Wild, Wild Web Chat on 21st Century Statecraft – Disinfectant, Control Freaks and Please, No Shots in the Heads

You must know by now that the month of January has been designated as 21st Century Statecraft month at the State Department.  Of course, what is 21st Century Statecraft without the Secretary of State’s most Senior Advisor for Innovation?  On January 10, Alec Ross had a web chat with journalists and bloggers from around the world to discuss 21st Century Statecraft.  Below are some quips that made us take out our highlighter:

On the question, “How do you work with your diplomats who might not be social media savvy?”, this is what Mr. Ross had to say:

MR. ROSS: Yeah. So social media intimidates a lot of people that just aren’t used to it. I’m 40 years old, which makes me 12, 15 years older than digital natives, than people who grew up with the internet. I didn’t send or receive a single email when I was at university. I didn’t own my first mobile phone until I was in my late 20s. So I’ve had to learn this just like everybody else has.

What I tell our diplomats is that you don’t have to be a social media expert, but if you are working at our embassies, and certainly if you’re an Ambassador and leading one of our embassies, you don’t have to do it yourself, but you better find somebody in your embassy or on your team who does understand it. And then part of what we’re trying to do as a practical matter is train our diplomats – everybody from the 22 year-olds who are new diplomats, who, to be honest with you, don’t need the training because I’ve yet to meet a 22 year old, at least in the United States, who doesn’t understand social media – to train everybody from our most junior diplomats to our ambassadors.
So I personally train everybody who is a rising Ambassador. We have this thing at the State Department called the Foreign Service Institute. And you literally take classes to be an Ambassador. You go through what’s called an Ambassadorial seminar. And when you are in your Ambassadorial seminar, you get a class from Alec Ross about how to use social media. And what I tell them is you don’t have to use it, but if you don’t, you need to empower somebody at your embassy who does.
And it’s not about talking. This isn’t about pushing out a message. What I tell our ambassadors is remember you only have one mouth, but two ears. So even if you aren’t using these tools to communicate out to people, at a bare minimum, you need to use them to listen to people, because this is how people are talking to you in the 21st century.

Want more? Okay, more from Mr. Ross:

“I believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and as our information networks become more universal and more powerful, there’s more of this sunlight to bring to light what’s happening all around the world.”

“The difference in the United States versus other places is that we do this without sacrificing universal rights. So people have freedom of expression. They have the ability to exercise peaceful, political dissent. They have the ability to communicate however they see fit”

“[W]hat social media tends to do, is it redistributes power. It redistributes power from hierarchies to citizens, from large institutions and the nation-state to individuals and networks of individuals.”

“The 21st century is a lousy time to be a control freak.”

“We can try to control the space, but I’m very skeptical about the degree to which we can or should control the internet. I think that it’s a losing proposition. The far better thing to do is to understand that everybody’s going to have a voice, that good points of view and bad points of view are going to be conveyed there, and what we need to do is be aggressive in getting out there and pushing out the truth.”
“What I will say, though, is if hundreds of people at – let’s say hundreds of people at the State Department – if hundreds of people are using social media and one person goes a little bit off message, I don’t think that person should be shot in the head. I think that they should be corrected. But part of the – part of getting people involved in using social media means that you’re giving up a little bit of control.”

“The traditional way in which the State Department got its message out was standing behind a podium and our spokesperson communicating the policy of the United States Department of State. We still do that and it’s the right thing to do. But part of what Hillary Clinton has empowered our diplomats to do is to have literally hundreds of other people out there communicating and having conversations, and I think that this is a good thing. Of course we all have to operate and communicate within the parameters of U.S. policy, but one of the things that we know is because of the hyper-transparency that comes with all of this social media, if anybody steps out of it for a minute, we hear about it.”

“I think that now that we’ve been doing this for three years, I think that what we can see is that, by and large, our diplomats get this right. By and large, they understand our policies. By and large, they represent us well on social media. So I think we should be doing more of this rather than less.”

“At the United States Department of State, we, like the rest of the world, are learning and adapting to a world that’s becoming increasingly disrupted by social media. This disruption can be good, it can be bad, but we live in a world of constant change. And what we’re seeking to do, even though we are historically a pretty conservative organization, part of what our boss, Hillary Clinton, has said is that we’ve got to keep pace, we’ve got to listen, we’ve got to learn, we’ve got to experiment. And so even things like this session today, this LiveAtState session today, I think is very important and very positive. Part of what we want to do is take diplomats like myself sitting here in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, D.C. and bring them to countries around the world where you might otherwise not be able to speak with us and ask questions of us.”

Oh, Alec, this is wild, just wild!

Prior to Foggy Bottom, Mr. Ross worked on the
Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team and served as Convener for
Obama for America’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications Policy
Committee.  He is not a career official.  He says that he personally trains rising ambassadors and the chiefs of mission seminar.  Which makes one wonder how far this flavor stick when the Obama Reelection Campaign comes calling.  Video here in case you need to show this to your boss who just slapped your hands with an imaginary bamboo stick for blogging, tweeting and touching those shiny but pesky 21st century statecraft tools.

When the harassment and discouragement of State Department bloggers first manifested we had a chance to point out the problems to Mr. Ross. On January 2010 he told this blog, “If I’m given specific names of people doing the “discouraging” then I will take it up with those individuals (or their bosses or their boss’ boss) directly.”

Which is good to hear at first blush but not the best response or solution to this problem. See, Mr. Ross, whatever his actual employee category is not a career employee of the State Department. He may leave when Secretary Clinton term is up, or may sign up for another term if there is an Obama II. Or he could get recycled out if there is a new tenant in the WH.

So, let’s pretend for a moment that I am a State employee with a blog that is getting some flack from my boss in say, the CA bureau. I give Mr. Ross my boss’ name.  Mr. Ross may take up my issue with the top honcho of Consular Affairs. If that does not work, he may take it up with the boss of the CA boss, which would be, yes, the Under Secretary for Management, pretty high up the chain.  I imagine that those bosses, whether they agree or not would listen to Secretary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation; that’s a given.  So I’ll happily blog along, problem solved. Until, of course, Mr. Ross moves on to his next adventure and exits Foggy Bottom.  I, presumably would still continue working for the bureaucracy.  My boss, and his/her boss’ boss would  still continue working for the bureaucracy.  And they would remember me as the blogger somebody who rat on them to the 7th floor using the super fast elevator.  Under this scenario, Mr. Ross’ solution to “take it up” directly with the bosses is like the career equivalent of taking rat poison.