability gaps. In August 2008, the Department of Defense initiated a review of its previous directive on public affairs operations to formalize communication analysis, assessment, and evaluation policy. In February 2011, the order was reissued, and the revised directive establishes Department policy of including formal user assessments in its communication activities. In addition, DOD's Support to Public Diplomacy Office has been working with DOD components and Open Source Center (OSC) staff to make the OSC the focal point for U.S. government foreign media monitoring and analysis efforts. This office is also working with the Department of State and others to consolidate research and polling data.

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