By Patricia H. Kushlis
May 17 Update - please also be sure to read Gerald Loftus' "The Singing Diplomat" on Avuncular American. Why shouldn't the US have a Department of Culture and Communication?
I spent more hours than I’d like to admit last week assembling IKEA furniture. When, that is, I wasn’t attending meetings, concerts and visiting with friends and former colleagues - mostly although not entirely - inside the Beltway.
Truth be told, I hadn’t assembled out-of-the-box furniture in several years. But the principles of build-by-the-numbers (or actually follow the pictures) furniture assembly haven’t changed much since then except that the directions this time around came with no text instructions whatsoever. Totally pictorial. There were several times I needed to tear nearly finished pieces apart and return to the beginning because I hadn’t interpreted the pictures as carefully as I should have. Or the pictures themselves were not as explicit as they could have been. A little color coding and numbers on the boards would have helped.
But I was reminded of one important rule of thumb: assembling the second version of the same object took half as long as the first. For every chair, foot stool and bed stand – the same rule still stood. I had made my mistakes on the first model but by the time I got to the second – I had the bugs worked out, and therefore, the assembly process worked smoothly and rapidly.
Practice makes perfect
So what does this have to do with the State Department or with the practice of America’s public diplomacy, you may wonder? At lot. Remember the old adage “Practice makes perfect?” A near Russian equivalent is “pafterenia mat uchenia.” Pardon the transliteration but this is just to point out that it was not only my Yankee grandmother who understood the value of repetition as a major tool to success. Bottom line: The more one repeats the same thing or something similar while getting the bugs out along the way – the fewer mistakes one makes and the smoother and faster the process becomes in the future.
Just as a State Department economics officer, for instance, needs both the theoretical knowledge of economics and practice working under a more experienced economics officer to learn the trade as practiced in the State Department, the same needs to go for public diplomacy.
Academia doesn’t and can’t teach hands-on public diplomacy. It can teach about public diplomacy, its history and why it’s important for nurturing and sustaining America’s image abroad, and it can teach some of the skills needed, but not how to do it in practice. That comes from on-the-job experience and training.
Public Diplomacy in State too often treated as a "throw away"
What makes matters worse, from what I can see, is that public diplomacy in the State Department has been too often treated as a “throw away.” This begins with two or more wasted years rejecting visa applicants in a Consular mill. It continues with too many public diplomacy positions assigned to difficult to assign officers from other specialties so the cadre of experienced officers becomes far fewer.
Furthermore, neither the classroom nor hands on tutelage abroad available for economics officers is available for those junior officers who specialize in public diplomacy. This, in essence, is setting up a kind of “halt leading the blind” scenario (another of my grandmother’s favorite expressions) that is likely to get worse as more former experienced USIA officers retire or progress into State’s senior ranks.
The former, by the way, is far more likely than the latter since the most recent statistics from State’s Human Resources indicate that no public diplomacy specialists were promoted into the senior ranks last year (although 6 political officers, 9 economics officers, 4 consular officers and 2 multi-functional officers were) and only one public diplomacy officer was promoted to a higher rank within the senior foreign service. The statistics at the mid and junior levels weren't much more encouraging.
Meanwhile, money seems to be pouring in for public diplomacy projects especially in the too long neglected arena of culture and the performing arts. This is great and long overdue – but I question how the new funds will translate into on-the-ground rapid success stories. It seems too me, the bureaucracy is simply too rigid and stove-piped to break down or break through State Department imposed barriers for such activities to move smoothly from start to finish as happened pretty seamlessly once-upon-a-time, that is before the State Department got into the administration of US public diplomacy. Furthermore, I remain to be convinced that Judith McHale’s consolidation plan (Roadmap) will made a real difference in tearing down the roadblocks and constructing a path that will make it work better.
Meanwhile, I had a conversation recently about the latest trends in American education and a new concept called informal learning that was introduced about two years ago. In essence informal learning means experiential learning – and since nothing else seems to be working with too many in today’s generation or maybe with too many of us humans ever, hands on learning is long due for a renaissance here.
It’s well known in the educational world that about 85% of what an individual is taught in the formal classroom doesn’t stick in the brain longer than the end of the final exam - but that learning by doing does.
Some of this can be done in a classroom – like certain kinds of simulation or learning a new computer program – if one has a computer to practice on. But much informal learning comes on the job and from others – whether help from a mentor/boss with hands on experience or from coworkers. Then this new information has to be practiced to make it one’s own.
Learning to play the oboe, for instance, does not come from reading a book. It does not come through osmosis. It comes from hands on lessons from a professional oboist, lots of subsequent practice and finally playing music with others.
Experiential or informal learning is what America’s public diplomacy too often lacks - as well many other things including supplemental serious classroom instruction.
For public diplomacy, this needs foremost to be a field driven process that begins at the most junior level under tutelage of the more experienced. Its complexities and idiosyncrasies need to be acquired over time. Bit by bit, step-by-step, year by year: this is particularly important in the complex worlds of cultural programs and educational exchange. Consequently, to make public diplomacy work there need to be enough positions in the field filled by experienced officers (senior and mid-level) not too mention a strong backbone in Washington to help – not hinder - the learning process along.