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Following budget cuts and attacks against U.S. embassies in the 1990s, the Department of State (State) began to close some public diplomacy facilities, such as American libraries, and move others onto secure embassy compounds. As a result, the number of visitors to these facilities declined and face-to-face interaction with foreign publics became more difficult. To improve its engagement with foreign audiences, State's new public diplomacy strategic framework calls for expanding outreach platforms. GAO was asked to (1) describe the outreach platforms State uses overseas, (2) examine the challenges and opportunities related to these platforms, (3) review State's plans for these platforms, and (4) assess the extent to which State has evaluated these platforms. GAO analyzed State's public diplomacy framework and planning documents; interviewed State officials; and conducted fieldwork in Brazil, China, and Indonesia. We selected these locations based on the mix of existing and planned platforms.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of State 1. To help ensure that plans for using and expanding State's outreach platforms are informed by data on the extent to which each type of outreach platform supports public diplomacy goals, the Secretary of State should conduct a departmentwide assessment of the effectiveness of State's overseas outreach platforms, such as by measuring how each platform has expanded engagement with foreign audiences.
Closed - Not Implemented
In a September 2010 letter to Congressional oversight committees, the Department of State said it recognized the importance of maintaining publicly accessible platforms to promote increased engagement with foreign public audiences and concurred with this recommendation. In response, State conducted an evaluation of American Centers in order to better understand how these Centers engage foreign audiences. While this evaluation, issued in 2014, is a positive step, it covered only one of the six outreach platforms discussed in the GAO report. As GAO's report noted, a more comprehensive, departmentwide assessment of all overseas outreach platforms would help policy makers make an accurate assessment of the relative benefits of each type of platform and effectively allocate scarce resources, especially in light of the wide disparities in the costs of these platforms. As of July 2014, State had not conducted such a departmentwide assessment.

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