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Stephen HaleHead of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy, London
I was really interested to read John Duncan's contribution to the Reuters Great Debate: What Does Government 2.0 Mean To You?
John is a something of a pioneer in the Foreign Office, using the tools of digital engagement to help him do his job, so he speaks from personal experience about technology and diplomacy. And having "worked on mainframes in the 1970s" and having "once jammed an IBM mainframe in a perpetual loop" he's we'll placed to comment on changing technology, as well as its impact on government communication.
If net-based communication is changing the way we all access information and opinion, the impact on diplomacy and government affairs may well be equally profound.
And on why the social web creates particular opportunities for diplomats and public diplomacy:
The internet allows the creation of a new world-wide “us” of shared interests and values. Social media networks and the blogosphere provide new tools to speak directly to [a] wider community of actors [...] going beyond the confines of traditional state-to-state interface, to test and be challenged on our ideas in a dialogue and sometimes in a partnership with civil society.
He has an interesting take on the value of diplomats engaging with online communities to market ideas:
Opinion formers act as the multipliers. Having a well argued case is seldom enough by itself [...] Diplomats need the opinion formers as the people who give the “third-party endorsement” that reinforces our message; a classic marketing technique to respond to a trust deficit.
And on the niche communities of interest that make up his target audience:
They comprise a wide range of people from think tanks to journalists, students, to members of the public who care about the issues and are often willing to become involved with other decision makers. They offer direct access to the community that may provide third-party endorsement and at its best the creation of a constituency for change.
John is still a relatively rare example of a government official who actively participates in the social web in an official capacity. He is conscious of the perceived (and real) risks of public participation but is a powerful advocate for the opportunities:
For government officials, engagement with this new virtual community is a challenge. It is unfamiliar and fraught with the risk of making mistakes. But there are also opportunities to multiply the effect of what we are already trying to do [...] Officials and governments should, and many are, seizing the opportunity.
Read the full article on the Reuters Great Debate: What Does Government 2.0 Mean To You?
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It's been fascinating to watch the UK government Twitter guidance story play out in the press.
"Official publishes thorough guidance document" doesn't seem like a story that should attract popular attention. Nor does the subject - corporate Twitter channels - really represent new or novel opportunities for government digital engagement.
We published a Views on News blog about the evolution of the Foreign Office approach to Twitter so I won't repeat what we said there. If you're interested in how the Foreign Office is using Twitter now, you can follow us on one of our channels.
Corporate Twitter channels are fine, but I think it's more interesting to see how individuals (like John Duncan) are embracing the medium for their own benefit, using Twitter to engage in conversations with niche communities of interest.
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If our digital diplomacy project is to really succeed, we need to demonstrate that diplomats and policy officials can use the tools of digital engagement to help deliver foreign policy objectives.
We won't have succeeded if all we achieve is the clever integration of the latest social media tools into nice looking web content.
That's why I often cite John Duncan as our best example of digital diplomacy in action. John is the UK Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament, and he uses digital engagement tools to help him do his job. He blogs (and microblogs) about his work, and he is an active social media consumer.
John has been in London this week, to take part in an Arms Trade Treaty event. I took the opportunity to ask him about his experiences as a digital diplomat. Here's the video:
Stephen Hale: I am here in King Charles Street with John Duncan. He has agreed to talk to me about being a digital diplomat. John is an an ambassador. He does a serious job. But he writes a blog. He updates his Twitter followers using his iPhone, and I want to find out why.
Caption: What do you do?
John Duncan: I'm the UK Ambassador for Multilateral Arms Control and Disarmament, based in Geneva. But it's roving ambassador role so I work right across the world from Dublin to Wellington to New York. And so I've used digital diplomacy as an addition to what we do in a traditional sense and found it to be a real multiplier.
Caption: Does this replace traditional diplomacy?
JD: Well I think that there are things that we would do normally. I'll give you an example. In multilateral diplomacy there's a lot of coffee shop diplomacy, where people will go and ask: "what's the UK position?" and they want it quietly, not in the public speeches that may last 10 or 20 minutes, they want a quick snapshot. And what I've used the blog for is to actually have that conversation virtually. So people have become used to going to the blog to find out what is a snapshot of the UK view in the way that we might have a coffee shop conversation. So it's replacing something that we actually do, and I probably have less coffee shop conversations as a result, but I think that's quite productive.
Caption: Do diplomats read blogs?
JD: I think now people are much more familiar with this sort of technology. It's true that there are some traditionalists who would still prefer to have that coffee shop conversation. But I don't think it replaces the working lunch longer conversation. It's a very quick snapshot: what is the UK thinking on this particular issue?
Caption: Who reads your blog?
JD: Well it's always difficult to get a feel for that. It's interesting that it's being used as a public information tool by people rather than for comments. There are the cognoscenti who come in and ask very detailed and complex questions. But most of the readers I'm aware of are colleagues, both in the Foreign Office but also in multilateral communities. I'm aware that many delegations from Iran to Ireland are reading it regularly. And if I get something wrong they will pick it up and say "you didn't get that right" so they are using it as a public information tool.
Caption: Do you read other blogs?
JD: Well I certainly read the comments, although I said there aren't that many - its much more a push factor rather than a pull factor. And yes I do read other blogs and I've used Twitter as a way of finding through into people who are saying interesting things on the issues that I'm following professionally.
Caption: Is Twitter appropriate for diplomacy?
JD: Well it's a very new tool and I think it's finding it's own way. There are people who seem to spend their time explaining what they're doing like "I'm stuck in a lift". I'm not sure that's a particularly useful use of the medium. What I've used it for is as a marketing tool for the blog and it's been spectacularly effective in terms of going into the press. I've had press interviews as a direct result of that, I've had media comment which is quoting Twitter, worldwide. So as a media tool and a marketing tool for the blog, then yes I think it is effective.
Caption: How do you find the time?
JD: Well I think we all have moments of the day when we have down time. It can be when you're in the car or on the train. Or even when I'm in my meetings or listening to speeches - of course many of these are written and I can read a speech in 5 minutes and it probably takes 20 to speak. And then what am I doing? Well I can use that time. I can go on to my laptop or the iPhone and find out what other people are saying and also comment on the issues that interest us. So I'm using the down time more productively than I could do otherwise.
Caption: How can we help others do this?
JD: Well I think we have presumed competence as ambassadors, but I think that we do need to get some training on this. I'm quite prepared to take risks and explore this with the digital diplomacy team. But I'm very conscious that it's easy to make mistakes, particularly easy to make mistakes if one is using Twitter because it's much shorter and snappier. And you have to preserve that authority of an ambassador, you can't undermine it. So I think some training on mistakes and things to do and how to actually use this new medium in a productive way, I think that's the best thing the Foreign Office can do.
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We hosted a digital diplomacy event in King Charles Street today: an invited audience, a panel of digital diplomats including John Duncan, Mark Kent, Philip Barclay, Allex Ellis, David Warren and me, and Rory Cellan Jones chairing.
Others have already written about it elsewhere - and you can watch clips on our Bringing Foreign Policy Home rolling record - so I won't describe it here.
I really like the idea of running physical events for digital champions and bloggers. Bloggers often welcome the opportunity to move from the virtual to the physical. And of course, if you invite a load of bloggers to an event, you do so in the knowledge that they are likely to blog about it soon afterwards. So the event doesn't really feel over when people leave the room.
One of the lessons we've learned during the last 2 years, is that digital engagement has to happen in almost-real-time if it's going to have any impact. But it's a lesson I really didn't need to share today. If our guests were allowed to bring mobile devices into the Foreign Office building, I'm sure the event would have been covered in actual-real-time. As it was, Rory posted an audio blog as soon as he got his phone back, and tweets and blogs appeared soon after.
I hope the people there got something out of it. Personally it was just great for me to see so many of our global bloggers in the same place, sharing their contrasting experiences. But I'm also aware that we've by no means mastered digital diplomacy, and we need to listen to and learn from others. So it was good to hear what people outside the Foreign Office network make of what we're trying to do.
Some other reflections: