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The FCO’s Digital Strategy

February 8, 2013

Just before Christmas the FCO issued its digital strategy.   This isn’t a long document so a few comments about context, content and the broader implications for UK diplomacy.

The key contextual point is that it is a response to November’s  Government Digital Strategy.  This is chiefly concerned with the improvements in services to citizens and financial savings (£1.7-1.8 billion pa) that would ensue if transactions were delivered on-line and if people chose to use them. All government departments were required to produce their own strategies.   Hence the FCO strategy is not an outpouring of spontaneous digital excitement but a response to a government level initiative.  As the GDS points out the majority of central government transactions with the public are done by seven departments involving taxes, motor vehicles, pensions and similar, while the FCO does transactions through its consular work its diplomatic activity doesn’t fit so neatly into the framework.  As a result the FCO digital strategy is much more detailed when going through the  list of consular functions, the extent of digitization and the possibilities for expansion.

However, if you’re reading this blog I suspect you’re more interested in the policy and diplomatic bits of the report than certificates of no-impediment and why they have to be on paper.

In assessing where they are the report notes that the primary use of ‘digital’ has been as  a communications tool  but argues that they are extending it into new areas using it for

  •  ‘[F]ollowing and predicting developments’ as they did during the Libya crisis and the Arab Spring where they used sentiment analysis  to produce daily updates circulated around Whitehall (It’s not clear whether they actually used specialist tools for doing this or just read tweets)
  • Formulating policy – giving the example of consultations around a recent white paper on policy towards the UK overseas territories
  • Implementing policy – the example is of their UK for Iranians website (sounds like message delivery to me)
  • Influencing and indentifying who to influence, here they give a big shout out to the Ambassador in the Lebanon Tom Fletcher who seems to be the current FCO digital stakhanovite
  • Communicating and engaging on foreign policy – the foreign secretary answers questions on twitter.

By item four on this list I think that they are repeating themselves.

What do they want to achieve:  spread ‘digital’ across the organization and use it to deliver to deliver more open policy formulation and increase transparency.

In order to achieve this there will be a digital champion at FCO board level,  more training and access to digital kit  – for instance through adjusting security settings on the network to allow easier access to social media tools.

A few quick observations

The basic direction in FCO communications is to get social media more integrated into the everyday work of the organization hence the move away from the centralized communications directorate.

There is a move to get greater integration between ‘digital’ and news.  The hope is that the integration will produce a better news operation.   Historically, the news function has been at the core of UK public diplomacy so it’s important that the drive for digital helps this rather than undermines it.  The number of people who will potentially be reached by working through media organizations dwarfs the numbers of people who are ever likely to follow  British diplomats on Twitter and Facebook.

Having identified online influencers during the Arab Spring what did the FCO do?  In ‘some cases invited them to meet with us in person’ – seems sensible to me.   The key point is that diplomacy has always been about crafting relationships and maintaining networks.  New technology is creates new opportunities for doing this.  The key choice in diplomacy is to identify which relationships and networks are the ones to use in each case. The challenge is to make sure that ‘digital’ adds options without damaging the ability to make use of existing opportunities

Finally, the document never defines what ‘digital’ is. Is is it a tool?  Is it an ideology?  Is it both?

UPDATE: There’s an interesting post on the FCO’s Digital Diplomacy blog about about the role of regional digital hubs in supporting the work of the embassies.  Because of the location in different timezones there is a always 24 support available.

 

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