19th May 2014 London, UK

Digital diplomacy at the FCO Leadership Conference 2014

Last week saw our annual Leadership Conference when Ambassadors from around the world return to London to look at how the Foreign Office can deliver most effectively for British nationals.


Like last year, the opportunities offered by digital to improve our work were a theme through the event.

The week started with the Digital Transformation Unit holding two workshops for Ambassadors looking at a “Digital Embassy” – how digital tools and technology can help every area of an Embassy’s work from policy, to service delivery to communications. Christina Scott (Chief Information Officer of the Financial Times) and Macon Phillips (Head of International Information Programmes at the US State Department) gave key note speeches.

Christina talked about the transformation that had taken place at the FT and Macon gave a US perspective of digital’s fundamental impact on diplomacy. Macon set out how one US Ambassador found that social media helped him improve his language skills, keep up with developments and anticipate media questions. Stephen Hale from the Department of Health and Gavin Bell from the Ministry of Justice also joined us, profiling some of the digital work their own departments have been doing in policy and service delivery.

This was followed by practical demonstrations, with team members looking with Ambassadors at opportunities in more depth. One table looked at the key principles of impactful digital communications. Another looked at how social media could be used to connect with influencers important to the UK (we even showed Ambassadors some maps of their own networks). And the third – and most technically challenging – table featured a live demonstration of how we might be able to digitise some of our existing processes, for example around Emergency Travel Documents.

We took Ambassadors through the booking of such a service online, followed by a remote interview with our Consular Contact Centre in Malaga, showing how we might be able to deliver such services more effectively while saving staff time to focus on those most in need.

Later in the week, I addressed the Leadership Conference plenary. I talked about the role of the smartphone in increasing the spread of the internet and about the impact of a more digital, more connected world – a world which is faster paced and in which more people can influence international developments. I also talked through the opportunities that world offered – to better understand the countries and issues on which we work; to connect with influencers important to the UK; and to formulate and implement better foreign policy.

I encouraged the Ambassadors to look at how we take those opportunities, leaving them with a quote that Christina Scott had used earlier in the week – digital was no longer “new”, it was “now”.

Lastly, digital came up in other sessions of the conference – from being highlighted by our Permanent Secretary Simon Fraser to being mentioned by the FCO’s “youth inspire” group as fundamental to connecting to today’s young people.

All in all, intense but energising. I’m grateful to the team here and to all the external speakers who gave us their time. A great basis for further progress in using digital to do our work better.

View the story “Digital at FCO Leadership Conference 2014” on Storify.