Posts Tagged ‘Foreign Office’


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.



The Foreign Office and Strategic Communications

September 18, 2010
    Earlier this week Ingrid d’Hooghe asked me about the relationship between public diplomacy and strategic communications at the Foreign Office.  This caused me to scratch my head a bit and then start rummaging through the pile of FCO documents on my desk.I think that the first point is that there is a lot of ‘strategic communications’ in British government.  This goes back to the 2004 Phillis Report on Government Communications.  At the time this report was seen as something of a critique of the role of government communications under Tony Blair, particularly in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.  While the report is critical of the emphasis on media relations (spin) under Blair and Alastair Campbell it actually affirms the central role of communications in the process of democratic  government.  The report advocates the professionalization of communications and emphasizes the importance of communications activity other than media relations.  The consequence is that almost every UK government agency has departments and jobs with ‘strategic communications’ in the title.  Strategic communications posts can involve communicating with the public or they can be part of the intra-organization communication function.  Of course ‘strategic communications’ on your business card looks a lot cooler than ‘communications’. 

    If we go to the Foreign Office website the Communications Directorate is listed as part of the ‘Central Group’ of functions including IT, Strategy and Planning and the legal advisors.  The organization structure on the website  lists the functions of the Communications Directorate  as

    Press office

    Speech writers

    Internal communications

    Digital diplomacy

    Strategic communication

    UK stakeholder engagement

    However, it we look at some of the correspondence between the FCO and the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee it’s apparent that the organization of the Communications Directorate is slightly different (also on this version of the FCO Organogram Dec 2009)
    Press Office

    Digital Diplomacy

    Strategic Campaigns Unit (my emphasis)

    Public Diplomacy Unit

    Corporate Communications – includes UK stakeholder engagement

    Digital diplomacy manages the web presence of the FCO.  The Public Diplomacy Unit focuses on the PD ‘partners’; the British Council, the BBC World Service and the Wilton Park conference centre.  The campaigns unit organizes and coordinates campaigns on priority issues (these are identified within the FCO Strategic Framework  – more on the question of planning and targets in a later post).  Within the unit there are strategic communications teams.  This advert for a strategic communications consultant from 2009 is quite helpful in laying out the relationship between policy, campaigns and strategic communications.

    I think that the point is that the campaigns are intended to involve all the instruments available to the FCO, including conventional diplomatic activity so that strategic communications are a part of the campaign.

    The coordinating structures consist of daily meetings between the Units within the Communications Directorate,  meetings with the ‘partners’ every six weeks and twice yearly meetings of the Strategic Communication and Public Diplomacy Forum chaired by the Foreign Secretary.

    I think that the take away from this is that in FCO terms ‘strategic communications’ should be seen as a tool that exists within the context of a broader concept of diplomacy and public diplomacy.  The contrast is with the way that in the US ‘strategic communication’ seems to be being used as the overarching concept (for instance in the White House 1055 Report).  Public Diplomacy becomes the State Department’s contribution to strategic communication.  Given the tendency to treat communication as an add on I’m not sure that the this is the best way forward.

    I’m going to stop there for the moment. Thanks to Ingrid for asking the question.


Public Diplomacy: The Foreign Office Definition

September 10, 2010

At the moment I’m doing quite a lot of work on the development of UK concepts of diplomacy and public diplomacy over the last few years and as a result spending quite a lot of time on the FCO and British Council web sites.  In doing this I noticed that Public Diplomacy is now right there on the front page of the FCO web site under ‘what we do’.

So how do they define PD?

Public Diplomacy is a process of achieving the UK’s international strategic priorities through engaging and forming partnerships with like-minded organisations and individuals in the public arena.

It seems to me that this fits with the ideas of diplomacy/public diplomacy fusion or hybrid diplomacy that grow quite naturally out of FCO thinking under the Labour government.

In the next few days I’m going to write more about the evolution of British diplomatic thinking over the past decade or so and in particular about the changing emphasis under the coalition government.