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Stephen Hale
Head of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy, London

The end of this blog

Posted 20 July 2010 by Stephen Hale  

I'll be leaving my role in the Foreign Office at the end of this week.

I'm sad to be leaving. This has been by far the most enjoyable and satisfying job of my career. It's a brilliant place to work. And I'm proud of the work we've done.

But I've been here for more than 3 years. I think that's probably long enough. I don't think the work is all done by any means, but I've completed a lot of what I've set out to do. And, as I don't have aspirations to become an ambassador, I really have to move on to get on. So for a few reasons, this feels like the right moment to go.

I'm not going far. I'll take up my new role as head of e-communications and publishing for the Department of Health in a couple of weeks.  I hope to be able to apply some of what I've learned here, there. From the outside it feels like an area ripe with new digital opportunities, so I'm really looking forward to joining the team.

So what can I say about my time here? 

I joined the Foreign Office (originally as the deputy head of e-media) back in February 2007. At that time the Foreign Office did online travel advice and retrospective news quite well. But we've come an awful long way since then. 

I take it for granted now that we provide 24/7 publishing, close-to-real-time multilingual content, business support for all our embassies, blogging diplomats, and tweeting ministers. I sometimes need to remind myself of all the incremental steps it took to get where we are now. And I forget that it's still unusual for a large (government) organisation like the FCO to trust it's staff to participate freely online in an official capacity as part of their work. 

I'm proud of the work we've done in the last 3 years to make digital engagement a routine part of what British diplomats do. Digital engagement is no longer a quirky add-on to the work - at it's best, it's fully integrated, and useful, with a real return on the effort it takes to do. Our blogs have been the the most visible manifestation of this. There are now 45 people in the Foreign Office demonstrating via our blogs that digital engagement has real value for them, and is a serious pursuit for officials, diplomats and ministers.

I've blogged here before about our campaigning approach to our digital workour social media presence, and our approach to training staff. But the thing I'm most proud of in the last couple of years has been the role I've played in recruiting staff to work in digital diplomacy group. I think we've made some good choices. We have some brilliantly talented, committed and energetic people working on digital in the Foreign Office now. So, however personally satisfying it might be for me to think that I was somehow indispensable to the team, it wouldn't be true at all.

There is plenty still to do of course.

Digital diplomacy is not yet so established that people don't sometimes question why we're doing it at all. We still need to make the case for digital, internally and externally, drawing on an increasingly large bank of evidence that this stuff is worth the effort. It's easy for us to make the case on softer issues, or when the feedback we're getting is mostly positive. But we'll need to stick to our guns when the pressure is on, when we're dealing with tough and complex foreign policy issues, and when we make mistakes.

We still need to find more ways to use the web to help diplomats to do their jobs. We tend to get credit for our most visible digital engagement, but there is huge potential value for us in using online tools and communities to help solve the daily problems that diplomats face, in a way that might be less visible to the casual onlooker. We might get less public acclaim, but we're not in it for that - this isn't show business.

I think we need to do more to work with others to get things done. This isn't unusual for the Foreign Office - most of our work is done in partnership with others, and we already work with online partners on particular policy issues. But we also have a lot to learn from other people who are struggling with the same issues that we face. That's partly why I started writing this blog, and it's why we've created Diplodocus, a community for people doing this kind of stuff.

And I think we need to keep finding ways to evaluate our work according to how far we're delivering the business of the Foreign Office. Because however excited we might get about digital engagement (and that's sometimes quite excited) that's the whole point of what we've been doing.

But that's all for others now. 

I've enjoyed writing this blog. I've found the discipline of blogging in an official capacity to be really helpful. I've never been stuck for things to write about the digital diplomacy project. And I think the process of writing the blog, reading comments, and participating on and offline elsewhere as a result, has made me better able to do my job.

So I may yet pop up in another capacity, blogging about digital health. In the meantime, I'll continue to talk about this stuff (and other stuff) in an unofficial capacity on Twitter.

Stephen Hale
20 July 2010

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