Trade and Globalisation
The rise of digital is a transformative process across society and the corporate sector. Governments are likewise subject to these forces - and diplomacy no little so. This round table meeting between the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Stéphane Dion MP, Canadian and Dutch diplomats, and Clingendael diplomacy experts addressed the new societal and governmental dynamics created by digital, and the future of diplomacy. Clingendael Director Monika Sie Dhian Ho opened the session. Moderator Jan Melissen posed the question: what are opportunities for better ministry of foreign affairs (MFA) engagement with the populous facilitated by digital communications?
Changing relations between government and society
Ambassadors no longer operate solely in gilded towers. Society is now a resource that can be utilised for better governance, a process that draws diplomats out of their traditional realm and fuses them with people and a variety of non-state actors. Crucially, the 21st century MFA is not the driver of citizen/government relations: society itself is driving change via digital mediums.
Social media stands at the fore of this brave new world. With MFA communication no longer limited to corporate outreach, diplomats increasingly engage directly with the local demos. The volume of ministerial social media output however offers little enlightenment regarding the success of such practises. The Brexit result in the UK referendum indicates that much more needs to be done to better understand public enthusiasm for government policy, or lack of support. The challenge for governments lies in effectively channelling social media to better grasp the behaviour, concerns and demands made of them by the public. Communicative outreach is only one aspect – listening to one’s community assumes a mantle of equal if not greater consequence.
Can social media help alleviate foreign policy headaches
Governments are not social media novices. Elections have been won, lost, and will continue to be fought on these platforms, as in the US presidential elections. Yet the ramifications of social media for governance extend far beyond the electorate. Can they effectively address foreign policy headaches such as the rise of so-called Islamic State? Can they help alleviate the moral dilemma posed by immigration crises? Answering these questions requires a nuanced approach that governments are only now beginning to fully grasp.
Embryonic data analysis
Opportunities to glean a refined understanding exist most prominently through Open and Big Data. If such data analysis in the private sector is in its infancy, then for ministries it is embryonic. Budgetary and policy restraints severely limit the government’s capacity for innovation. Yet it stands to gain much from innovation, be it through crowdsourcing of data for use in crises or in observing new trends requiring action. The response to the 2015 Nepal earthquake exemplifies as such, whereby governments utilised crowd-sourced geo-spatial mapping and infrastructure reports. The sheer volume of available information poses myriad challenges. Pertinence of a given data set must be clarified, and no less its reliability.
These are and will be, hopefully, problems of success. As the foreign ministry of the future becomes ever more digitally embedded in its surroundings, the information wealth offered by Open and Big Data is a prize that cannot be ignored.
When will MFAs start approaching ‘digital’ in a holistic way?
The debate of whether or not the digitization of diplomacy will occur is settled. Relevancy demands it and policy-makers better wake up to the task ahead, which lies in ensuring their digital diplomatic strategies are not only fit for purpose, but fit for the ever-modernising communities they serve.