What Ever Happened to UK Public Diplomacy Strategy?

July 12, 2013

I’ve been reading the transcript of the first evidence session of the House of Lords inquiry on Soft Power and the UK’s Influence and this is shaping up to be the most comprehensive investigation of the area since the House of Commons Committee did their report on public diplomacy in 2006.

The first set of witnesses come from civilian government departments: FCO, Business, Innovations and Skills, Department for International Development, and Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

I’ll come back to some more conceptual issues about soft power in a later post but to start with but this session does clear up a couple of issues about things going missing in UK Public Diplomacy….

The Committee are unsurprisingly asking these departments about coordination and in particular the Public Diplomacy Board only to discover that

Hugh Elliott (Director of Communication and Engagement, FCO): In the interests of completeness, I will clarify for Baroness Goudie that the Public Diplomacy Board has since lapsed.

The reason?

Hugh Elliott: …The board served a valuable initial purpose in bringing together and giving direction to cross-Government soft power activities, especially around areas of best practice, but the decision that Ministers took over time was that the most important thing moving into the run-up to the Olympics was to focus on what was going to be a unique event and to focus what are always limited resources on making the very most out of that specific event.

Because of the Olympics we couldn’t manage to meet up…

A little later Lord Janvrin asks:

You said that there is no overall strategy but you have strategies in particular areas. I think I am right in saying that a business plan produced by the FCO some years ago talked in terms of producing an overall strategy. Is that now not the case and you are not going to try to draw the threads of soft power together in an overall strategy? If not, why not? The other element that I would like to come on to, but I do not know whether now is the time, is learning from other countries. But can I ask the overall strategy one, which is specifically for the FCO?

Hugh Elliott: The question about the intention to publish a soft power strategy goes back to my answer to the previous question. A great deal of work went on at official level in 2011 across government departments—this was not just the Foreign Office, although the Foreign Office was leading the work; and it was not just across departments, it was with outside organisations, our arm’s-length bodies, academics, NGOs, business and the voluntary sector—looking at exactly this broad issue of soft power. Ministers having looked at this, the decision was that with the Olympics looming extraordinarily large we should indeed focus very much on the Olympics and getting the most out of the Olympics as the unique opportunity for soft power projection that the United Kingdom had at that point in time. As for the future, I cannot really speculate.

I was wondering what had happened to the famous national soft power strategy and now we know. Haven’t managed to do that either.

A bit later our man from the FCO manages to pull things back a bit

it is important to note that in terms of strategy around soft power, Ministers decided that rather than taking a completely global approach, the National Security Council would focus on key emerging powers and within that develop a specific strand around soft power.

In the rest of the session there’s an effort to push back a bit and emphasize the role of the NSC but you get the impression that coordination and strategy will have a prominent role in the Committee’s report.

One other quick point.  The representative from the DCMS was the Head of Cultural Diplomacy.   Historically the UK rarely talks about cultural diplomacy, cultural relations is preferred term, and normally people in the cultural sector want to distance themselves from ‘diplomacy’.  Anybody know when and why DCMS started using this terminology?


One comment

  1. […] comments, see Robin Brown, “What Even (sic) Happened to UK Public Diplomacy Strategy?” July 12, 2013, and “More From the House of Lords on UK Soft Power,” September 5, 2013, Public […]

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