Is the State Department ready for this brave new world?
The ranking member on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar writes a piece for Foreign Policy on “How the U.S. State Department should enable and encourage social-networking sites in the global fight for freedom (FP | Argument | January 6). Excerpts below:
The adroit use of social networking sites, such as Twitter, Facebook, and others, coupled with text messages and increasingly widespread mobile-phone technology, can help lend support to existing grassroots movements for freedom and civil rights, connect people to information, and help those in closed societies communicate with the outside world. It also promises to give a strong economic boost to small entrepreneurs and the rural poor. The World Bank estimates that for every 10 percent increase in the number of mobile-phone users in a developing country, there is nearly a 1 percent increase in its economic output.
But social networking technologies are more often used to enable individuals across a country, or across the globe, to interact, engage, and become empowered. Although this means that our government will not be able to control the message as well as it might with conventional public diplomacy tools, I believe it is a risk worth taking. Terrorists and other anti-American propagandists have for some time been using the Internet and other techniques to communicate and recruit. America needs to beat them at their own game, especially since we invented most of the technology.
I would encourage the administration and our diplomats to be nimble, flexible, and innovative as they pursue a wide range of foreign-policy initiatives that use these new communication and connection techniques. Diplomacy and development are our best means of winning the global war of ideas, and we must come to the battle armed with the most modern tools at our disposal.
Read the whole thing here
The motivational mix in federal agencies varies, but in most cases includes heavy emphasis on security. The rewards are job tenure, regular promotions, adequate salaries, a clean work place, and better-than-average retirement benefits. Many positions, particularly at higher levels, involve inherently interesting work and offer the employee ample opportunities to express his talents. But in most established agencies, there is little call for entrepreneurship, creativity, innovation and risk-taking. These qualities are neither solicited nor rewarded, and may be punished.
The book, by the way, is an excellent study on the oldest executive department in the union. Although written over 30 years ago, many of the problems and organizational issues that he talks about in the book are familiar as day.
One of the reports he cited in the book is called the State Department’s Task Force on the Stimulation of Creativity (can you believe that?) which concluded that “conformity is prized in the Foreign Service above all qualities.”
… The pressures to avoid rocking the boat, to avoid dress and behavior which depart from the norms of the group, to avoid expression of controversial views are of the subtle, unspoken kind which are hard to document. But we have the testimony of a broad cross section of the officers whose views we sought that they are a powerful, all pervasive influence. Such pressures, of course, are the death of the creative impulse (U.S. State Department, 1970, p.310).
Senator Lugar in his piece makes two important points in this new engagement: 1) less control of the message and 2) nimbleness, flexibility and innovation in engagement. Both points are still kind of “foreign objects” in the State Department’s galaxy.
I have no doubt that the desire to control the message is what cause the demise of Madam le Consul’s blog. The “tried and true” in the bureaucracy is often preferable than “wild ideas” or even simple new ideas. The prevailing wisdom might be that shutting her down “protects” her and of course, by extension the mother ship. But how can an organization presume to “beat the enemies” at their own game when it has low tolerance for employees engaging with “friendlies” on the web. And if you can get in trouble for saying something that has not been cleared through the 12-steps program within the mission and the bureaus, how can you encourage flexibility and innovation?
Senator Lugar says “we must come to the battle armed with the most modern tools at our disposal.” I hate to tell Senator Lugar this. The tools are here alright. Bright and shiny and ready for razzle dazzle. But “control” and “culture” have not shown up for the party. It remains to be seen if they’ll make it here before 2050.