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‘Atmosphere of secrecy’ pervades State Dept. office, audit finds

- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 20, 2013

A key State Department bureau that manages the official face presented by the U.S. to the rest of the world is rife with management problems that have left "an atmosphere of secrecy, suspicion and uncertainty," according to a department watchdog review released Thursday.

A 2011 reorganization of the Bureau of International Information Programs, which oversees several of the State Department's official Facebook pages, didn't solve the problem and actually "caused new organizational difficulties," the State Department's Office of Inspector General (OIG) said in a report based on a recent inspection of the bureau.

The bureau's coordinator, Dawn L. McCall, "resigned" effective April 12, though it was not immediately clear whether the OIG report was the reason. Another top official from the bureau was recently promoted, despite the scathing review.

The report concludes that "morale is low" at the bureau, which plays a little known, but vital role in overseeing what the State Department officials describe as the infrastructure needed for sustained conversations with foreign audiences abroad.

An official description posted on the State Department's website says the bureau "supports supports both physical and virtual places, including approximately 820 American Spaces around the world, as well as a growing social media community that numbers over 22 million followers."

The State Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the OIG's findings Thursday.

One official, Maureen Cormack, who previously served as the Bureau of International Information Programs' principle deputy coordinator, was promoted on April 15 to the position of "acting coordinator for international programs," according to the State Department's website.

While Mrs. Cormack and Mrs. McCall are named only at the end of the OIG report, a section titled "Executive Direction" near the middle of the report appears to make unflattering reference to both women.

In an apparent reference to Mrs. McCall, the report outlines how "shortly after her arrival, the coordinator initiated a business review, led primarily by outside consultants with whom she had worked previously, which resulted in a full-scale reorganization."

"Staff involvement was limited," the report states, adding that the "coordinator's top-down approach to change management and daily leadership damaged morale and created a gulf between her and staff."

Then, in an apparent reference to the activities of Mrs. Cormack — prior to her being promoted in April — the report states that a "new principle deputy coordinator, who arrived after the business review and reorganization, engaged in outreach that failed to resolve this fundamental disconnect."

The report says the bureau did make "a significant contribution to the Department of State's digital diplomacy outreach effort" during recent years. The report also says the bureau "increased the reach" of department publications overseas, and "expanded the use of video in public diplomacy (PD) work."

But it slams the bureau's leadership, saying broadly that leaders "failed to convey [the bureau's] strategic vision to staff members" and that "there has been limited outreach by top leadership to counterparts in the [State] Department or at sister foreign affairs agencies."

A connection to Clinton?

The OIG report arrives during a stretch of weeks in which Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill have increasingly scrutinized the record of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is considering running for president in 2016.

In a separate development last week, scandalous headlines filled the news when an unrelated internal OIG memo became public. The memo outlined a variety cases in which high-ranking department officials under Mrs. Clinton had been accused of quashing internal investigations into accusations of sexual assault, drug dealing, solicitation of prostitutes and minors, and other improper activity by American diplomatic personnel overseas.

The memo, is believed to have been based on anonymous complaints from rank-and-file agents in the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security that arose during a 2012 OIG review of the bureau, prompted a harsh reaction at Foggy Bottom, where officials described the complaints as "unsubstantiated."

A spokesman for the inspector general's office has called the memo a "preliminary" document that triggered investigations into suspected criminal activity and claims that earlier probes were blocked by State Department higher-ups. Outside law enforcement specialists have been called in to conduct the investigations.

The OIG report released Thursday, meanwhile, asserts that a "pervasive perception of cronyism exists" in the Bureau of International Information Programs.

The report asserts that the bureau "uses many contractors (43 percent of employees) but does not manage its contracts well" and that "this deficiency constitutes a potential vulnerability for the department."

Buying Facebook fans

The OIG report outlines how the bureau spent roughly $630,000 on two campaigns aimed at increasing the number of "fans" on English-language Facebook pages tied to the State Department.

The campaigns succeeded in growing the number of fans to more than 2 million for each page, according to the report, which notes that advertising also helped increase interest in the foreign language Facebook pages tied to the department — with some of the pages garnering as many as 450,000 fans as of March 2013.

Implementation of the advertising campaign have drawn criticism, however, from within the Bureau of International Information Programs.

"Many in the bureau criticize the advertising campaigns as 'buying fans' who may have once clicked on an ad or 'liked' a photo but have no real interest in the topic and have never engaged further," the OIG report says. "Defenders of advertising point to the difficulty of finding a page on Facebook with a general search and the need to use ads to increase visibility."

The report notes that the bureau's leadership subsequently "shifted the focus away from increasing total fan numbers and toward engagement, as measured by 'likes,' shares, and comments," but asserts that "engagement is a means, not an end."

"The bureau could reduce spending and increase strategic impact by focusing its advertising not on raising overall fan numbers or general engagement statistics but on accomplishing specific PD goals," the OIG report states.

The report also calls on the bureau to "adopt a social media strategy that clarifies the primary goals and public diplomacy priorities of its social media sites."

Among a host of other recommendations, the report calls on the bureau to "implement a comprehensive plan for outreach to the rest of the Department of State and key foreign affairs agencies."

The OIG also calls for a more intensive audit to examine all of the bureau's "front office staff travel for the calendar years of 2011 and 2012," and for a reorganization in how the bureau oversees contracts with private vendors.

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