◉ By Domani Spero
We blogged last month about the OIG report on the State Department’s IIP Bureau (See State Dept’s $630,000 Social Media “Buying Fans” Campaign, a Success — But Where’s the Love?). At one point, we Googled $630,000 and we got 6,260 results in 10 seconds. Few of them complimentary for blowing that much dough to buy “friends.” The Daily Beast asks, “Oh, State Department, didn’t anyone ever tell you that you can’t buy your friends?”
C’mon folks, the USG buy friends all the time. It even buy frienemies, who occasionally bites it behind and in front of cameras.
Anyway, today, The Cable’s John Hudson has this: Unfriend: State Dept’s Social Media Shop Is DC’s “Red-Headed Stepchild” where a former congressional staffer with knowledge of the bureau calls IIP or the Bureau of International Information Programs “the the redheaded stepchild of public diplomacy.” An unnamed source also told The Cable that its main problem was finding something it actually does well. “It has an ill-defined mandate and no flagship product that anyone outside of Foggy Bottom has ever heard of.”
Actually, it used to run america.gov, an easily recognizable product created under the previous administration. But some bright bulbs decided to reinvent it into something easily memorable; you think IIP Digital and you think, of course, America. (see Foggy Bottom’s “Secret” Blog, Wild Geese – Oh, It’s Pretty Wild!).
The Cables’s piece has a quote from Tom Nides, the State Department’s former deputy secretary for management and resources who defended IIP in the wake of the OIG report:
“We have to allow our departments to be innovators and take risks. And if you’re an innovator, some things just aren’t going to work… The bureau does some really innovative and interesting stuff.”
Like the e-reader debacle. When somebody run something by the seat of their pants .. well, okay we’ll agree to call it interesting but please, let’s not/not call this innovative. See What Sunk the State Dept’s $16.5 Million Kindle Acquisition? A Complaint. Plus Missing Overall Goals
Tara Sonenshine, until recently the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs who oversees IIP also spoke to The Cable:
“OK, they spent time acquiring too many followers. They built up the traffic to their site. Is that really such a sin?” she asked in an interview with The Cable. “They moved quickly into social media at a time when Secretary of State Clinton said we should have 21st century statecraft. I don’t know why that’s such a bad thing.”
Is that really such a sin? Here is the problem that the OIG inspectors were not happy with:
“The absence of a Department-wide PD strategy tying resources to priorities directly affects IIP’s work. Fundamental questions remain unresolved. What is the proper balance between engaging young people and marginalized groups versus elites and opinion leaders? Which programs and delivery mechanisms work best with which audiences? What proportion of PD resources should support policy goals, and what proportion should go to providing the context of American society and values? How much should PD products be tailored for regions and individual countries, and how much should be directed to a global audience? What kinds of materials should IIP translate and into which languages? Absent a Department wide strategy, IIP decisions and priorities can be ad hoc, arbitrary, and lack a frame of reference to evaluate the bureau’s effectiveness. The 2004 OIG IIP inspection report recommended that the Department conduct a management review of PD. The Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs created an Office of Policy and Outreach but did not carry out the management review. A strategy that ties resources to priorities is essential to resolving questions of mission and organization for IIP in general and for the PD function in particular.”
Makes one wonder why not.
The recommended management review in 2004 did not happen under Margaret D. Tutwiler (2003-2004) not under Karen Hughes (2005-2007) not under James K. Glassman (2008-2009) or Judith McHale (2009-2011). And it did not happen under Tara D. Sonenshine (2012-2013).
Which is how you end up with State Dept’s Winning Hearts and Minds One Kindle at a Time Collapses …. Presently Dead.
Or how you get an odd Facebook campaigns on intellectual property theft and the importance of IP rights led by US embassies in Canada, Spain, Estonia, Uruguay, Suriname, Guyana, and Chile. (via Ars Technica). You’d think that if you do an embassy FB campaign on IP rights, you should at least target the 39 countries in USTR’s Watch List. Suriname, Guyana and Estonia did not even make that Watch List.
Or how tweets can get “bungled” and no one has the @embassyhandler’s back, not even the State Department Spokesperson.
Or how embassies create “fun” videos that cost time and money that does not fit/poorly fit an occasion or serve any real purpose (See employees around the U.S. Embassy in Manila sing and dance to the Carly Rae Jepsen’s hit song “Call Me Maybe” in December 2012, the Harlem Shake by U.S. Embassy Algiers in February 2013, or the U.S. Embassy Tashkent Navruz dance celebration in Uzbek Gangnam style in March 2013!
Look, we are not averse to seeing videos from our diplomatic posts, but they do require time and money. Rehearsals, anyone? We’d like to see some purpose put into them beyond just being the “in” thing to do. (see some good ones US Embassy Bangkok’s Irrestibly Charming Happy 2013 Greeting, US Embassy Warsaw Rocks with All I Want For Christmas Is You, and US Embassy Costa Rica: La Visa Americana, Gangnam Style).
In December 2012, Ms. Soneshine gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation, touting “real success” with IIP’s FB properties:
IIP, the Bureau of International Information Programs, has had real success with its four major Facebook properties, which engage foreign audiences on issues related to innovation, democracy, conservation, and the USA.
Our metrics help us refine our understanding of the hopes and aspirations of young people in key countries, allowing us to explain our goals, policies and values in particular and responsive ways. In just 15 months, our Facebook following has expanded from 800,000 to more than 8 million, as they like, share, and retweet in their communities. And that includes young people in Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, and Venezuela.
Ms. Soneshine did not mention how much money the USG spent to expand the number of those Facebook followers or the rate of the engagement.
In the same speech, she touted the use of “rigorous, evidence-based” work that “demonstrate the effectiveness” of the State Department programs:
[O]ur in-house staff – Statewide – includes Ph.D. social scientists, program evaluators who have worked all over the world, pollsters who left successful careers in the private sector to work for us, and other communications experts.
Our rigorous, evidence-based, social scientific work now allows us to go beyond anecdote and demonstrate the effectiveness of our programs and work in increasing foreign public understanding of U.S. society, government, culture, our values and the democratic process.
Here is what the OIG says:
The Office of Audience Research and Evaluation is charged with assessing bureau programs and conducting audience research for PD work. It is not performing either duty adequately. The coordinator brought a former colleague from the private sector into the bureau to oversee the operation, which is attached to the front office. However, that employee had no U.S. Government experience with the issues surrounding PD research or familiarity with the programs, products, and services IIP offers. At about the same time, the Office of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs transferred to IIP the responsibility for managing a PD database for tracking embassies’ work, along with the responsibility for preparing a report assessing the global impact of PD. Since the 2011 reorganization that put these changes in place, the office has accomplished little.
In the aftermath of the release of the IIP report, Ms. Soneshine reportedly sent out a lengthy email offering to connect recipients “directly with the bureau’s leadership so that you can learn more about IIP and its great work, in addition to hearing how the bureau is proactively implementing the report’s recommendations.”
She reportedly also touted the bureau’s accomplishments and writes that “IIP is now positioned firmly in the 21st Century and will innovate constantly to stay at the forefront of modern Public Diplomacy.”
That must be why the fishes are leaping out the barrel; fishes to refer to multiple species of fish in that specific barrel.
-05/31/13 Inspection of the Bureau of International Information Programs [975 Kb]