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Milestones are important. They were originally to reassure travelers that they were on the right path, how far they had gone, and how far they had to go. Living in London, I find it surprising how many milestones, many of which are hundreds of years old, are hiding in plain sight. They do not, however, tell us how we are doing.
Four and a half years ago, I wrote about the tenures of the Under Secretaries of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs. The post -- entitled 'R we there yet?' -- was a follow up to a report my team wrote a month earlier when I was the Executive Director of the Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. That report of December 2011, supplemented by my personal blog post of January 2012, was the first time the gaps between confirmed Under Secretaries and the shortness of their time in office had been examined and published.
For context, I compared the tenures, and importantly the gaps in tenure, of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs (or 'R' for short to use State's internal designation for the office), the Under Secretary for Political Affairs ('P'), and the Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs (renamed 1 January 2012 to 'Civil Security, Democracy, and Human Rights').
[I will refer below to the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs simply as the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy. This is both for convenience and to reflect the 17-year reality, though at times less true than at others, that the Under Secretary has little direct authority over the Office of Public Affairs, which is ostensibly subordinated to the Under Secretary but in practice is not. But that is a separate topic.]
As of January 2012, the office of the Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy was 'unencumbered' 30% of the time (as in, a confirmed, not acting, Under Secretary was in place). By the time Rick Stengel was sworn in as the third Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy of the Obama Administration (the Bush Administration had four Under Secretaries), the vacancy rate was 33%.
In other words, since Evelyn Lieberman was sworn in 1 October 1999, the office had been vacant one out of every three days. As I described in 'R we there yet?', this can, and has, lead to challenges of relevance, integration, and support of a key information capability of the State Department and a natural interagency hub. It also limits the support for the public diplomacy officers at State -- the 'cone' -- and of the practice across the government, including the Congress.
The average time in the job of an Under Secretary had been 504 days, or less than 17 months. Today, that average has been skewed upward to 550 days, or over 18 months, by time in office of the current Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy.
This brings us to the milestone that was reached yesterday. Rick Stengel is now the longest serving Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy at 870 days (as of 1 July 2016), surpassing the previous record holder, Karen Hughes, who served 868 days. Rick's tenure also skews the vacancy rate down to 28%.
So, Rick, congratulations on becoming #1!