Many agencies have jumped on the Web 2.0 bandwagon over the last few years. But few have recognized how these social media technologies are changing the way they meet their mission.
The State Department is one of the exceptions.
Nearly every few months, State is reminded of the impact social networking tools such as Twitter or FaceBook has in organizing protests as in Iran in June 2009, or spreading hope as in Haiti in January.
“In the 21st century Statecraft is as much as about building connections as doing negotiations,” says Jared Cohen, a member of the State Department’s Policy and Planning Staff, speaking at a breakfast sponsored by Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide in Washington. “To address 21st century challenges, we need 21st century tools and we are not shy about saying we are not the experts on innovation. People at private sector companies are experts on innovation. Civil society organizations are experts on local context. What we are trying to do is put the pieces together so we have all the expertise in one room troubleshooting the same challenges. To me, Statecraft s a fancy way of saying troubleshooting.”
Cohen offers several example of how cellular and Internet technologies are disrupting normal business as usual.
He talks about one of the largest demonstrations in Colombia against the rebel organization, FARC. He says it was organized through FaceBook and drew millions of people, and had a significant negative impact on FARC.
Cohen also talks about the bad parts of social media. He met with a jailed Afghanistan rebel to find out more about how the leader of the group used cell phones to coordinate the attacks outside the prison.
“Secretary [Hilary] Clinton is a huge proponent in leveraging innovation, unlocking the power of connection technologies,” he says. “But neither she nor the administration is so naïve as to think that there is not a certain risk that comes in engaging in this space. We are venturing into a foreign policy that takes into account these technologies and leverages these technologies but not without full consideration of what they can do. That’s rarely going to leave us to make the calculation that a technology that is out there and growing is something we should ignore.”
One of the ways State is incorporating new technologies into their day-to-day work is through mashing up different technologies. State is sponsoring a pilot to plot the data on a map of where non-government organizations (NGOs) are working in Kenya to make it easier for department officials and others to see where U.S. money and other efforts are going.
He says access to cell phones and PDAs is much different than previous technology advancements such as TV or radio. In fact, Cohen calls the Internet and its related technologies the most disruptive change since the invention of the printing press in 1440.
In fact, all this change and disruption led him to coin a new phrase “technopragmatist.”
“To me, a technopragmatist accepts the fundamental reality that this isn’t DARPA creating the Internet,” he says. “The reality is whether we like it or not from a policy standpoint…all these tools are being put out on the public domain. From a government standpoint, we have two options: We can fear we can’t control it and not try to influence it. And by the way, if we don’t try to influence it, all that does is give greater space or greater room to hostile actors who seek to use technology for nefarious purposes. Or we can recognize that the 21st century is a terrible time to be a control freak, recognize we can’t control it, but we can influence it and there is no better time to influence it when access is where it is today.”
State also is recruiting the younger generation to help them understand how best to use these tools. Cohen says State now has a virtual Foreign Service internship program.
Through the program, State recruits college-age workers to serve as interns to embassies or consulates in how best to use social media to reach certain audiences.
Overall, Cohen says the impact of social media tools is clear.
“It’s a tool that makes us more efficient,” he says. “The learning curve has been incredibly steep…people now are asking the question is there is a way technology can address this challenge or make us more effective? We are seeing a lot of creativity bubbling up from various parts of the U.S. bureaucracy. It’s been a wonderful in terms of empowering our young foreign service officers and young talent at the State Department who really are able to make a substantial contribution early on by virtual of both their intellect and commitment to service as well as their understanding of these technologies.”
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