Archive for the ‘Techology’ Category


Is Digital Diplomacy the Old Radio?

January 13, 2017

Yesterday I came across a piece with the headline: Digital diplomacy is the new radio

This is the first paragraph

Digital Diplomacy is the new radio. Ever since politicians figured out that they could speak directly to ‘the masses’, we have had the phenomenon of public diplomacy. It became possible, via radio, to speak directly to people without having to go through official government channels. In the early 20th century, the Nazis and the Bolsheviks effectively used the radio to stoke revolutions in neighbouring countries. A hundred years later, with the advent of social media, public diplomacy has taken a new leap, to 140-character policy frameworks, thanks to Twitter.

There’s nothing new about arguing that social media is really a form of broadcasting but what struck a chord was the reference to the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.  What you found in totalitarian 1940s and 1950s broadcasting was a personalized, contentious and condescending tone that explained why the other lot were rubbish.  I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the Russian Embassy London Twitter account – it doesn’t seem to do much to improve the image of Russia or improve relations with the UK but I suddenly recognized the tone.


Twenty Years of Digital Diplomacy Part 1

October 10, 2015

I was happily reading Brian Hocking and Jan Melissens’ report on Diplomacy in the Digital Age and largely agreeing with it when it struck me:  reports about diplomacy and tech stuff haven’t changed in 20 years.*   Why is ‘digital diplomacy’ permanently new? Why isn’t it old? Why are we still writing about it in the same way?

What I mean is that the core analytical structure hasn’t changed. You set up (implicitly or explicitly) an ideal type of ‘the digital age’ or something similar and this then serves as a standard for evaluating the diplomatic practices of a country or as comparison for another ideal type ‘diplomacy’. The ‘digital age’ is assumed to provide a singular standard that national practices or ‘diplomacy’ must conform to. This gives rise to a narrative of modernization where certain MFAs are assumed to be advanced and others retarded in the process of adaptation to a singular ‘digital’ future.

The problem with this mode of analysis is that ideal types are tools and shouldn’t be mistaken either for accounts of the real world or for theories – warnings that Max Weber offered in his original discussion of ideal types (Weber 1949: 101-2). In 1995 we didn’t have any real world experience with ‘digital’ and an informed guess was the best we could do. But now the field of practice is 20 years old as is the history of writing about it.

For example, the FCO got its first web pages in 1995, in June 2000 it produced an E-business strategy that covered issues such as the ability to deliver services on-line and knowledge management as well as external and internal communication. in the second half of the ’90s most of the foreign policy think tanks in Washington were running projects on ‘virtual diplomacy’ or similar, and by the turn of the decade we had both theoretical perspectives (Off the top of my head Nye and Owens 1996, Rothkopf 1998, Arquilla and Ronfeldt 1999a, 1999b) and some early discussions of the impact of the web on diplomatic practice (eg Potter 2002). We even substantial comparative pieces of research that address the adaptation of foreign ministries to ICTs that have been around for a few years (eg Batora 2008, Archetti 2012 and I’m sure that there’s more). What concerns me is that the discussions that we are having today don’t seem to reflect this 20 years of experience but instead reflect a constant year zero (or perhaps zero day would be more appropriate) in the area.

In part 2 I’ll offer some thoughts on why we are still writing that same report and how we ought to think about the question of digital diplomacy.

*Whatever happened to diplomacy 2.0, internet diplomacy, web diplomacy, virtual diplomacy, the revolution in diplomatic affairs etc?



Archetti C (2012) The Impact of New Media on Diplomatic Practice: An Evolutionary Model of Change, The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, 7: 181–206.

Arquilla J and Ronfeldt D (1999a) The Emergence of Noopolitik: Toward an American Information Strategy. Santa Monica, CA: Rand Corporation.

Arquilla J and Ronfeldt D (1999b) The Nature of a Revolution in Diplomatic Affairs, International Studies Association Convention, Washington DC.

Bátora J (2008) Foreign ministries and the information revolution: going virtual? Boston: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers.

Hocking B and Melissen J (2015) Diplomacy in the Digital Age. The Hague: Netherlands Institute of International Relations.

Nye JS and Owens WA (1996) America’s Information Edge, Foreign Affairs, 75: 20–36.

Potter EH, ed (2002) Cyber-Diplomacy: Managing Foreign Policy in the Twenty-First Century. Montréal, London: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Rothkopf DJ (1998) Cyberpolitik: The Changing Nature of Power in the Information Age, Journal of International Affairs, 51: 325–59.

Weber M (1949) The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Glencoe Il: Free Press.


UK Govts Head of Communications Doesn’t Like Press Releases or Strategic Communication

September 24, 2013

Since the beginning of this year Alex Aiken has been Executive Director for UK  Government Communications and has been pushing hard for change and savings – he certainly doesn’t seem to be short of opinions, there was some excitement on Twitter this morning when PR Week reported a speech he’d given last week announced the death of the press release

As far as he’s concerned too much PR is about SOS – sending out stuff  when it needs a much more OASIS – objectives, audience, strategy, implementation and scoring.

He notes that during the recent excitement over the culling of badgers in the UK the responsible department sent out one press release and 350 tweets.

His line seems to be that government spends too much money on old media and thinks in terms of ‘strategic communications’ which in his mind seems to imply old media based marketing campaigns.  His solution is that government communicators need to embrace a PR based campaign management approach.  Of course some people would argue that  OASIS is nothing but strategic communication 101 – I think his concern is to shake up the routines of government communications offices.

Another of his signature views is the importance of evaluation for government communicators and he argues that this is a skillset that everyone should have.  Can’t disagree with that but I can see a pathology here:  use social media because it gives us some nice easy to use metrics.  But…those easy to use metrics aren’t actually measuring policy outcomes.  But from the point of view of view of the professional communicator they are vital:

“If you’ve got ten people at a board meeting, ten of them will consider themselves communications experts,” he says. “As a head of communications, having the numbers helps to prove that you’re the expert.

There’s an interesting profile from his period in his previous job here.


Digital Diplomacy: Forget the Hype and Just Get on With It

September 10, 2013

I’ve been meaning to write about digital diplomacy for a while.  Two weeks ago Ben Scott (formerly one of Hilary Clinton’s crew at State) and I , were in Tallinn to talk  to Estonian ambassadors and this forced me to think about the issue.  I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a sceptic about the whole thing but perhaps less so than I realized.

The argument for digital diplomacy typically advances in two parts.  1. The world is being revolutionized by digital technology.  2. Diplomats should use social media.  What I’m sceptical about is actually 1 but I’m totally on board with 2.

The problem with the revolution argument is that it really depends on the loss of perspective that I commented on here.  The reason that diplomats should use social media is exactly the same reason why I don’t think that there’s a revolution:  diplomacy has always been a matter of networks.  Diplomats are expected to build networks in order to find out what’s going on and create influence.  Ben made the valuable point that one of the great contributions of social media, particularly Twitter is as a tool for listening, by identifying important voices in country it offers a rapid way to get a broader understanding of what’s going on from there they can think about intervening in debates.  As a mode of gathering information and insight  It’s exactly the same thing, as  that staple of diplomatic routine, reading the papers

There is a bit of a digital diplomacy backlash going on at the moment (examples here and here) but the problem is not with the practice but with the overblown claims derived from the radical technology literature which tend to abstract the impact of digital media from any social, cultural or political context.

The point is not that social media changes nothing but it is better seen as part of the evolution of diplomatic practice. In a way the potential of Twitter is that it allows a diplomat to more rapidly explore the networks of their host society than it would be possible to do using other methods.  Jules Jusserand was the French Ambassador in Washington from 1902 to 1925 if you don’t have 23 years to build your networks maybe twitter is a useful accelerant to the process.


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.



Management and the British Council

October 26, 2011

Public diplomacy sits between communications, politics and organization.  I think that the organizational dimension is essential in explaining why PD activities turn out the way that they do rather than following the dictates of strategy or the prescriptions of effective  communication.

With this in mind this morning’s offering is a pointer towards a couple of papers on the management and organization of the British Council.  I’ve written before about the emphasis on plans, management and strategies in British Government.  In a 1995 paper J.M. Lee discussed the impact of ‘the new public management’ on the BC. Lee’s point is that the Council’s move towards a more  ‘strategic’ language about it’s activities was driven not by an analysis of the changing international environment but by the changing culture of British government.  The result of this was a concern with value for money, efficiency and explicit management strategies.  The BC had to be able to present itself in a way that gave it credibility with its funders.  Although there a language of strategy it is organizational strategy not public diplomacy strategy.  The new managerial model  creates an incentive to ‘follow the money’ even if this pulls in a different direction to an externally oriented PD strategy.  I think that this tension between strategy as a tool of organizational management and as a way of influencing the external world is still not fully recognized in UK government.

The second paper by Venters and Wood looks at the BC’s efforts to deploy information technology to build a networked organization in which ‘communities of practice’ shared good practice across the globe.  To put it more simply how could it get it’s country directors to talk to each other? The basic answer is that they couldn’t.  In the pre internet era the country director had a link back to the central British Council but didn’t talk to other countries.  The new more businesslike  BC sought to shrink the centre of the organization, empower the country offices and encourage horizontal linkages.  Venter and Wood find that as centre shrank it became less useful to the Country Directors who used their improved access to IT to a)google for the information that they needed instead of asking the centre and b) develop  ‘communities of expertise’ with people outside the organization.

In thinking about effective PD one issue to keep in mind are the incentives that actually operate for organizations and the people within them.

Lee, J.M. (1995) ‘The Reorganization of the British Council: Management Improvisation and Policy Uncertainty’, Public Administration, 73: 339-55.

Venters, W., and B. Wood (2007) ‘Degenerative Structures that Inhibit the Emergence of Communities of Practive: A Case Study of Knowledge Management in the British Council’, Information Systems Journal, 17: 349-68.


Internet Freedom is Not About Regime Change

July 19, 2011

Via the USC twitter feed this link to a video interview with Alec J. Ross of the  State Department which contains this exchange

RFE/RL: Iran accuses the U.S. of providing soft help to activists to bring down the Iranian regime. Is regime change in repressive countries such as Iran, which are considered hostile to the U.S., one of the unstated goals of the U.S.’s Internet-freedom push?

Ross: Absolutely not. Internet freedom is about helping people exercise their universal rights: the freedom of expression, the freedom of assembly, the freedom of the press. It is not a regime-change agenda.

If you look at the video he seems to having difficulty restraining himself from bursting out laughing.  Also you can’t see his hands so I bet his fingers are crossed.

Of course there is a slight possibility he really believes what he says.  That would be really worrying.


21st Century Statecraft and Information Imperialism

June 24, 2011

I teach international communications and one concept that tends to loom large in the minds of students is cultural imperialism.  From a teacher’s point of view this is both an opportunity and a challenge.  It’s an opportunity because it gives a big body of literature that students are interested in that demonstrates the problems caused by imprecise concept formation and questionable evidence.  It’s a challenge for the same reason; cultural imperialism and its variants mean different things to different people  as well as being a term of political abuse.   If you can get through the topic so that students grasp the debates they will have learned quite a lot about the importance of precision and clarity in academic writing.

It’s always struck me that much of the writing about cultural imperialism is profoundly state centric. It is about the defence of the nation-state against foreign influences.  The problem is that it ignores the fact that the national project is usually one big exercise in imposing a particular culture on everyone within a territory.

This is a long introduction to this link.  At Meta-Activism Mary Joyce has a very interesting post discussing criticisms of US net freedom and democracy support programmes as from a cultural imperialism perspective.  This isn’t a viewpoint that has been widely taken and it provides a valuable perspective.

I think that this reminds us of two very important points.  Firstly, from the perspective of the twitterverse US information policies are unquestionably benign other people may not see things in the same way.  Secondly, sovereignty is an important part of the contemporary international system and the rise of the BRICS is only going to reinforce Westphalian norms.  This means that political and ethical questions raised by information intervention and public diplomacy are going to intensify not disappear.  The politics of these issues are more complex than they might appear from the Googleplex.


Public Diplomacy and the Evolution of the UK Government on the Web

June 10, 2011

The British government is currently experimenting with a single government website Part of the team developing is Jimmy Leach head of digital diplomacy at the FCO and yesterday he posted some ideas about how should work for users outside the UK. It’s worth looking at this because its quite a different idea of what the official web presence is about. In the PD community we think about ICTS as means of communication and engagement while in e-government the concern is with service delivery.

The new website is intended to organize all government services in a single space so the user can find them easily. Rather finding things on you would go to It is also organized around the top 100 things that people search for on government web sites which covers 90% of what people look for – so you can easily find out how to pay your car tax or dispose of a dead animal. In the original concept there’s an explicit emphasis on making government web presence work more like that of a commercial service provider including syndicating content and using APIs ‘to go where the users are’. The bulk of UK government activity is actually service delivery but does this work externally? Organizations that do the bulk of their business in their domestic market tend to try to apply the same model to foreign markets and fail to recognize the differences that exist. To put it more bluntly is there a danger of imposing a model derived from the UK domestic situation where it doesn’t fit?

The idea is that an user outside the UK would be automatically be located by their IP address and presented with a page optimized for their country. This page would be semi-automatically generated using tagged content from across government in accordance with the editorial priorities based on objectives for that country. The post suggests that editorial control should be exercised by the Department with the major responsibility for that country possibly UKTI or DFID rather than the FCO (I wonder what @williamjhague thinks about that?)

The FCO has been quite successful in meeting its service delivery targets (eg consular activities) but much less so in meeting its foreign policy goals. The Alpha.Gov model will probably improve external service delivery which will improve perceptions of the UK. The issue would be whether this reworking of the digital presence impacts on core policy activities and  associated engagement activities.

The issue I see in Jimmy’s post is the question of editorial control in the context of the overall management of 1) the overall communications activit aimed at the country  and 2) the relationship with that country.  The fact that is a cross government resource seems to create plenty of opportunity for different departments to deliver cross cutting messages. may enable cross government content management but I can see plenty of opportunity to work at cross purposes. Because the technology enables coordination this doesn’t mean that it will happen.

At a more academic level the evolution marks another aspect of the long running process by which MFAs are having to compete with other departments.

Most of the readers of this blog are outside the UK? Any thoughts?


21st Century Statecraft at Work

May 30, 2011

The Zimbabwe government is reported to be mounting a crackdown on social media

The acting foreign minister is quoted as saying

The Internet and things like Twitter and Facebook are being used to destroy…We from the older generation do not know anything about these things. They are used for regime change and to make our youths revolt against their leaders

Sounds like he’s been reading up on 21st century statecraft.