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New Report Gives a Behind-The-Scenes Look at State's "Digital Diplomacy"

BY Nick Judd | Friday, March 30 2012

The U.S. Department of State has over the past few years developed a reputation for digital experiments: around 600 social media profiles, in languages and on platforms specific to the region they're intended to serve; Diplopedia, an internal wiki for State employees to share their knowledge; and CO.NX, a platform for hosting live, interactive video chats, among others.

Time and again, though, critics and analysts bring up the same question: What has this accomplished? And how do you even measure accomplishment online in the first place? A new report from the Lowy Institute, an Australian international policy think tank, delivers a remarkably detailed look behind the scenes of State's digital democracy efforts, and ends with precisely that query.

Take State's social media profiles, for example, says report author Fergus Hanson. Hanson is Lowy's director of polling and a visiting fellow in eDiplomacy at the Brookings Institution. He tells me he conducted about 100 interviews at State while there through a Professional Fulbright program.

"There's been 600 accounts operating but only a few -- well, more than a few, but a relatively small number of that 600 are reaching large numbers of people," he said. "I think another thing State has to work on is, it's built huge audiences, and I think is still developing its thinking on how it will use those audiences."

While State has shown the ability to build reach, he said, "I think it's still unclear if you can actually wield influence through these mechanisms."

Although he doesn't necessarily fault the department for that.

"It's a bit like public diplomacy generally, where there's a general acceptance that it's something countries have to do but there aren't a lot of metrics around how you measure success," Hanson said.

Foggy Bottom's social media presence — primarily used for public diplomacy, or representing the U.S. to people around the world as opposed to representing the country to other governments — is just one aspect of a much larger and more diverse set of programs. State's digital diplomacy efforts are sprinkled across a variety of offices in the department, with teams working under four different undersecretaries.

Where they've gained the most traction besides social media, Hanson found, is in "knowledge management" — corporatespeak for efforts to keep information and lessons learned circulating properly despite the labyrinthine offices, tl;dr emails, employee turnover and other hazards that comprise daily life in many big, complex organizations.

The whole report is worth a read — Hanson's research was augmented by a week at the nerve center for State's eDiplomacy unit and includes on-the-ground reports from within — but one of the highlights is his update on what's happening with Corridor, a WordPress-powered Facebook/LinkedIn hybrid for State Department employees.

Hanson says that after launching late last year, Corridor has gained over 9,000 users, and has more features on the way. He reports that State developers are working to code in geolocation, among other things, into the project. This means that if an overworked civil servant or foreign service member working at Foggy Bottom needed to quickly find a colleague who spoke, for example, the Fuzhou dialect used in China's Fujian province, she might be able to use the social network not only to identify someone with that skill but also to figure out how far away they were from her desk.

But the recommendations that Hanson uses to close his report don't seem to jibe with the State Department's thinking. He suggests that State's digital efforts — which heretofore, he wrote, had been in a "free-wheeling" environment — could be reorganized into eight core programs, and should be given a more concrete framework to operate within.

"Innovation cannot and should not be commanded and controlled from
central authorities," Alec Ross, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's senior advisor for innovation, wrote in an emailed response to questions. "Rather, leaders are at their best in this domain when they provide coaching, guidance, resources and other support to foster innovation. I have resisted creating a 20th century management system for 21st century programs. This, plus support from the top with Secretary Clinton, has proven to be the right approach."

He also added that centralizing digital efforts wouldn't make sense because coming up with 21st-century solutions to problems is a means for State Department leadership rather than an end, and quoted our publisher to make the point.

"To quote Andrew Rasiej," he wrote, "technology is not a slice of the pie, it's the pan."

Ross wrote to me that the tools available to measure social media influence, for example, are "crude" — a problem affecting anyone trying to be a world-class communications operations — and that he expected better ones to emerge in 18 to 36 months.

"We are in the same situation as all 500 members of the Fortune 500," he wrote.

"Our work in the digital diplomacy space is entrepreneurial," Ross wrote in response to a separate question. "Our highest-impact innovations have been a product of a Silicon-Valley like environment that encourages openness and experimentation."

When I asked Ross which innovations he meant, he declined to be specific. In the past few years, though — beyond the projects mentioned earlier — State has gained recognition for things like its involvement in the text-message-fueled donation program that raised tens of millions of dollars in relief aid for Haiti after the 2010 earthquake there, as well as a similar program around deadly flooding in Pakistan that same year.

A State Department Office of the Inspector General report released last year said staffers at State's Office of eDiplomacy — one hub for digital work in State among many — were known as "enthusiastic and innovative, with the ability to take on unusual projects and to support new technology applications."

But the same report also called on State to come up with rubrics to evaluate digital projects so that the department could better determine when to retire, move or modify them, noting that the eDiplomacy office had not developed a "culture of measurement and evaluation."

At State, there seems to be a search for balance between the traditional bureaucratic need for structure against the desire of innovation-seekers like Ross to keep room open for people wanting to take risks and try new things.

There is one other subject that perpetually resurfaces when State's digital efforts come up: Wikileaks, which obtained thousands of sensitive State Department cables that had been stored in an electronic system. Immediately after the cable leak was announced, one line of thinking held that this would be the end of open information sharing between State and other federal agencies, and perhaps of a culture of openness inside State itself.

"I thought it was nicely ironic that after what Julian Assange did, they would let another Australian into the State Department, wander around and ask them about their technology," Hanson told me. "If there's a rebuttal to that thesis, I think that's probably the strongest one."

This post has been corrected to fix a typo that briefly appeared. The State Department practices digital diplomacy, not digital democracy.