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Taking it Online: How Pivoting can Transform U.S. Foreign Policymaking

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

July 8, 2021 ~

And now for the How. I think we recognize that How to pivot U.S. foreign policymaking to reflect the new normal will not be simple or easy. I wrote a year ago that “The pivoting of U.S. foreign policymaking must include, at a minimum, a foreign policy community that represents the authentic diversity of America, inclusive and rich in perspectives, backgrounds and approaches, throughout the ranks. She can benefit not only from experts in foreign languages, political science and history, but also from public health, engineer and IT specialists.”

To recap, the Who that U.S. foreign policymaking should seek to engage is everyone. Realistically, the USG can’t possibly hear from everyone and more than likely won’t hear from many, but there are tens of thousands of trade and professional associations for just about every trade, industry and craft that represent a very broad cross-section of professions and perspectives. For the what, priorities should be determined where the evidence is strongest and most compelling and not determined by policies and priorities set by impulse or personality. If information is power, U.S. foreign policymaking needs to pivot to act on these types of issues. Where depends on Who you speak with and What you’re speaking about. There is divergence among today’s thought leaders as to what extent the government’s view on where to engage, where to intervene and where to join or withdraw in the case of international organizations and alliances, aligns with the views of the public or middle class Americans. When to pivot needs to be backed by evidence, by data and by knowledge of the history and cultural context. And why pivoting is needed is because the challenges we face change and evolve, because American ingenuity insists upon it and because practicing democracy requires constant work, not only for America, but the world. The threats and dangers as assessed are serious and far-reaching as well as cautionary.

When the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) released updated guidance on Learning Agendas and Annual Evaluation Plans for implementing the Evidence Act on June 30, I was very much encouraged where it was noted that “The value of the Learning Agenda will only be realized if agencies have the flexibility to pivot and adjust the document as needed when new evidence is generated or as priorities change.” How this translates to the heads of executive departments and agencies will be of continued interest to public policy practitioners and thought leaders alike, but should also be of interest to all concerned Americans who contribute their hard-earned tax payer dollars to pay for these policies and programs.

As noted earlier in my January 2021 blog “Reflecting on Evidence to Inform the Present in Foreign Policymaking,” the foreign policymaking community has not been a leader in this area and not much of a stretch to state that the State Department likely will not serve as a trailblazing agency in the near future in this regard. However, having a supporting role may be prudent for the State Department and foreign policymaking community as it reimagines and rebuilds its internal and capabilities and capacities. It may be best to work closely with Office of Personnel Management (OPM) who is, as of June 24, led by Kiran Ahuja as its first South Asian and Asian American director, on updating requirements to meet the needs and skills to conduct modern diplomacy among the foreign and civil services and to address coherency across these services.

In my view, the single most helpful piece of information to the foreign policy community in the OMB guidance may be Figure A.1: Components of Evidence. It should be noted that these four interdependent components are carried over from the 2019 guidance and shown below. I do not interpret this figure to mean that 1) these components are to be weighted equally or 2) all these components are to be present before evidence can be considered complete and decisions made.

To address how pivoting can transform foreign policymaking, it will be critical to revisit these four components and define/translate for the State Department and beyond to the foreign policymaking community context as will be required for each department and agency for which OMB guidance is directed. In my own research of the literature, it is clear that many types or forms of acceptable evidence are used to inform or influence policy and decision-making. The types of evidence that are acceptable should reflect the context and be mindful of the under-represented or unrepresented communities being impacted. This is where the really interesting work lies and the enormous potential to shape how pivoting can transform U.S. foreign policymaking, and to build evidence and prioritize learning from the recently released 2021 USG Report to Congress on Women, Peace and Security.

Ultimately, the how to pivoting is about continuous improvement. And on its 232nd anniversary on July 27, the State Department as an institution can demonstrate its relevance by pivoting on the who, what, where, when, why and how, and thus, truly transform U.S. foreign policymaking. For those of us not directly involved in policymaking, we too can contribute to this process indirectly by responding to the Federal Register Request for Information to Improve Federal Scientific Integrity Policies by July 28.

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