REVIEW: Article

The Power of Rapid-Response Public Diplomacy: The IVLP On Demand

The U.S. Department of State’s International Visitor Leadership Program, or IVLP, is often referred to as the “gold standard” of exchange programs within the public diplomacy community. The program celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2015, and more than 200,000 International Visitors have engaged with Americans through the IVLP, including more than 505 current or former Chiefs of State or Heads of Government,[1] since its inception in 1940. Margaret Thatcher, Hamid Karzai, and Indira Gandhi, to name just a few, are alumni. But with recent budget constraints and the need to demonstrate immediate, results-driven programming, the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) is placing greater emphasis on its most flexible rapid-response exchanges. Among those programs is the highly adaptable and policy-responsive option: the IVLP On Demand. So how does it differ from the original model, how does it compare, and how might it help show results more quickly?

Each year, nearly 5,000 exchange participants come to the United States on the IVLP,[2] a foreign policy tool that helps strengthen U.S. engagement with countries around the world and cultivates lasting relationships. The program connects current and emerging foreign policy leaders with their American counterparts through short-term visits to the United States. Ambassadors often chair the rigorous, annual selection committees that embassies overseas use to nominate key contacts viewed as leaders in their respective fields to participate in the program. Each embassy fills its “IVLP slate” with nominees whose participation in the program helps to advance the mission’s key bilateral or multilateral goals.

The majority of IVLP exchanges include visits to four U.S. communities over three weeks, although projects vary based on themes, embassy requests and other factors.  From D.C. to St. Louis, from Kalamazoo to Seattle, and everywhere in between, participants meet with professional counterparts, visit U.S. public- and private-sector organizations related to the project theme and participate in cultural and social activities. (Baseball games are usually a big hit!) The program benefits the U.S. economy as well—a large portion of the funding goes back to the states in the form of visitors’ hotels, restaurants, transporta­tion and tourism.

The success of the program is in its diversity—regional, political, religious and thematic. As the Exchanges Coordinator for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, I had the opportunity to meet and brief nearly 2,000 International Visitors from 2014-2016.  Government officials, teachers, judges, law enforcement officers, human rights activists and other leaders from all over Asia participated in programs exploring topics ranging from judicial reform to cyber-security, from disability rights to maritime security, from food safety to trade regulation. For most participants, the program is transformational. I saw it firsthand in their excitement and gratitude in being selected. I witnessed it in the questions they asked and the discussions that ensued. I read it in the emails I received months later from participants who said the program changed their lives and inspired them to start a project, set up a conference or draft legislation.

The IVLP is not short of supporters. Ambassadors love it. There is generally bi­partisan support in Congress for it. But how do we measure its success? The age-old public diplomacy challenge is how to evaluate the impact. It’s wonderful to say that someone we sent on the program became a head of state and now has a better understand­ing of America, but there are no proven metrics to demonstrate this in the short term; there are only anecdotal ones. What’s more, because the program is run on an annual basis and is based on a mission-wide nomination process, often when International Visitors return from their program, nominating officers may have already departed the embassy, leaving successors to cultivate the relationship.

Recognizing the need for tools that address these challenges, combined with budget cuts and an emphasis in the Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review on rapid- response capabilities, ECA, which is Congressionally mandated to manage the IVLP, decided to shift towards more “on demand” programming—programs and exchanges that could be turned around quickly to address newly emerging policies, geopolitical opportuni­ties and pressing foreign policy needs.

“On Demand” started in ECA’s Citizen Exchanges Office. In fact, the Office of International Visitors’ Voluntary Visitors Division had for many years specialized in administering IVLPs that were “on demand” in nature. The original Voluntary Visitors Program, or VolVis, capitalized on embassy contacts who were already traveling to the United States for personal or professional reasons and were interested in adding some targeted consultations, meetings and cultural events to their itinerary that the VolVis office would then set up. The program worked well in practice, but it was a reactive mechanism and was often under-utilized or misunderstood.

As such, and in the context of ECA’s growing emphasis on the “on-demand” model of programming, in 2014 the decision was made to rebrand the legacy VolVis program and change the name to IVLP On Demand. The rebranding tied the program back to the IVLP and addressed the proactive, rapid-response capabilities that the reinvigorated program could provide. The 75th Anniversary of the IVLP provided the ideal opportunity to an­nounce the change and discuss its rationale.

The change was intended to immediately convey its strategic purpose within the State Department and beyond to support missions and bureaus as they seek to innovate and co-develop high-priority exchanges that may be implemented in the short term. It also presented the opportunity to build a consistent brand with others in the Office of Citizen Exchanges, which has developed and named “on demand” options.

The IVLP On Demand allows for the creation of specific projects in response to rapidly changing situations or new foreign policy priorities in the short term. Unlike the traditional IVLP, participants may be nominated at any time of year and are not tied to the annual IVLP selection committee process (think “rolling admissions”). There are no regional or country allocations in IVLP On Demand, and project acceptance depends on both strategic urgency and the availability of funding and staff. IVLP On Demand still supports the “VolVis” target-of-opportunity program; however, the new projects are short-term and highly customized, generally limited to a maximum of ten calendar nights and ten participants.

This programming gives U.S. missions an opportunity to target specific audiences who might otherwise never have the opportunity to participate in the IVLP, such as high-ranking officials who cannot spend long periods away from their jobs, as well as contacts whose importance is suddenly of strategic interest to U.S. foreign policy.

In June 2016, Embassy Lisbon sent a group of 11 individuals involved in Portugal’s refugee resettlement program on an IVLP On Demand project focused on refugee re­location and integration in the United States. The group included representatives from NGOs and the government. While the participants all worked on the same issue, this was the first time many of them had met one another. The exchange improved communica­tion among Portuguese representatives and formed a core group of contacts for the embassy on refugee matters that has paid dividends in the short term. Embassy Lisbon has since organized a workshop with the International Rescue Committee with an expanded group of refugee stakeholders, submitted for a Fulbright Specialist grant in partnership with the High Commission for Migration and received positive media coverage on its local engagement.[3]

Although mission Public Affairs Sections must nominate all participants, projects may be co-developed with any State Department bureau or office. In fact, since the name change, the On Demand office has seen an uptick in Washington-driven projects, with 10-15 percent of them originating from within the Department.

More specifically, the program is an opportunity to respond quickly to policy hot topics, such as supporting fledgling democracies or advancing the Secretary’s priorities. Washington desk officers can work with embassies to find creative solutions to rapidly changing situations that demand a U.S. response. One example is when historic elections in 2015 put in place the first democratically elected government in Burma (Myanmar) in over five decades. Recognizing that democracy doesn’t just happen in one day, in the lead-up to the elections, the Asia Bureau identified that many of the incoming gov­ernment officials had limited experience or training in governance. We acted quickly to meet this need. Working with the embassy, the policy desk, bureau leadership and ECA, we created an exchange to bring several of these officials to the United States for consultations. We achieved buy-in from the new democratically elected foreign government and made sure that the officials met with the right people in Washington so they would be armed with the best ideas to begin their tenures in their new administration. The exchange almost immedi­ately began producing results and cementing a positive U.S.-Burma relationship shortly after it concluded. In an effort to promote transparency and build on what he learned in a strategic communications briefing while on the exchange, one alumnus proactively started a monthly press briefing in his home district to explain to his constituents what the government was doing. He also continued to maintain a relationship with the embassy, helping to explain developments on the ground. The exchange helped to nurture a new democracy in a strategically important country.

IVLP On Demand also encourages public-private partnerships, which help contribute to defray the costs and bolster the program’s reputation. In 2015 and again in 2016, the State Department partnered with Bloomberg Philanthropies on the Our Cities, Our Climate exchange, a ten-day program that brought together urban sustainability directors from over 15 countries committed to taking measurable climate action. The sustainability directors attended collaborative sessions in U.S. cities that advance leadership on climate action. While in these cities, the sustainability directors heard about innovative climate solutions, shared best practices and challenges and networked with global climate leaders.[4] The initiative further strengthened ties between international and U.S. cities, allowed global cities to learn from cutting-edge U.S. climate-change efforts and encouraged the advancement of innovative climate solutions in partnership with national governments, many of which came to fruition in the Paris Climate Agreement.

A particularly attractive element of the IVLP On Demand is the price. On Demand does not cover the international travel expenses, which are instead cost-shared by the participants themselves, their employers or home governments.

So how many visitors have come through IVLP On Demand and how much does it cost? In Fiscal Year 2016, the program brought nearly 1,000 International Visitors at an average cost of under $4,000 per participant. The On Demand Office notes that its base budget has stayed the same, but the built-in cost share allows for more people to participate each year.[5] For example, the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs is the highest subscriber to the program, and its participant costs are the lowest, as visitors will often fund their own lodging and per diem.

Although some challenges arise—mainly with staff capacity and lack of predictability in how many projects the staff will have to manage—the benefits of the program speak for themselves. The program allows us to tailor programs to respond to changing situations and new policy priorities with strategic urgency. Flexible funding makes it cost-effective and easy to use. Since the name change, the program is better understood, more utilized and better defined, resulting in more programmatic success. High-level partner­ships such as the one with Bloomberg increase visibility, and sensitive projects can be implemented quickly and tactfully.

So what’s the conclusion? We need both programs. They complement each other.  While the IVLP On Demand’s rapid-response capabilities allow us to address urgent foreign policy needs, the traditional IVLP systematically and effectively develops a cadre of alumni whose contribution to our bilateral and multilateral relationships pays for itself on the pennies to the dollar we spend on the program. In an environment, however, where budgets face steep cuts and the pressure is on to demonstrate quick impact on the policy focus of the day, the IVLP On Demand really hits the mark.


[2] Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.

[3] U.S. Embassy Lisbon Office of Public Affairs.

[5] Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, Office of International Visitors.

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Public Diplomacy Desk Officer for Western Europe, Department of State
Kathryn W. Davis Public Diplomacy Fellow, 2015-2016