25th September 2012 London, UK

Digital Strategy: delivering FCO priorities

The following is a post by the Foreign Office’s Digital Transition Leader, Adam Bye.

Digital already plays a key part in Foreign Office work. The Foreign Secretary and other Ministers actively engage on Twitter and Facebook, building awareness of key foreign policy issues and answering questions.

The Foreign Office keeps British nationals informed of essential travel advice updates and crisis information across all its digital channels – monitoring those channels, especially in crisis situations, and responding to major queries.

Ambassadors use social media to explain their work, to extend UK influence and to set the record straight when necessary. The FCO uses digital channels to help reinforce the objectives of major conferences, events and visits, for example carrying out extensive engagement with the Somali Diaspora in the run-up to this year’s Somalia conference.

The Foreign Office has moved its human rights reporting online, allowing us to move to more frequent reporting and to invite comments from the public. The FCO funds projects to promote internet freedom. And last year we hosted a major conference to push forward international work on the future of cyberspace.

But we want to go further.

The Foreign Office, like all UK government departments, is working up a Digital Strategy that we will publish in December this year alongside a UK Government Digital Strategy, looking at how we can use digital to work more effectively and deliver more effectively for UK citizens.

There are three key areas we will start by looking at as we formulate that strategy.

  • service delivery – how can digital further improve the services we deliver to British citizens around the world.  What services – and what elements of services – can we provide digitally, both to improve services and so we can focus on those most in need of individual help – for example British nationals in trouble.
  • digital diplomacy – how can we use digital even more to enhance other core areas of our diplomatic work, including monitoring international developments, increasing our influence, more openly formulating policy, and better communicating that policy.
  • making the change – what skills, technology and other changes will we need to enable this more digital way of working.

We’ll be formulating and writing the strategy over the coming weeks. Recognising the extensive expertise on these issues around the world, please do comment if you have thoughts or suggestions you think would help us in that process.

We’ll read every suggestion and comment on some of those that most inspire us.

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10 comments on “Digital Strategy: delivering FCO priorities

  1. Hello,

    Firstly, thanks for asking us all! I think that shows a really healthy approach. I’ll outline my suggestions here, but as an opener I’m just covering basics, so please forgive any granny/egg-sucking lessons.

    I’m going to focus here on the ‘making the change’ section as that’s my area of expertise, and what I consult on.

    I’d suggest approaching the strategy through lots of really small projects rather than a few big ones. Experiment and iterate. Managing the projects using the Agile/Scrum framework can enable this and provide many other advantages too.

    Also, I’d highly recommend a very open approach. Use open source software, and become part of the communities around it. Be open about your thinking and ideas – blog a lot, as well as sharing as much of your code as possible. The White House is doing very well in this regard, and it’s worth reading their tech blog and browsing their resources (http://www.whitehouse.gov/developers).

    Seek ideas widely, just as you are doing here. Go to open source events and pick peoples’ brains – they’ll always be happy to help and share. And people whose ideas you’d like to explore will always be happy to pop in for a coffee and a chat.

    Procuring smaller, cheaper projects through Agile will also allow you to avoid the arms-length procurement rules that will prevent you being close to the very suppliers who could provide best advice.

    Build an ecosystem of good suppliers and keep them close. The BBC are doing this very well with their Connected Studio (see http://www.bbcconnectedstudio.co.uk/).

    Avoid the kind of procurement process that prevents people demonstrating their ideas and expertise, but simply looks at size/finances/price etc.

    Within government it’s well worth picking the brains of GDS and the British Council – as both are doing excellent work in different areas. The British Council in particular is very good at procuring and working with open source suppliers and being part of the community.

    That’s the basics, good luck!


  2. Good reading,
    I am glad to read this article, and I support adam views on the subject.

    I only wish that we could use this in Pakistan for better diplomacy for CT and promotion of Human Rights


    Asif Kabani
    Head of Research and Project mgt
    – Pakistan Peace – Project

  3. Ideally your digital strategy should not waver from your strategy.
    Digital isn’t really a medium, its simply the age we live in. But, it sounds like this is a complex ask around content management, social strategy and the creation of service products.

    As with anything interactive, concentrating on the user is key, understand the availability of devices, the access to data, the proficiency of use. What are their needs, what can be solved by existing platforms and what may need innovative solutions.

    Once you gain insight into the user and map them to a journey, it makes most sense to take stock of your operational ability. Be sure to choose how thick or thin your interface needs to be. Because full transparency can be quite hard to maintain. Also regulate the frequency of content generation to one that you can sustain. This sets a rhythm. Then think about existing platforms that support your frequency and concentrate your effort there.

    And, of course, don’t simply aggregate the same content to every platform as it can look quite mechanical. In facebook you look like a friend, in Twitter a commentator, in Path a wanderer, in instagram a voyeur,
    in pinterest a curator. The most important factor to understand is the relavance will trump consistency, so varied messages that adapt to context will be the most valuable.

    Service products can be the most fun, they’re not channels for communication, more tools for enabling. Best to look at the accessible data you have that could power any utility, then match user beahvior to the datasets you have, these are the products you can make now.
    Then roadmap out future products based on the ease of creating features and new pools of data. Of course all of this rests on how secure data transfer needs to be to adhere to security.

    Good luck, the team at the state department are great role models.

  4. Great initiative. Probably the most important thing to remember – and this is a challenge – is that most major organizations think of their digital strategy/Social strategy as a tack-on, as opposed to something that is embedded into the fabric of service. Thinking of it as a “Digital Overlay” suggests that more can be done with existing resources, rather than asking the question of what activities need to be stopped, to provide the resources to better serve the target stakeholders.

    There is plenty of precedent for this type of thinking: how many telex machines exist in government offices? And for that matter, is the fax still a critical machine of government? A digital strategy needs to be developed within the day-to-day context of the needs of the various stakeholder groups – not just from a government perspective of what each department thinks it should be doing. Interestingly, 20 years ago we came to the conclusion that there was no such thing as “e-business” – there was only “business”. The same can be said today about “digital” and “social media”.

    More on these and similar at http://108ideaspace.com/thought-leadership.

    Randall Craig, President

  5. Twitter is a great tool to market a country as the @GREATBritain campaign has shown.
    I suggest you try to acquire the @UK account, currently owned by Brit Wiley, (a Brit?) and inactive. You could use the @UK account as the main official Twitter hub for the UK government as the State of Israel has done with the @Israel account.
    Likewise you should try to secure the YouTube account: http://youtube.com/uk (dormant since 2005!) and the suspended Facebook page http://facebook.com/uk.
    But maybe all this is more country branding rather the diplomacy.
    Just my twopence

  6. Thanks for throwing this question out there; agree with the points above that this is a healthy and constructive approach.

    I’m not going to tell you what you should do, but I will tell you what you are already doing well.

    There are 4 components that are key; awareness, visibility, user experience and advocacy. If you don’t know about the service, you won’t use it. If you know, but can’t find it, you won’t use it. Visibility is one thing you’re doing a good job on. When I search ‘Syria travel updates’ you’ve got your SEO spot on and I see your page. It’s simple, but essential.

    Only negative point is most people will be searching from their mobile abroad and you don’t have an easy to use mobile experience once they reach your site.

    Beyond that, just make sure the people using your service have an easy way to share how you helped them and therefore help you out on your awareness challenge.

    Hope that helps?


  7. Just to agree with Matt M above, you should definitely take a ‘mobile first’ strategy. Not only is the huge growth in smartphones and tablets resulting in people accessing web services on mobile devices as the norm, but a significant proportion of the audience you want to reach will be using mobile while overseas (even if based there permanently…I know this as a UK citizen living overseas myself).

    In addition, you should think about having really ‘light’ mobile services for UK citizens while they’re abroad: if someone needs to get access to information, contact details or help in an emergency, the last thing they want to be concerned about are data roaming charges or even their ability to access data services abroad full-stop. So content delivered, for instance, through a .tel domain would be useful.

    Happy to discuss this further – I’m a digital/social professional by trade! Mark

  8. Hi FCO,

    We agree with some of the key points above from your other contributors.

    Specifically we would suggest considering:

    – How is ‘mobile’ incorporated into your digital strategy?
    – How digital can enhance your work at all points across your organisation – whether that be at a strategic, policy, operational, business unit, branding and marketing etc level?
    – How is your digital strategy tied into the FCO’s corporate strategy?Understanding this will allow you to plan and monitor the economic and intangible benefits that you are getting from your investments in the FCO’s digital change?
    – How is the aggregation of data and the use of analytics going to be incorporated into your strategy?

    As you’ve rightly identified, digital isn’t just about communicating your message externally to the public through Facebook and Twitter – it is also about improvements in how you operate internally.

    We would advise that your digital strategy should enhance the relationship in your operations between the:

    – FCO and the public (for example improving how you support your work with UK nationals in country, whilst also reducing the cost of your embassy operations)
    – FCO and its employees (for example allowing employees around the world to share best practice, bringing ideas together and enhancing the breadth and depth of those ideas).
    – FCO and other international governments (helping you communicate and engage with global partners, the UK taking a leading role globally)
    – FCO and other government departments (for example how you work with DfID, or the role of the FCO, UKREP and Home office in Brussels)
    – FCO and businesses (for example improvements in the delivery of trade missions, improving how you represent and engage with UK and international business overseas)

    Overall any investment in a digital product or platform should have both a financial and a performance benefit to the organisation.

    To achieve this we would recommend bringing together people who understand how the FCO works operationally, those who know how it works technically, and those who know the digital world – whether that be from across government (for example GDS) or externally.


    Alastair Treharne and Mark Syed

  9. Thank you for some really interesting and informative comments that have inspired me as I discuss these issues within the Foreign Office.

    I would personally highlight:

    – Randall Craig’s point that the strategy should not just be a “tack-on”, but embedded into the fabric of what we do.

    – Alastair Treharne and Mark Syed’s point about the need to look at how digital can enhance work across all parts of the FCO.

    – Marc Shillum’s point about the need to take stock of our operational ability and concentrate on the user.

    – Mark Pinsent, Matt M, Alastair Treharne and Mark Syed’s points on the importance of incorporating mobile into our strategy.

    – Steve Parks’ points about looking at smaller cheaper projects through Agile.

    – and Matthias Lüfkens’ interesting ideas around country branding and George Butler’s request for a passport app (sorry George, the Home Office do passports!).

    We’re now in the final straits of producing the strategy, having held a number of internal workshops as well as teleconferences with Embassies around the world. We’ve been looking at how digital can play a role in every part of a diplomat’s work, adding to how we achieve the FCO’s overall objectives. We’ve been looking at how we can develop our services. And we’ve been looking at our current capabilities and how they’ll need to evolve.

    We’re also working closely with the Government Digital Services as they set the government’s overall digital direction and establish the single government website “gov.uk”. Many of the points made here, eg looking at how we do projects or mobile, will also resonate at that government wide level. Looking at mobile for instance, I know the Government Digital Service are clear that government services should work on a range of web-enabled devices, including mobile phones.

    So thank you again for these comments. I think you’ll see many of them reflected in either the FCO or the government wide digital strategy. And it’s not too late for any last minute ideas!

    Adam Bye

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