By Virginia Blakeman and Alexis Sullivan
“Our ability to communicate American foreign policy and values around the world is absolutely core to our success at the State Department. This critical change and evolution within our public diplomacy operation will ensure we deliver on that mission in the 21st century,” said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regarding the recent merger of the Bureaus of Public Affairs (PA) and International Information Programs (IIP).
The merger of PA and IIP to create the Bureau of Global Public Affairs (GPA) was the largest restructuring the Department of State has undergone in more than 20 years and has impacted more than 500 employees across five bureaus. Under the leadership of PA Assistant Secretary Michelle Giuda and IIP Acting Coordinator Nicole Chulick, it was a complex undertaking that took a task force of employees across the Department less than a year to achieve, and in the end, brought to the Department a world-class, modern communications operation capable of competing and winning in today’s global fast-changing digital media environment.
PA was established in 1944 to provide Americans with greater information on the nation’s foreign policy, and IIP was established as a separate bureau following the 1999 merger of the U.S. Information Agency with the Department. Merging the capabilities of PA and IIP had previously been explored, from both inside the Department and out. A merger was explored in the lead-up to the 1998 Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act and several times since including a May 2016 Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy white paper recommending that a task force review such an idea.
In July 2018, the secretary approved the recommendation by Giuda and Chulick to develop a formal proposal to integrate the bureaus.
“The first thing Michelle and I did is examine all of our bureaus’ respective capabilities on strategic communication and explore how we could best combine them,” said Chulick.
Giuda and Chulick provided a strategic framework and vision. They then selected a diverse team of career Foreign Service officers, Civil Servants, and political appointees, led by then PA Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Susan Stevenson, to work together to develop and implement the merger. The team—which included representatives from the affected bureaus, as well as the Office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, and the Bureaus of Global Talent, Legislative Affairs, and the Office of the Legal Adviser—engaged internal and external experts, studied public and private sector communication models, drew on their extensive experience in Public Diplomacy, reviewed literature, and brainstormed and white-boarded for hours on end to develop the proposed structure for a merged bureau. Bureau leaders also consulted Congress early on in the process, holding extensive consultations with congressional staff. The proposal brought together communication of official Department policy with creative, data-driven content and storytelling around American values, and integrated the core capabilities needed for a successful communications operation: analytics and research; content creation and production; integrated media, platforms, and channels; and strategy, project, and resource management.
By design, the merger was resource neutral, with no budget or staff increases or reductions. The proposed structure realigned existing resources and increased funding for critical areas such as research, data and analytics, and digital media operations. It balanced these increases by removing duplicative infrastructures, such as merging video teams and combining website hosting and development.
Aida Sacks, who led the Bureau of Human Resources’ team throughout the process said, “We knew we had to get the clearance process right, and it took more than two months of daily—and often hourly—coordination and refinements to ensure Department leaders were satisfied we were building a bureau in the best way possible for long-term success.”
The proposal gained Department approval, and after notification to the relevant congressional committees and delays caused by the longest government shutdown in U.S. history, the Department completed the congressional consultation and notification process. Following notification of the employee unions with an opportunity to bargain, the important work of implementation of the new Bureau of Global Public Affairs could begin.
“We were doing something that had never been done before,” said Ragini Gupta, who co-led the 10-person “Transition Task Force” charged with implementing the merger and managing all merger-related activities, including internal communications, budget, employee experience and culture, space, and bureau workflow.
Giuda and Chulick formally launched the transition process for all affected employees at a town hall, where the secretary expressed his support and enthusiasm for the effort. At the same time, GPA launched 13 working groups to study and recommend processes to integrate the workforce, develop initial workflows, and operationalize the new bureau. More than 160 people volunteered for these working groups, representing more than half of all GPA employees.
The merger was completed in May 2019. Throughout the working group process and initial months of GPA, bureau leadership provided frequent written and in-person updates to keep the workforce abreast of the latest merger-related developments. Leadership maintained open office hours to engage employees individually to hear ideas and listen to concerns. Regular bureau “All Hands” meetings helped employees get to know their colleagues and learn about the various components of the merged bureau, and a new lunch and learn series featuring internal experts built the foundation for a bureau culture of growth and learning.
One of the biggest challenges was bringing together professionals from different legacy teams and molding them into a new, capable workforce.
“We are already seeing examples of the promise and opportunity we have with our new bureau, with many employees taking advantage of the new team’s mission in order to increase collaboration and gain new skills,” said Mark Betka, director of the GPA Office of Design and an original working group lead.
GPA leadership prioritized listening throughout the process. Through surveys assessing employee attitudes toward the transition and bureau culture, the broader Department community’s hopes and expectations for GPA, as well as an anonymous inbox where employees across the Department could provide input and submit questions for leadership consideration, the implementation team gathered solid data. The data enabled the leadership team to make informed decisions and monitor and address concerns in real-time from the start.
The efforts of the 13 working groups concluded in September 2019 and laid the groundwork for transitioning GPA toward regular business and achieving its mission of communicating on America’s behalf. Change is energizing but challenging too. Individuals respond to change differently, requiring the GPA frontline managers to work closely with their staff to help everyone navigate the transition successfully.
“This is still just the beginning. We have partnered with private-sector experts on change management and launched a Staff Advisory Forum to further refine [the] GPA culture, cross-bureau collaboration, and diversity efforts,” said Barbara Alston, the implementation team lead.
The coming months will see the new bureau work to institutionalize the change further, achieve greater integration, and fully realize the synergies of the merger, with priority placed on employee engagement every step of the way.
“We delivered on a once-in-a-generation opportunity to determine how the Department successfully communicates with the American people and the world,” said Giuda on the merger’s success. “We remain excited about the opportunities ahead.”
Virginia Blakeman is a senior advisor in the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs’ Office of Policy, Planning and Resources. Alexis Sullivan is currently a student at Foreign Service Institute preparing for her upcoming role as public affairs officer in Tashkent.
As part of the merger, several entities from PA and IIP not aligned with the core communications capability of GPA transitioned to the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs’ Office of Policy, Planning and Resources (R/PPR), the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), and the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) where they could better achieve their missions. American Spaces, the U.S. Speaker Program, and TechCamps joined ECA to bring together people-to-people functions; the IIP regional and functional policy liaisons, judicial liaison, networks team, and the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Secretariat moved to R/PPR along with the National Museum for American Diplomacy (previously the U.S. Diplomacy Center) from PA to consolidate strategic planning and capacity development; and the Office of the Historian joined FSI to integrate the Department’s research and historical resources.