Ten years have passed since the U.S. Information Agency was abolished.  Over that period, many new Foreign Service Officers have replaced the USIA Foreign Service veterans.  The new officers enjoy higher career aspirations than I did — right up to ambassador — but they have no longer enjoy a near monopoly on embassy information and cultural affairs work, as USIA’s FSOs once did.

I recently came across a declaration signed by ten of the new FSOs.  Calling themselves the Front Line Working Group, they referred to themselves as “mid-level public diplomacy officers,” declaring: “We have no institutional memory of the U.S. Information Agency; many of our careers began with the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the realization that not everyone loved America or our values.”

The officers described their dilemma as follows:  “Public diplomacy-coned officers usually will do at least two, and possibly four years of out-of-cone work before bidding on their first public diplomacy position.  When they do bid on PD jobs, they are often disadvantaged in the process because they cannot clearly demonstrate their public diplomacy experience. PD leadership can help by establishing clear guidelines for new officers that outline necessary PD skills and how to obtain them during entry-level tours, whether in PD positions or not.”

Training and certification matter.  The USIA fielded a foreign-service corps who had been selected with media and culture-related skills in mind, steeped in tradecraft, and qualified in language before deploying on assignment.  The system was far from perfect, but none of those standards is being respected today.

The General Accounting Office reports a vacancy rate of 13 percent for public-diplomacy positions at embassies worldwide.  The gap is most severe at the mid-level, according to the GAO, placing “pressure on State to appoint junior officers to so-called ‘stretch positions.’”  An internal study by the Bureau of Human Resources counted 125 officers with other specialties (political, economic, consular and management specialists) who were filling public diplomacy positions — qualifications not disclosed.  Finally, the GAO had found in October 2008 that 25 percent of officers in public diplomacy language-designated positions did not meet the language requirements.

The State Department began its stewardship of public diplomacy with a human resources deficit after USIA had lost a third of its budget during the 1990s, forcing years of downsizing and hiring freezes.  State may hire as many as 1,000 new Foreign Service officers in Fiscal Year 2010 if Congress approves the Department’s budget request.  Considering that there are no more than a thousand FSOs in the public diplomacy career track at this time, a healthy share of the thousand new officers could make a critical contribution to public diplomacy’s effectiveness by lowering vacancies and enabling adequate time for training between assignments.

The new officers rightly call for more rigorous professional standards and training.  That too will be necessary to improve the government’s public diplomacy programs overseas.