Tara Sonenshine
Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs
Heritage Foundation
Washington, DC
December 3, 2012

Thank you, Helle. And my thanks to the Heritage Foundation for inviting me here today.

I am delighted to spend some time this afternoon outlining how and why we gauge the effectiveness of our PD programs, talk about evaluation strategies, and lay out statistics. But first, I want to share an experience I had in Bosnia Herzegovina last week. I tell you this because few things are more compelling than looking our program alumni in the eye, and talking to them face-to-face about their very personal experiences in the U.S.

The personal so often confirms what our researchers show us in other ways.

I sat down with high schoolers from ethnically divided Sarajevo and East Sarajevo. These students – just a few short months before that – would never have believed they might get along. Now, they admitted that they really missed each other in the weeks since they returned home. They also missed their host families – “their American parents,” as they called them.

I asked these young students what stereotypes they had of the U.S. before their exchange program, and how their image of us changed during their time in Seattle and here in Washington.

One young woman raised her hand and said "I thought all Americans were fat." She was surprised to find out we weren't. Then she went on to say that, now, she couldn't characterize who Americans are - because we are so diverse. Our ethnic and religious diversity impressed many of the students, as did our tolerance and ability to live and work together in peace - another lesson they took home.

That new found mutual understanding invigorated me, and gave me hope for the future progress of reconciliation in the Balkans. I saw how much impact American public diplomacy can have in the lives of the very young people we need to reach – the future leaders and citizens we will have to work with.

I know public diplomacy works. I have seen it for myself. So I am delighted to talk about the many different ways we are measuring and evaluating public diplomacy – which is so critical to ensuring our success.

But first, I want to talk about the underlying purpose of public diplomacy – why we are doing this in the first place.

It starts from a core belief that our country’s most important board of governors are the American taxpayers – and we are committed to their security and prosperity.

As they continue their recovery from this economic recession, it’s even more imperative that we invest taxpayer funds in impactful, efficient, and high-value programs that benefit them and our nation.

Public diplomacy does bring benefits to the American people. It does that by building positive environments with people everywhere – face-to-face, through educational and cultural exchanges, and through social media. When we help more people become healthy, productive, democratic, empowered, and prosperous, they become our economic, trade, social, political, and strategic partners. That spells security and prosperity for America.

The bottom line is this: Public diplomacy is a smart, strategic, – and cost-effective – chess move towards enhancing our national security and building prosperity. More and more of us, Republicans and Democrats alike, understand that.

In his 2007 National Strategy for Public Diplomacy and Strategic Communication, President Bush said and I quote, “Nations with free, healthy, prosperous people will be sources of stability, not breeding grounds for extremists and hate and terror. …By helping others, the American people must understand we help ourselves.”

President Obama’s 2010 National Security Strategy echoes that same idea. I quote again, “Our long-term security will come not from our ability to instill fear in other peoples, but through our capacity to speak to their hopes.”

Public diplomacy isn’t just the nice thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. So, evaluation is critical, so we can examine and analyze our effectiveness and sharpen, direct and enhance our messaging, our policies, and our programs. That’s not just in the State Department but across all government agencies.

That’s why, for almost 20 years – even more so in recent years – we have been focused on making sure our programs have impact and are making a difference.

We understand and we continue to address the challenges. The science of evaluation is still evolving and we are building a body of evidence over time. Not only that, public diplomacy is a process whose results work more obviously over the long term than the short term. That requires observation over long periods. You need data against which you can compare. You need people to conduct it. That costs money. And none of this is made easier by a culture and political system in which short term results so often get the attention.

But these challenges haven’t stopped our efforts – far from it.

In her Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review in 2010, Secretary Clinton called on the State Department to institutionalize a process of monitoring and evaluating our work.

As of February of this year, we have adopted a new and stronger evaluation policy with guidelines on planning, managing, and conducting evaluations. That process continues, as we evaluate everything from our economic statecraft to rule of law programs in the Western Hemisphere.

One way to illustrate the depth of our commitment is to talk about our Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs – best known as ECA. Over fourteen years ago, it created its own Evaluation Division to carry out rigorous, independent evaluations of ECA programs.

Its success in institutionalizing evaluation has become the model for the State Department family, and PD in general. Now, our 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.

Through our Performance Measurement Initiative, ECA alone has surveyed 40,000 exchange participants – both foreign and American –in 35 major programs that involve hundreds of exchanges. In addition to this, ECA has conducted 60 multi-year, multi-country evaluations that survey participants and include fieldwork internationally.

Fieldwork overseas means in-depth interviewing with participants, peers, colleagues, communities, and institutions to understand the depth of program impact on opinions, careers, and lives.

We know these evaluation techniques work. In 2009, both the Government Accountability Office – or GAO – and the Congressional Research Service cited the Evaluation Division’s work for its excellence in measuring outcomes and impacts of different exchanges on participants and their respective home communities and countries.

We can measure outcomes in thematic ways too. Take freedom of expression, for example – something we all value deeply. Our goal is to disseminate this important value to citizens around the world. And we do this by bringing foreign journalists and media professionals into the United States to experience our open, free media environment. Our goal is to encourage them to fight for freedom of expression and follow the standards of integrity that they see in our newsrooms.

We wanted to know how effective these programs were. So we hired an independent firm with experience in program evaluation to evaluate participants in our International Visitor Leadership Program, the Edward R. Murrow Program, and our Citizen Exchange Programs.

They conducted surveys for quantitative data, ran focus groups and held interviews on three continents. And they evaluated the impact of these exchange programs on the opinions, career paths, and professional activities of all participants.

The results were compelling: Significant numbers of these exchange participants went on to advocate for greater freedom of information in their home countries. They worked to support new professional and ethical standards in their work.

And they encouraged their peers to demand greater access to public records. Investments we are making today in front line transitional states – Arab Spring nations like Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen – bear out the value of this work.

Were our programs the sole cause of these positive changes? We can’t prove conclusively that they were. But did our programs play an important role? Absolutely. That’s why we continue our programs and make sure we address any needs for improvement as we go forward.

On the project level, for example, we conduct audience research to determine how best to communicate with key audiences. We track cost, record audience size, and catalogue results. When the level of PD investment merits it, we use the latest strategies to benchmark and evaluate our projects and programs so that we can understand the benefits that they yield and adjust where needed.

We are also evaluating our digital engagement via social media because we know how critical it is to reach key audiences. We examine retweets of our Tweets so we can see how our reach is increasing. We conduct satisfaction surveys on our embassy websites – and adjust our programming accordingly. And we measure the number of clicks our websites get, and how many followers and fans we are getting on our social media platforms.

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.

Since 2007, and in response to President Bush’s mandate for performance measurement, we have studied public diplomacy participants and nonparticipants to understand how our programs have influenced lives and opinions.

One such study is the biannual Public Diplomacy Impact, which has just completed its 2011work in Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Indonesia, Kenya, Morocco, and Turkey.

The PDI, as we call it, is designed to measure the aggregate impact of public diplomacy in general. As with our ECA studies, we use independent evaluators who administer surveys and run focus groups among people who have participated in our programs – as well as demographically matched individuals who have not. With this set of measures, we can see if our programs are influencing opinions.

The 2011 results found that 79.1 percent of our program participants reported initiating some form of positive change in their communities, organizations, or institutions. They reported this as a result of their engagement with public diplomacy programs, tools, or personnel.

Compared to the non-program participants, we saw greater numbers reporting favorability towards the U.S. We also saw better results in their understanding of U.S. policies, society, and values. Those included the concepts of free speech and press, human rights and legal protections, free elections, educational opportunities and religious diversity.

This is a promising indication to us that our public diplomacy initiatives do create better understanding of the U.S. and do improve favorability towards the United States. And when I look around the world and see that 360 alumni are former or current heads of state or government, and 54 alumni of State Department ECA exchanges are recipients of the Nobel Prize, I know we are doing the right thing to connect and support these leaders early in their professional lives.

We are not saying that our programs caused them to become successful. But we clearly backed and supported the right people. And when those leaders achieve positions of authority or influence, they will carry a positive experience of our country through their personal experiences.

Let me give you an example. Perhaps you read about then-Vice President Xi Jinping of China last February when he came to Muscatine, Iowa with a huge entourage, and invited 17 locals to tea.

Why did he do that? Because 27 years earlier, he had meaningful contact with these Americans when he met them on an agricultural research trip. Those personal experiences with everyday Americans clearly had an impact on the man who has since become the paramount leader of the Communist party of China.

Will that enhance China’s policy towards the United States? We cannot presume to answer that. But does it make sense to support more encounters like this one? You bet it does.

As we continue our research, we should also ask ourselves: What is the price of not conducting public diplomacy? Can we afford not to engage with future leaders and citizens of the 21st century? Can we afford not to engage closely with the growing number of young people around the world who are unemployed, unable to participate democratically and potentially vulnerable to the influence of extremism?

That last question is a perpetual one for the Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communication every day. As I am sure you know, CSCC is an interagency operation that is an integral part of our public diplomacy.

The CSCC team includes officers from State, the Department of Defense, and the intelligence community. It is part of our public diplomacy family, and I oversee its efforts, but it works across the U.S. Government, with support from the NSS and other agencies.

Its mission is to coordinate, orient, and inform Government-wide public communications activities directed at audiences abroad and targeted against violent extremists and terrorist organizations, especially al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents. It contests the communications space used by al-Qa’ida and its supporters.

CSCC is a new organization, but has been committed from the beginning to developing methods to measure and evaluate its activities and effects. While these are being created, CSCC has already received initial indications that it is having an impact. Al-Qa’ida members and supporters are complaining about CSCC’s activities on their extremist forums. They have urged their adherents not to pay attention to CSCC communications

If the case to be made for public diplomacy is challenging, then the case against it is even harder. Our common sense, our self interests, our sense of right and wrong, and the extremely persuasive evidence for its effectiveness that we see every day show that public diplomacy is vital to sustaining our global leadership, protecting our people and building our prosperity.

I want to thank everyone for listening to me today. And I look forward to hearing your comments and questions.