Technology and government: they go together like…well, what exactly? If you’re like most people in Washington, odds are that your views on this relationship have been hardened by your work in one of two places: the U.S. Department of —–, or a consulting firm whose client is one of said umpteen government bureaus. In either case, you probably don’t give much credence to the idea of any sort of viable marriage between technology and governmental action. While the prevailing trend in federal work seems to be the uninspired status quo, the employees of the State Department’s innovative (yes, innovative) Office of eDiplomacy have taken it upon themselves to upend your pessimistic Washington worldview.
Launched in 2003, the Office of eDiplomacy is housed within the Bureau of Information Resource Management, tasked with the mission to further American diplomatic efforts “by providing effective knowledge-sharing initiatives, guidance on the convergence of technology and diplomacy, and first-class IT consulting” (state.gov). Though still a fledgling by governmental standards, the office has already implemented several tech-savvy initiatives, including the Diplopedia Wiki, an internal encyclopedia of foreign service data; Tech@State, an ongoing series of networking events aimed at connecting technologists with the country’s diplomatic and development goals; and the Virtual Student Foreign Service, an e-internship program of “digital diplomacy” for American college students.
The Virtual Student Foreign Service–VSFS for short–is the project that really breaks the unyielding, bureaucratic mold. Secretary Clinton announced the launch of phase one, the nine-month e-internship program, during her 2009 commencement speech at New York University. Phase two, a crowdsourcing, microvolunteering initiative is currently in the testing stage, ready to go live later this spring.
“Crowdsourcing? At the State Department?” you might ask, incredulously. I was equally perplexed and intrigued by the concept, and my curiosity led me to a recent lecture held at the Elliot School of International Affairs entitled, simply enough, “Crowdsource as a Tool of Diplomacy.” The event began with an introduction to the computational theory behind crowdsourcing and its rapid proliferation across the Internet (you may have heard of Wikipedia) and ended with an overview of the concept in action: a sneak peak into the VSFS microvolunteering platform.
The program is deceptively simple: college students will create a profile using their .edu email address, select their diplomacy-related interests and relevant skills, and search through a list of available “challenges” that fit their self-identified skill-set. To give you two specific examples, an employee at the U.S. Embassy of Sweden might post a challenge aimed at budding graphic designers that calls for the re-design of their e-newsletter, or the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues might ask the quantitatively-inclined to answer the question “How much does the mobile Internet really cost in Africa?” The presenter from the State Department even granted attendees access to the beta version of the website, which I have been eagerly navigating ever since.
The Office of eDiplomacy is the most visible face of “21st century statecraft” in action. A phrase coined by Secretary Clinton, the concept refers to the “complementing of traditional foreign policy tools with newly innovated and adapted instruments of statecraft that fully leverage the networks, technologies, and demographics of our interconnected world.” While questions of quality control remain, the Office’s microvolunteering initiative takes the idea of public diplomacy to a whole new level. Are we witnessing a new approach to government: open, transparent, and digital? Though tempting, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Widespread governmental change is still a pipedream, but the Office of eDiplomacy has a bright, beacon-like future.