Social networks are a powerful foreign policy tool, says Simon Fraser

By Civil Service World

30 Jan 2013

I have recently taken to Twitter – in truth, after pondering for a while. I wanted to join the conversation and hear for myself what different people have to say about the FCO and our foreign policy. I wanted to help break some myths, showcasing the modern, diverse, and professional FCO that helps to advance British interests every day. And I wanted to help set out our foreign policy to a wider audience in a more personal way; I recently held a Twitter Q&A, and I plan to do it again soon.

Like most organisations, the FCO has been affected by the digital revolution. Turning points at the forefront of my mind are the Arab Spring, and that iconic image of protestors charging their phones in Tahrir Square; the announcing of the new Chinese leadership on Twitter and its Chinese equivalent Weibo; the unprecedented use of social media during the recent Gaza conflict, by both sides; and the increasing numbers of British nationals going abroad with internet-enabled smartphones. These are just a few illustrations of how IT is transforming foreign affairs. The foreign secretary is already very active on Twitter. He has talked of a networked world in which relations between nations are now a mass of connections involving individuals, civil society, businesses, pressure groups and charitable organisations. We are trying to emulate this across the FCO.

How we communicate with people around the world is changing dramatically. The FCO has more than 120 Twitter channels, a similar number of Facebook pages, and six ministers and 20-plus ambassadors using Twitter. And digital tools have started to have a profound effect on foreign policy work and supporting British nationals overseas: we’ve used social media to identify new actors in the Libya conflict, digital channels to highlight human rights problems, and automated SMS messages to provide our contact details to British nationals arriving in some overseas countries.

Last month’s FCO digital strategy sets out how we plan to use digital in future. We want to make full use of digital tools in every area of our work, including open policymaking. And we want to provide more of our consular services digitally, delivering more effective services while maintaining personal assistance. We have also produced new social media guidance for our staff, designed to empower them to make full use of digital technologies in their work.

Of course, I am also using my presence on Twitter to follow some of my wider interests, from thanking Jessica Ennis for the autograph she gave my daughter, to keeping up to date with the fate of my beloved Ipswich Town – recently much improved!

Simon Fraser is permanent secretary of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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