Internet, Britain and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office

Articles March 29, 2010 12:45 am

This article is part of an open conversation and a reply to Rt Hon David Miliband‘s post about “Foreign policy and the internet” published in one of the FCO´s Blogs.

Internet and the e-government

Communication, collaboration, coordination, congregation; These four C’s are what makes the internet of strategic importance for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) and Britain as a whole, and why it is critical to understand its implications, potential, benefits and dangers.

Communication is probably the first thing that comes to mind when describing the main function of the internet; nevertheless, its most important aspect is the change in the power balance that it has enabled. Before the internet, publishers of content were just a few institutions with enough capital to push their messages to passive audiences, but now with the emergence of the 2.0 phenomena, everybody can create, share and distribute content to a worldwide audience.

On the one hand, this means good news for the FCO. It lowers the cost of communication and opens multiple channels for bidirectional contact with its multiple stakeholders. On the other hand, it also generates great new challenges. Increase in spam and misleading messages creates the need for advanced filters (to find information, not to block it) and a more sophisticated approach to retrieve the important messages scattered around the web. The organization and management of the information is also more complex and important than ever; especially now that it competes with multiple other sources and attention is one of the most vital but also difficult things to attract.

Collaboration represents one of the areas with more potential for growth and innovation over the internet. The creation of content, policies, research and many other human activities that were usually restricted to individuals or tightly coordinated groups are now open to larger ones in seeming real time and with little or no cost. Projects like Wikipedia, Ushahidi (crowdsourcing crisis information), Linux, Amazon Mechanical Turk (low-cost crowdsourcing marketplace) and many others, show the power of the crowds when the incentives and the platforms are correctly aligned with the final objective. In terms of foreign policy, this means multiple challenges:

  • The UK government needs to be prepared to effectively manage and use the potential of these new kind of tools. This requires a new set of skills in community management, social media and data privacy issues.
  • Clear protocols and standards are required to generate and aggregate the huge amounts of data produced by the country’s internal processes and research paid by the taxpayers. Initiatives such as creative commons, science commons and other “open data” movements should be taken into account as a source of knowledge to design governmental policies that ensure data transparency, reusability and consistency across governmental institutions and agencies. Such policies can multiply the benefits of gathering data and generate a finer degree of analysis and better conclusions. It also would help multiple researchers to work on the same problem simultaneously and check each other’s work.
  • In multilateral relationships with other countries or institutions, the role of “wikis” and other collaboration tools can be decisive to keep up with the demands of the current needs concerning issues such as climate change as well as to manage crisis. Governmental research and investment in training is required to make the best use of these new tools and make sure that security and reliability are at the required levels. TO CONTINUE READING CLICK HERE =>

Coordination and congregation can be seen as the most political part of this internet equation for the FCO. In a world that is already used to internet banking and moving huge amounts of money from corporations and individuals without major security problems, it seems odd that “e-democracy” is barely exercised. Citizen groups are already using virtual spaces, like old Greeks used public squares, to exercise their own kind of politics. Yet there seems to be such a gap between what the citizens know is possible with e-democracy and what the government does to implement it. The UK is in a great position to lead e-democracy worldwide and in this way bring the benefits of increased participation and transparency to millions around the globe. To make this happen there are some important issues that must be addressed first, such as:

  • Secure and standard ways of digital identification should be in place to enable e-voting and other official procedures over the web. A sort of e-passport, validated and provided by a governmental entity could dramatically increase not only e-commerce and other common activities over the web that require user validation, but also open the door for a new era in participation, from local government to the national level. This could be materialized in the form of opinion polls, prioritization of projects and initiatives, and submissions of ideas that later could be ranked and evaluated by the same members of the community (similar to the model of platforms like ideascale)
  • Internet neutrality, as well as a clear delimitation between public and private internet spaces when it comes to governmental monitoring and policing, is critical to ensure a healthy community. As it happens offline with systems like CCTV, monitored spaces should have a notification and private spaces should be respected. The government certainly has a role to play in the regulation and safety of the internet as a common space, making sure that illegal activities are under control and law is respected, but the frontiers of these actions must be clearly drawn in advance and enforced to keep this space as a fertile ground for liberty of speech and creativity.

The UK government and particularly the FCO, with its digital diplomacy efforts and its investments in new technology, have clearly shown their positive predisposition to adopt the internet as an active tool to deliver and create value for the wider community. However, there are still many things to do to harness the full potential of  e-government and  e-democracy. Digital Britain can become a world leader in these aspects or be a passive follower, the things that will make the difference will be its willingness to experiment, believing in the power of the crowds and the understanding of internet as phenomena that go well beyond e-mail and web pages.

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