E-nvoys: What Next For Diplomacy?

Here are ten thoughts on what to watch as digital technology further disrupts and transforms diplomacy …


1.        Creative Content      

The ability to create digital content that makes people ‘lean forward’ will be increasingly vital. Diplomats have always produced interesting content – analysis and reportage – but for an internal audience. Social media now gives them the means and incentive to reach well beyond that. The rules on how to do this will evolve – with authenticity the key, individuals will find their own tempo and their own voice. Foreign Ministries will recruit and empower digital natives to whom it comes naturally; and train and equip the rest of us. Allowing anarchy will bring out the smelling salts in corners of most civil services, designed over centuries to do precisely the opposite. But co-creation leads to better ideas. 

2. How We Manage Knowledge 

Being the recipient of masses of data is already a challenge. The person or machine who curates it will be at the sweet spot of influence. New tools will allow Foreign Ministries to create the equivalent of internal Google databases, that store and filter key information. Look at the way Ushahidi, Sparkwise or Gapminder are using data. We’ll need to develop better knowledge sharing networks between foreign ministries and analysts, economists and game theorists on specific global challenges. We’ll need to win the case that we can be trusted with people’s data. Our opponents won’t be constrained by conventions and silos. If we want to compete, nor should we.

 3. What We Hand Over to the Robots

Can robots replace diplomats? Cynics say they already have. There will still be need for emotional intelligence and human interaction. But everything we do will need to pass the test on whether it can be done by new tools. Can a computer generate a fairer deal, say on climate change or energy, than diplomats? As in other industries, diplomats will focus on retaining a market lead on what can’t be done by machines. One particular niche will be analysis, seeing future trends and responding to them. As the expression goes, to every complex international issue there is always one answer which is simple, lucid and logical – but which is invariably wrong.

4. How We Predict the Future

Big data will give diplomats the ability to see and analyse trends far more effectively. We have always had to rely on small networks of contacts (thinkers, journalists etc) to identify ‘public opinion’. We can now get an unfiltered view. So when we talk in the future of ‘rising sectarianism’ or other trends, we will do so with greater confidence and authority. We can’t predict the future, of course. Human agency, fluke and cock up will all continue to play their part. But history is not just about great men and bungling idiots – there are more powerful trends at work. The ability to mine data in greater detail will give us a better understanding of what comes next. 

5. How We Network 

Engagement is already changing. We will need to use people’s desire for connectivity rather than push against it – I now encourage people to fiddle with their phones when I am giving a speech rather than put them away. But this process needs to accelerate: in three years we have gone from three UK ambassadors on Twitter to over 100, but that still means almost 100 are absent. Diplomats will increase dramatically their time online. There are growing threats from engagement: the smartphone with which I do core parts of my job is also the means by which terrorists track my movements. But the biggest risk is not to engage. Other businesses aren’t debating this, they are just doing it.   

6. How We Influence

Diplomatic networking is ripe for innovation. Not just how we meet people, but how we connect those we need to connect. We will use new technology to create public squares where we can engage and communicate. Political movements are doing this already, using tools like Loomio to change the nature of popular participation in policy making. In building our national brands, we will recognise that people are much more likely to be influenced positively by direct, people to people connections than by anything that smells of government. So we need to create those opportunities, for example by connecting classrooms. And then stand back. 

7. How Leaders Interact

Traditionally, diplomats minimised and managed direct contact between leaders. We encased their exchanges in protocol, prepared lines and statements. I’ve been in meetings where diplomats don’t take notes – they know what both leaders will say. New ways of communicating break down those restrictions. Leaders now text, email or tweet each other direct. During negotiations, the text messages between them (and between their advisers) will be more important than the formal conversation at the table. They won’t meet as often, yet will get to know each other better. Much of this will be out of the direct control of diplomats, but they will play a critical role in advising when and how to engage. 

8. How We Deliver a Service

Big data means we can and must improve our service delivery. We will have to design public services in a way that (the clue is in the title) serves the public. This means  cutting out the layers, and directly connecting consumers with the data they need. Our best minds need to be looking at how companies like Amazon provide an increasingly tailored experience to customers, and learning the lessons for our trade, consular and visa services. 

9. Where We Put Resource

Big data will allow Ministries to plan better. Rather than relying on imprecise trade stats or vague notions of the warmth of the bilateral relationship, they will chart where real opportunities are for new business, and where the greatest threats lie. This has implications for recruitment, public diplomacy, contact strategies, financial planning. We will rely less on ‘bricks and mortar’ embassies – a hub for our country will be an idea rather than a building. Secondments will increasingly be to and from technology companies rather than to business or NGOs. 

10. How We Create Citizen Diplomats

Given the dramatic shifts in power ahead, we will be forced to think more effectively not just about training diplomats, but how we create citizen diplomats. How can we influence how pupils are taught in schools in order that they are more likely to understand the benefits of coexistence and the costs of failure? When teaching diplomacy, we should be thinking less about how to draft a treaty than how we have managed to find ways, throughout history, to live together. 

Elsewhere on this blog, further thoughts on these themes  …

– disruption (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/a-post-not-called-is-diplomacy-dead-too/)

– the embassy of the future (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2013/09/04/ambassador-2020/

– the future of networking (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/farewell-ferrero-rocher/)

– citizen diplomacy (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/citizen-diplomacy/

– digital engagement (http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/tomfletcher/2014/05/09/engagement-is-not-just-about-cute-cats-and-hashtags/). 

Marigolds and Migrant Rights

Earlier this week, I traded places with Kalkidan, a migrant worker from Ethiopia, in order to highlight inequality. The idea was part of Blog Action Day (#BAD2014, not as dangerous as it sounds). The aim was to generate debate on a controversial issue, and stimulate positive change in attitudes.

This seemed to work – we estimate that the online coverage reached over a million. Kalkidan and I have written it up here (http://blogs.fco.gov.uk/tomfletcher/2014/10/16/equality-dignity-respect-trading-places/), with some of the photos, TV coverage and reactions. 

Lebanon tends to put visiting ambassadors on more of a pedestal than they deserve, so the initiative had significant local shock value. Since then a Lebanese MP has responded with a plan to table legislation to protect migrant workers, which is great.

The experience reinforced some of the ideas on digital communications that I’ve explored on this blog. The message is more likely to cut through if we let more credible voices amplify it in their own way (in this case bloggers, media stars and journalists). Picking arguments and being a bit provocative often helps. Visuals are vital, in this case lots of photos and video clips. We need to ride waves when they emerge – we had not expected to get such a reaction to the idea, and therefore sustained the momentum with fresh angles and content for three days. It all needs a purpose – the fact that we were working alongside relevant local and international NGOs showed that it was more than just a gimmick. 

Finally, it was a reminder that, in campaigns of this sort, it is important to create heroes not victims. Kalkidan was our heroine, and is now overwhelmed with media offers. Her statement was more powerful than anything we could have said. 

A stunt, yes, but a stunt with a purpose.

Stubborn Stereotypes

Seeing Lord John Marbury, the ridiculous parody of a British Ambassador, at No 18 in a survey of West Wing characters (http://www.thewire.com/entertainment/2014/09/a-definitive-ranking-of-every-character-on-the-west-wing/380098/) reminded me that there are four stereotypes of diplomats that have proved hard to dislodge. 

First, Francis Ferrero. 73 calories of chocolate covered hazelnut in a gold wrapper has dogged a generation of British diplomats: “why Ambassador, with these Ferrero Rocher you really are spoiling us”. “I bet you hear that all the time”, we are told, as it is repeated again. “Yes”, we respond through gritted teeth, wondering about the aggressive potential of a small, dark, nut-crusted chocolate. 

Many ambassadors may have a secret desire to be the suave hosts of the cocktail party captured in the advert. Just occasionally a diplomatic reception might come close. But it is very rare indeed. With diplomatic services under significant resource pressure, we tend to be more Prosecco and Pringles than champagne and canapés. I’ve written more on this here (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/farewell-ferrero-rocher/).

A second stereotype is Sebastian Smug, the aristocratic amateur. Think of the diplomats in ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, self-styled decent chaps, exclusively male and pale. They glide between diplomatic encounters, never without a withering put down, independent of political control and occasionally in the national dress of whichever country they are serving in. Lawrence of Arabia with fewer principles. Most are insufferably pompous and grand. While retaining a sense of his own superiority, Smug has decided that foreigners are far more interesting than Brits.

This stereotype is not new. The story goes that a Whitehall policeman was asked in 1939 for directions to the Foreign Office. “Which side is the Foreign Office on?”. He responded, “I don’t know sir, but they claim to have been on our side in the last war”. A number of world leaders have commented that the trouble with their foreign ministries is that they believe that their role is to represent foreigners.

A third stereotype of literary folklore is Archibald Assassin. After all, doesn’t the British national anthem talk of the need to ”confound their politics, frustrate their knavish tricks”? The unscrupulous Lord John falls into this category, as do any number of louche but despicable diplomats in John Le Carre’s novels. This is a stereotype that persists in parts of the Middle East, most notably Iran.

Those who see a dastardly British hand behind every twist and turn must often be disappointed. If we were half that cunning, we would still be running the world.

A fourth stereotype is Hapless Henry, the well meaning chump who tends to arrive after the key decision has been taken, and invariably lets down any fellow countryman needing help. He is frequently drunk, usually inept and sometimes inappropriate. PG Wodehouse captured this character very effectively. Rowan Atkinson played him as Nigel Smith-Fawcett in the Bond pastiche ‘Never Say Never Again’.  More recently, he was brilliantly portrayed by David Mitchell in BBC series “Ambassadors” – dishevelled, tired, only just about holding it together, trying to do his best but overwhelmed by his job, indeed by the modern world.

The reality of course is that these stereotypes have been replaced by very different types of diplomats. Our ambassador in Yemen, Jane Marriot (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-politics/11046299/British-female-diplomat-in-Yemen-Jane-Marriot-writes-on-life-in-a-conflict-zone.html) is just one example. Of the British diplomats in Beirut, there have been periods when I have been the only white man. 

We’re junking the diplomatic baggage (https://nakeddiplomat.wordpress.com/2014/07/18/diplomatic-baggage/). You are far more likely to meet a Foreign Office Director dashing to reach the nursery on time as sipping a sherry in his elegant club. Ferrero, Smug, Assassin and Hapless are increasingly weeded out by recruitment and promotion procedures. Diplomats are becoming more representative of the populations from which they are drawn.

That’s probably less amusing, but a good thing for diplomacy.