Government Innovation: Disrupting Diplomacy For The Better

Digital diplomacy has become a sexy topic. It’s trending. But, what is often lacking from the conversation is insight beyond a government learning to Tweet or some diplomat’s faux pas. Technology’s impact on diplomacy is much deeper. 

At its root, diplomacy is about community, relationships and shared experiences. It’s global and human. Social media and digital connectivity are a natural fit within the diplomatic community. The emergence of digital technologies and connectivity has expanded the diplomatic tool kit to better enable diplomats to their their jobs. It’s not a replacement for, nor an add-on to, traditional diplomacy. It’s about enhancing what already exists. 

Governments are just as capable of savvy communications and engagement as any major brand. 

Innovation is key. 


Know your audience & where they interact
With nearly 1.35 billion global monthly active users, there’s no doubt Facebook has become a go-to tool for foreign ministries to reach a large international audience with just a few clicks--notably, embassies and diplomats have their own pages and are engaging local audiences in dozens languages. However, Facebook’s impressive numbers are less than half of the more than 3 billion global internet users, and the platform remains banned in China, Iran and North Korea. Sometimes government musts go beyond the ‘default’ platforms. Digital diplomacy is more than Facebook and Twitter.  

Weibo is the social media platform of choice in China, though it may be a surprise to learn it was Israeli President Shimon Peres who set the record for the largest launch of a page in the company’s history with 50 million likes. It shouldn’t surprise you either that many foreign ministries have an active presence on Russia’s VK, or once had thriving communities on Orkut and Second Life, and continue to engage on Tumblr, Pinterest and more. Governments must engage wherever communities thrive. 

Digital transformation is a necessity

Terrorist and extremist groups have taken to social media and digital tools much quicker than most governments. ISIL or IS have frequently out communicated and out-engaged government voices simply by adapting and innovating. Governments must adapt to this changing landscape--with the first step being less bureaucracy in their internal processes. 
One of the greatest recent examples of a government making this shift comes from Canada. In February 2014 Roland Paris wrote a blog called “Has Canada finally discovered digital diplomacy?” In short yes, they finally have. Paris’s blog followed a speech by Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird where he stated, “[U]nless our diplomats are permitted to engage with governmental and non-governmental interlocutors in real-time, Canada will remain on the margins of the biggest technological revolution to hit the practice of public diplomacy in a generation.”  


Prior to this speech, Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD) lagged behind many other governments in digital adaptation a fact Paris also previously wrote about here. Following Baird’s speech the government began to make a dramatic shift. The government has invested in additional training for diplomatic staff and emphasized digital engagement as a priority. Digital is no longer a niche office but a part of everyday practice. 


Governments are still learning. Imagine if foreign ministries were more entrepreneurial. What if they innovated more like a brand or startup? Join us for a roundtable discussion at Collaborate on Friday January 23rd to share your ideas and continue this conversation. 

Scott Nolan Smith is an Associate Director at Portland Communications and the former Head of Digital Diplomacy at the British Embassy in Washington. He is also a founder and board member of the Digital Diplomacy Coalition.

Jed Shein is Director of Digital at the Embassy of Israel in Washington. He is also a founder and board member of the Digital Diplomacy Coalition.

By Scott Nolan Smith & Jed Shein


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