In today’s always-on, digital world, governments are keen to connect with citizens where they spend a significant part of their day: social media. This is transforming the way governments engage with other countries, and bolstering the policy-making process at the same time.
Ahead of a Feb. 11 campus event, Julian Dierkes, associate professor at UBC’s Institute of Asian Research, explains the concept of digital diplomacy and examines Canada’s approach under a new government that promised increased openness and transparency.
What is digital diplomacy?
If diplomacy traditionally is a state-to-state activity, then digital diplomacy relies on digital means of communications like social media to open up the conversation between states and stakeholders.
For example, there’s been a lot of recent discussion about reopening diplomatic relations on Canada’s part with Iran. While that’s a government-to-government discussion, there are many stakeholders that inform Canadian policy-making – including the Iranian community in Canada, but also Iranians themselves. They might have views on whether it is appropriate or not to reopen diplomatic relations. Given that there is no embassy at the moment, these views will be much more easily solicited by digital means.
Who are some of the global leaders in digital diplomacy?
When Hillary Clinton was the U.S. Secretary of State, the State Department (@StateDept) pushed towards what it was calling statecraft for the 21st century. Other terms followed – such as Twiplomacy and Diplomacy 2.0.
Digital diplomacy was then picked up by some of the larger European countries, such as France (@francediplo) and the U.K. (@foreignoffice). More recently, some smaller European countries have taken the lead, including the Swedes and the Dutch. The Estonians (@e_estonia) are far ahead of everyone else in terms of open government.
Asia is interesting. India (@IndianDiplomacy) has gone far down this route, in part because the Indian diplomatic service is small. It’s a leap-frogging of sorts, where activities can be maximized via digital means despite having a small staff. Japan and Korea have embraced digital communications in many ways, in terms of government forms, but less so when it comes to stakeholder interactions.
Where does Canada stand?
In terms of OECD countries, Canada (@CanadaFP) is a bit of a laggard. But things are changing. There was a recent announcement that Canada’s Department of National Defence has analysts specifically looking at social media for threat assessments. That falls broadly under digital diplomacy – it’s not about engagement, but it recognizes the importance of digital spheres and communications.
The new Trudeau government has said much about transparency and openness. In terms of foreign policy, it’s said that it trusts Canadian diplomats to act on Canada’s behalf, and it has unleashed many diplomats online. They’re much more active now on Twitter, and saying things publicly that weren’t heard under the previous government. For example, here’s a tweet from the Canadian embassy to Mongolia announcing a TV interview with Ambassador Ed Jager. Neither the interview, nor the tweet, would have been likely six months ago.
You’ve noted that public relations shouldn’t be confused with digital diplomacy. What’s the difference?
You could think of government Twitter accounts simply being used as a broadcast medium – for example, as a way to distribute press releases. That’s not very interesting, because there’s no expectation of a response.
However, the aspiration for digital diplomacy is that it can really be transformational, thanks to two-way communication. That’s a challenge to manage – but the fundamental notion is that if you are open to that communication, then the decisions you make and the policies you enact are going to be strengthened. You want to explain to Canadians why certain decisions are made.
On Thursday, Feb. 11, UBC’s Institute of Asian Research presents a free, public event entitled “Digital Diplomacy Strategy: Are Canadians Engaged?” Panelists include UBC’s Julian Dierkes; Colin McKay, head of public policy and government relations at Google Canada; and Mark McDowell, Canada’s first ambassador to Myanmar. The event will be held from 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. in Room 120 of the C.K. Choi Building on UBC’s Vancouver campus. The event will also be live-tweeted via #CDNdigiFP.