The Foreign Service Journal, March 2021

THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL | MARCH 2021 73 WHERE WE STAND | BY JULIE NUTTER, PROFESSIONAL POLICY ISSUES DIRECTOR Data-Driven Decisions in Foreign Policy I began writing this column on Jan. 7, the day after a violent mob stormed the U.S. Capitol Building to try to stop Con- gress from formally certify- ing the election of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. I am finishing it on Inau- guration Day. In a few days, President Biden is expected to sign an executive order call- ing for more evidence-based decision-making in the federal government. The Jan/Feb Foreign Service Journal covered four reports issued for the new administration that offer recommendations on how to reform our foreign policy processes and institutions. In this column, I add one more report to those four— one that received much less attention but that I believe could have a profound impact on the Foreign Service’s effectiveness, if even a small percentage of its recommen- dations are followed. In the Sept. 8, 2020, report issued by the think-tank FP21, “Less Art, More Science: Transforming U.S. Foreign Policy through Evidence, Integrity, and Innovation,” the authors argue for more systematic data collection, vastly improved knowledge management, more rigorous and evidence-based policy analysis, the routine use of lessons learned, and reformed personnel practices. Adopting these points would boost the effectiveness of both our foreign policy and our foreign policy practitio- ners. The use of data analytics in Foreign Service agencies is uneven. In USAID and at the Department of Agricul- ture and its Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Foreign Service members more comfortably incorporate data into policy decisions. Broadcast media and public diplomacy practitioners use survey results and polls to inform their work, and eco- nomic officers deal with data on a regular basis. In a world that now runs on data and its uses, a more widespread understanding of, and responsible use of, solid and relevant data can only improve diplomatic effective- ness. Progress, particularly at State, is slow. The search- able cable database is useful but clunky; late creation, in 2011, of the Office of the Chief Economist (USAID has had one for decades) was a step in the right direction. It should be revived and reoriented for use by the rank and file; the Center for Analytics at State could be potentially useful. The Bunche library and the Office of the Historian are underutilized resources. It’s still probably easier to look up Foreign Affairs Manual regula- tions on howmuch space is allotted for an ambassador’s office than it is to quickly have relevant foreign policy case studies at hand. Data Collection. The FP21 report calls on State and other agencies to develop classified and unclassified one-stop, easily searchable repositories for policy memos, research reports, data sets, academic articles, intel and historical analyses, diplomatic cables and record emails, diplomatic notes, after-action reports, treaties, MOUs and interna- tional agreements. Each office or bureau should have a dedicated librarian to debrief outgoing employees, maintain files and capture lessons from current initiatives—a set of duties that could bring office managers closer to the policy process if they wished to take on that responsibility. The report calls for cre- ation of an Office of Social Research in State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and a change to the mandate of the Office of the Historian to include policy. More Rigorous Policy Analysis. The report recom- mends that foreign affairs officials have at least a basic knowledge of data analysis as a fundamental skill. For examining complex foreign policy issues, the report calls for agencies to create cross- regional and cross-agency teams to conduct analysis. Incorporating Evidence into Policy Decisions. The authors endorse a revision of memo templates to reflect the incorporation of relevant, mul- tisourced evidence in policy recommendations and the addition of success metrics. They also suggest a routine use of “red teams” to test foreign policy initiatives and responses. The Office of Policy Planning should remain focused on longer-term think- ing and the Foreign Affairs Policy Board should be revived and feature a firmly bipartisan cast. Learning and Account- ability. The report’s authors highlight the importance of making policy decisions with a keen awareness of the importance of monitoring and evaluation of policy. They look to the Defense Department’s routine use of lessons learned, as well as intelligence com- munity practices, to argue for the use of learning in future planning. Valuing Diversity. The report urges officials to examine recruiting, hiring, performance evaluation and assignments processes to help ensure they are bias-free. Suggestions include redefin- ing merit, evaluating employ- ees in a more concise and quantitative way, using skills matching in assignments and using 360-degree reviews in some form to add sources of information on performance. The use of evidence-based decision-making in govern- ment now has tailwinds. Let’s take advantage of the oppor- tunity to bring relevant, appro- priate data fully into Foreign Service decision-making. n