Reviewing the FCO Communication Capability Review

Over the last couple of years British government departments have been subject to Communication Capability Reviews conducted by the Government Communication Network.  These involve a group composed of other government communicators plus outsiders wandering around the Ministry interviewing people and looking at your paperwork – if you’ve worked in the UK public sector or related organizations you will have doubtless experienced something similar.  Anyway I’ve just spotted the Review for the FCO conducted in June 2013.  It’s eight pages so if you want to get a sense of where communications at the FCO is it’s a useful snapshot.

The external reviewers are PR people from a hotel chain,  a corporate PR consultancy and the BBC and the result is what you would expect if you asked corporate PRs to look at an MFA.

They start off by commenting that the FCO is different from other government departments because among other reasons;  communications is a core business, the audience is primarily overseas and the communications capability is distributed across 270 missions.

The FCO communications review of 2011 basically tried to do more with less by reallocating resources away from the centre to directorates and as far as our reviewers are concerned this was bad because this means that the ‘FCO lacks strategic communications resource’.  Here’s an extract from the “areas of challenge”

Status of communications – Communications as a discipline is not widely understood within the FCO. It has not been invested in. While Press Department is widely respected – and used as the main route into the Engagement and Communications Directorate (ECD) – other parts of the communications function are significantly less visible. There is little understanding of the services offered by Engagement and Communications Directorate. There is a lack of clarity on the roles and responsibilities of the various staff who deliver communications activity (Engagement and Communications Directorate, embedded communicators, Senior Regional Communicators and communicators in post, for example). Recruitment is problematic.

Strategic planning – There is no strategic planning process or capability, no overarching communications strategy and no clear narrative targeted on overseas audiences. As a result, policy and communications are not fully integrated: communications is not an integral part of the business planning process. The majority of communications activity therefore is tactical and focused on short-term issues. Posts are unclear whether to amplify messages developed in London or tailor them, taking local issues and concerns into account.

Capacity – The reviewers do not believe that FCO communications resources are used as efficiently as they should be. In particular, the current structure provides insufficient ‘surge capacity’ to support priority policy areas, Foreign Secretary-led initiatives and in-year crises. The large number of locally-engaged staff with little knowledge of UK priorities exacerbates this. The current research resource is under marketed and underutilised. Some internal communications activity is duplicated by embedded staff. Overall, however, the reviewers do not believe that the FCO should increase the amount of resource dedicated to communication.

Capability – FCO staff are intelligent, articulate and committed. However, the current mix of diplomatic staff and communications specialists is sub optimal. Many important issues are dealt with by generalists with insufficient experience of communications and insufficient knowledge of where to go within the FCO for professional communications guidance and support. There is difficulty in ensuring the right level of skills development for diplomatic staff working in communications roles.

Delivery – The lack of strategic planning and lack of clarity over communications roles and responsibilities has led to inconsistent performance in areas including digital, campaign management and delivery, and evaluation.

So what do they want:

A clear vision for communications, an integrated communications plan, a centralized planning and delivery resource, a framework to clarify roles, etc.

There may be something to this but I have a distinct feeling that after starting off by acknowledging how the FCO is different the review then goes on to ignore the fact.  The more I study the history of public diplomacy the more you see that whole area is marked by a number of recurring tensions.  This report manages to hit on several of these tensions but rather than recognizing them simply asserts answers.   Five tensions stand out:

  1. The big question.  What does communication mean in an MFA?  To what extent should communication be a separate function at all? (Remember that in 1953 it was Eisenhower’s psychological warfare advisers like CD Jackson who opposed creating the USIA because everything we do has a psychological effect).  The extent to which comms should be a separate function really depends on your diplomatic concept.  Diplomacy and PD are becoming more linked.
  2. Global strategy vs local adaption?  Absence of global strategy is not necessarily a bad thing if it allows more effective local communications.  I’m up to my eyeballs in the early Cold War at the moment so for an example look at the very rapid disillusionment with Truman’s  Campaign of Truth what looked good in Washington didn’t work in the field.
  3. Centralization vs decentralization.  Same as above but where do you put the resource and control? There are arguments for both.
  4. Specialist communicators vs diplomats.  The FCO has generally leaned towards giving generalists communications experience (see Drogheda Report of 1953)
  5. Locally engaged staff versus home personnel.  Of course the former have local knowledge, language etc but less understanding of the national priorities.

I guess that if you get senior corporate PRs as reviewers they just recommend the things that they think give them status.  Diplomatic communication isn’t PR so next time the government communication networks wants to do one of these reviews maybe they should get at least one reviewer from another MFA.

The EU Communication Gap? It’s a Feature Not a Bug

One of the staples of discussion about the EU is the democratic deficit.  Why are people who live in the EU indifferent if not hostile to organization? One of the most popular explanations is that there is a ‘communication gap’.  This question has spawned a continuing stream of research (much of it funded by the EU) looking at the reporting of the EU and the extent to which there is a European public sphere or the extent to which national public spheres are becoming Europeanized etc.  Like a lot of political communications research there are new studies but the whole area never seems to move forward.

I’ve been reading a provocative new book by Francisco Seoane Perez, Political Communication in Europe: The Cultural and Structural Limits of the European Public Sphere (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2013) that argues that the so called ‘communication gap’ isn’t a bug but a consequence of what the EU is.  The process of construction of the EU has managed to combine neofunctionalist networks, diplomacy and corporatism (governance) all of which privilege the position of insiders and the expense of those outside, ie the mass of the citizens. The result is a situation where the EU is neither domesticated (seen in terms of an identification between rulers and ruled) and or politicised in the sense of producing clearly defined antagonism over the kinds of stakes that will mobilize participation.  There’s a good chunk of political theory here, the categories of domesticisation and politicisation are drawn from Carl Schmitt via Chantal Mouffe, but a big part of the weight of the text comes from the empirical underpinning.

The starting point of the study is a comparison between two regions: Yorkshire and Galicia.  By normal measures Yorkshire is a bastion of Euroscepticism while Galicia is seen as being very pro-EU.  Given that these two regions vary in terms of political and media system that fact that people in the two regions seem to talk about the EU in similar ways suggests that the core of the problem may be something about the EU itself.  The author applies Philip Howard’s network ethnography: follow the connnections that constitute your object of interest and then watch what the people you find at the nodes are doing.  In over 100 interviews and observations the study follows what the different actors; farmers, trawlermen, their representative, executives of regional development agencies, the consultants who put funding bids together, diplomats, Members of the European Parliament actually do.  It’s a fascinating read that says the EU is sui generis, it’s not a nation-state in the making, in fact it only holds together because of the processes of exclusion at work that allow those on the inside to forge agreements and allocate resources.

I think that there’s broader lesson here for people interested in political communications issues: sometimes the problem is with the politics not the communications and the only way that this can be addressed is by looking beyond better communications.

Full disclosure: the book started life as a PhD thesis in the Institute of Communications Studies at Leeds and I did have a minor and temporary role in supervision but it’s not just me who thinks this is an really interesting study as it has been awarded the 2013 THESEUS Award for Promising Research on European Integration.

Polling the Middle East: UAE, China, Russia Up

TESEV a Turkish think tank have been doing polls  on The Perception of Turkey in the Middle East for the past 5 years and I’ve just come across their latest version.  The fieldwork was conducted in August and December last year and covers 14 countries across the Middle East and North Africa.  Although there are lots of questions about Turkey the poll covers other regional issues

Lots if interesting stuff here including data on media use but a few highlights.

Generally respondents see economic issues as the most important facing their country.

The most positively rated countries across the region are the UAE (67% positive) and China (64%) followed by Saudi Arabia (60%) and Turkey (67%).  Israel is the least popular (7% positive) followed by the US (30%) and the UK (36%)

Despite perceptions of increasing sectarianism across the region Hezbollah rates a 44% positive rating only one point behind the GCC and two points behind the OIC – Al Qaeda gets 7%.

Which country is the greatest threat to the region?  Easy one Israel at 40% – but it’s down from 47% two years ago, US is 29% and Iran at 10%.


61% of respondents see Iran as pursuing a sectarian foreign policy versus 43% for Saudi Arabia, the country with the most sectarian policy is Iraq (65%).  Views of Iranian nuclear weapons programme is pretty evenly split with 38% supporting and 42% against.

Perceptions of the impact of the Arab Spring have become increasingly negative.  The two countries outside the region that are now seen as having the most positive impact are China and Russia (both at 38%)

Only 33% of Saudis approve of the military coup in Egypt versus 67% of Egyptians.  The former is interesting given the vocal government support for the coup.  Average regional approval is 43%

Finally only 44% of people in the region admit to having watched a TV series from the US versus Egypt, Turkey and Syria have penetration rates between 67 and 69%

Russian Media in the Post Soviet Space

There’s a minor excitement today after the refusal of the Russian government to grant a visa to David Satter of RFE/RL.  I’ve no idea if there’s a connection but Satter authored a report published last week by the Center for International Media Assistance on The Last Gasp of Empire: Russia’s Attempts to Control the Media in the Former Soviet Republics

This looks at the impact of Russian media in most of the states on the periphery of Russia.  Satter argues that in most of these countries even including the Baltics Russian media continues to play an outsize role and is frequently used to exert pressure on recalcitrant leaders or to support cooperative ones.  More broadly the popularity of Russian media affects local perceptions of the world. In some countries Russian media seems more reliable than local media outlets that are dominated by authoritarian leaders.

Satter doesn’t think that this is a good thing but apart from a couple of paragraphs in the summary of the report he doesn’t have much in the way of policy suggestions.

Apart from the propensity of Russian operators to make life difficult for those that oppose them there are structural issues at work.  Many people in the post Soviet space speak Russian even if they’re not members of the Russian diaspora and in a situation where an adjacent big country and a small country share a language you would expect the big country’s media to attract a large share of attention because it’s likely to have better programming.  This is basic media economics.   Interestingly Satter points to cases where Western channels have cut deals that appear to give Russian channels a monopoly on their programming in the former Soviet space.  One response would be  Western controlled Russian language entertainment channels but I don’t see that any governments are going to put their hands in the their pockets for that the moment particularly when we can assume that Russia will do its best to keep these channels off terrestrial and cable systems.





The Foreign Office, the Russians and the Scottish Referendum

The Scottish independence referendum is getting a fair amount of attention in England but a lot more in Scotland – people outside Scotland often don’t realize that the Scottish media sphere is quite autonomous from the London centric version that we get in England.   On Sunday a Scottish paper The Herald carried a story headlined Cameron’s Plea to Putin: Help Me Stop Salmond – that is Alex Salmond leader of the Scottish National Party.  According to this story someone from Cameron’s office had approached Putin’s office for unexplained assistance.  The source for this report is Itar-Tass which the Herald report points out is usually seen as the Kremlin’s mouthpiece.   The authors of the story then simultaneously question the reliability and sources of the Itar-Tass story (which I haven’t been able to find) while shopping it around to supporters of independence from Alex Salmond down to denounce the underhand interference of the UK government in the referendum campaign.

Given the usual state of British-Russian relations you couldn’t rule out a bit of troublemaking from the Kremlin but from the context given in the Herald piece the story maybe more about trying to make Russia look good in advance of it being chair of the G-8*

In pursuit of unmasking the evil machinations of the British state the [Scottish] National Collective of Artists and Creatives (I couldn’t quite believe that there are still organizations with names like this) has done a freedom of information request to uncover what instructions the FCO has been sending to British embassies which it describes as ‘global lobbying against independence’  (The full set of briefing documents is here). The bulk of  most of which appear to set out the lines to take if anyone asks – but they do show that the FCO is concerned about the potential impact of Scottish independence on the way that they UK is seen.

*Though there does seem to be some questioning of what Russia is doing in the G-8 at all

Foreign Affairs Committee on FCO: Doing Too Much with Too Little

The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee has put out its response to the FCO 2012-13 Annual Report.

A few headlines.  The tone of this report seems a bit sharper than in recent years.  When the coalition came in in 2010 it was a) going to restore the centrality of the FCO in government and the skills of its diplomats and b) cut the deficit.  The Committee now seems to be saying that: we don’t think that this is really working out.   The FCO is doing too much relative to its resources.

The FCO is has been increasing its reliance on locally engaged staff and the committee is concerned that this is reducing the number of posts overseas available for UK based staff with possible long term reductions in levels of experience in the FCO.  It’s also creating a large cohort of staff who can’t be moved from country to country or rotated to the UK.

Two positions relating to public diplomacy questions come across very clearly. The Committee is firmly against any changes in the status of the British Council as a result of the current review of the body.  It is against ending the grant to the agency or spinning off its commercial activities. The Committee is also doubtful that the BBC World Service is being, and is going to be, properly looked after by the domestic BBC.  These are both areas that are likely to be receiving more attention in coming months.

One additional point that struck me is that 90% of programme spending is centrally managed and only 10% is devolved to posts to be used in accordance with country plans (a rather pathetic £14.4m across all FCO posts) and the Committee is concerned that this spend (average £11,000 per project) is not being sufficiently evaluated – despite being told by the NAO that they think what’s happening is just fine.  I’m doubtful that a 90/10 split is really the optimal use of programme funds or that doing lots more evaluation on £10k projects is really a good use of money.  One question that wasn’t addressed is how much of this money is classified as ODA – since this really reduces the ‘discretion’ involved.

Short answer is that the FCO needs more money.

The State of Evaluation

Given the amount of time that people in the PD community spend worrying about evaluation you might be interested in a recent report from the UK National Audit Office on Evaluation in Government…put it this way given the size of PD budgets there are a lot of people with much bigger problems:

The main  findings

  1.  Despite polices that require evaluation of the impact of interventions British government actually evaluates in a pretty random way, departments don’t have a clear view of what they evaluate or why they do it.  A graphic casually points to £51 Billion  of defence expenditure that isn’t being evaluated at all (ie roughly 25 times the entire FCO Budget)
  2. Most evaluation fails basic standards of methodological adequacy
  3. Departments don’t use evaluation evidence in developing policy.
  4. Only a small fraction of requests for funding from The Treasury are supported by evidence from evaluations.
  5. Evaluation reports that are weaker in supporting the causal impact of interventions  make bigger claims for policy effectiveness.

So the next time someone asks you to justify the impact of public diplomacy expenditure you will be perfectly at liberty to ask them about the evidence that any other government activity actually does anything.  The point is not that government activities don’t do anything (even though this might be the case) but that government isn’t very good at producing good evidence that they do.

What’s VOA For?

Just before the Christmas break Take 5 posted Jonathan Henick’s summary of a US Broadcasting Board of Governors meeting and a couple of paragraphs caught my eye

The VOA discussion featured a number of comparisons with broadcasting organizations of other countries like CCTV, Russia Today, and the BBC (usually to illustrate that VOA is relatively underfunded). BBG Governor Matt Armstrong highlighted a key point, however, when he remarked that unlike those organizations the VOA is not seeking to secure a permanent market share in each of its overseas areas of activity. Instead, the VOA is ultimately seeking to put itself out of business in each of these areas by encouraging the development of local, independent media sources (i.e., by “exporting the First Amendment”).

Unspoken but implied was the suggestion that we should be careful when we compare VOA and its sister broadcasting agencies with official foreign broadcasters. VOA Director David Ensor agreed, in part, but countered that we may ultimately decide that we should maintain at least some presence in order to explain U.S. policies. Personally speaking, I agree with Matt Armstrong and am inclined to believe that the U.S. Department of State can fulfill that function in said markets, while perhaps relying in part on VOA’s English-language resources available at the Washington headquarters and its online platforms.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the idea that the VoA has a sunset clause before.  Given the non stop wrangling over US international broadcasting this triggered a few thoughts

How many countries don’t have guarantees of media freedom in their constitutions?  Given that most countries have some sort of constitutional guarantee this could be the excuse for the VoA to shut up shop.

Of course if what Matt Armstrong really means is some sort of functioning free media system then I think that we can guarantee that the VoA has a long term future but…this would give it a rationale – albeit one that might be better achieved by a merger of VoA with the RFE/RL axis and possibly handing the whole lot over to the National Endowment for Democracy to run.

There’s something deeper there as well, that is that idea that America won’t need international broadcasting if all countries were liberal democracies, David Ensor seems to appreciate that even if this were the case we wouldn’t automatically see things in the same way as the US (for example see the entire history of NATO) but as Henick comments it may be that we can leave this to the State Department.