At last, State Moves Toward Public-Private Research on Diplomacy, by Bruce Gregory

On May 17, 2024, the Department of State filed the first required notice in the Federal Register proposing the establishment of three Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs). They are intended to facilitate public-private research and collaboration on activities vital to US diplomatic practice and modernization.

One FFRDC will focus on operational support for acquisition planning, operational analysis, and organizational innovation. A second will support research and analysis related to emerging threats, concept exploration, experimentation, and evaluation. And a third will support information technology (IT) and cyber operations.

The US military has valued partnerships with experts in civil society through FFRDCs such as RAND Corporation, SAIC, and the MITRE Corporation for decades. For the State Department this decision is a historic first.

Proposals to make diplomacy smarter and better through creation of research and development centers have existed for nearly a quarter century. PDCA members have been part of the effort, notably in several reports of Defense Science Board (DSB) task forces on strategic communication led by the estimable Vince Vitto, a DSB board member with a keen interest in public diplomacy.

PDCA’s Communication Chair Joe Johnson was instrumental in first connecting State Department practitioners with the DSB in 2000. During the next eight years, PDCA members Brian Carlson, Bob Coonrod, Barry Fulton, Bruce Gregory, and Mark Maybury collaborated with DSB members, scholars, and military participants in separate yearlong studies leading to reports in 2001, 2004, and 2007.

A key recommendation in the 2004 and 2007 reports was creation of an independent, non-profit, and non-partisan Center for Global Engagement. The DSB’s task forces understood that practitioners in whole of government diplomacy could not succeed without institutionalized access to the knowledge, skills, and creativity of academic, non-profit, and business communities.

They recommended a hybrid organization modeled on the RAND Corporation and the National Endowment for Democracy. Success would depend on its serving as a source of independent, imaginative, objective, and independent expertise safeguarded from the special pleadings of organizational interests.

In 2008 Kristin Lord and the Brookings Institution published Voices of America. The report urged creation of a “nimble and entrepreneurial” non-profit USA-World Trust to leverage the knowledge of experts in support of public diplomacy and strategic communication.

In 2010 thought leaders from across government and civil society met at the Wilson Center under the leadership of former Defense and State Department secretaries William Perry and Condoleezza Rice to create a business plan for an autonomous, non-profit organization to support US government communication with foreign publics.

The US Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy has long encouraged robust ties with academic and private sector experts to enhance the skills of practitioners. And two years ago Dan Spokojny and Alexandra Blum at the think tank fp21 called on the State Department to “get serious” about “a foreign policy focused FFRDC.”

Kudos to those in the State Department and elsewhere who initiated and supported these FFRDC proposals. State invites public comments on their work and existing public or private sector capabilities. This effort deserves support and informed input from PDCA members and others committed to achieving change in US diplomatic practice.

PDCA member Bruce Gregory is a visiting scholar at George Washington University’s Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication and the author of American Diplomacy’s Public Dimension: Practitioners as Change Agents in Foreign Relations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2024).