Tag Archives: foreign affairs

Weaving Foreign Ministries into the Digital Era: Three ideas

Last week I was in Ottawa giving a talk at the Department of Foreign Affairs talking about how technology, new media and open innovation will impact the department’s it work internally, across Ottawa and around the world.

While there is lots to share, here are three ideas I’ve been stewing on:

Keep more citizens safe when abroad – better danger zone notification

Some people believe that open data isn’t relevant to departments like Foreign Affairs or the State Department. Nothing could be further than the truth.

One challenge the department has is getting Canadians to register with them when they visit or live in a country labeled by the department as problematic for traveling in its travel reports (sample here). As you can suspect, few Canadians register with the embassy as they are likely not aware of the program or travel a lot and simply don’t get around to  it.

There are other ways of tackling this problem that might yield broader participation.

Why not turn the Travel Report system into an open data with an API? I’d tackle this by approaching a company like TripIt. Every time I book an airplane ticket or a hotel I simply forward TripIt the reservation, which they scan and turn into events that then automatically appear my calendar. Since they scan my travel plans they also know which country, city and hotel I’m staying in… they also know where I live and could easily ask me for my citizenship. Working with companies like TripIt (or Travelocity, Expedia, etc…) DFAIT could co-design an API into the departments travel report data that would be useful to them. Specifically, I could imagine that if TripIt could query all my trips against those reports then any time they notice I’m traveling somewhere the Foreign Ministry has labelled “exercise a high-degree of caution” or worse trip TripIt could ask me if I’d be willing to let them forward my itinerary to the department. That way I could registry my travel automatically, making the service more convenient for me, and getting the department more information that it believes to be critical as well.

Of course, it might be wise to work with the State Department so that their travel advisories used a similarly structured API (since I can assume TripIt will be more interested in the larger US market than the Canadian market) But facilitating that conversation would be nothing but wins for the department.

More bang for buck in election monitoring

One question that arose during my talk came from an official interested in elections monitoring. In my mind, one thing the department should be considering is a fund to help local democracy groups spin up installations of Ushahidi in countries with fragile democracies that are gearing up for elections. For those unfamiliar with Ushahidi it is a platform developed after the disputed 2007 presidential election in Kenya that plotted eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text-message on a google map.

Today it is used to track a number of issues – but problems with elections remain one of its core purposes. The department should think about grants that would help spin up a Ushahidi install to enable citizens of the country register concerns and allegations around fraud, violence, intimidation, etc… It could then verify and inspect issues that are flagged by the countries citizens. This would allow the department to deploy its resources more effectively and ensure that its work was speaking to concerns raised by citizens.

A Developer version of DART?

One of the most popular programs the Canadian government has around international issues is the Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART). In particular, Canadians have often been big fans of DART’s work in purifying water after the boxing day tsunami in Asia as well as its work in Haiti. Maybe the department could have a digital DART team, a group of developers that, in an emergency could help spin up Ushahidi, Fixmystreet, or OpenMRS installations to provide some quick but critical shared infrastructure for Canadians, other countries’ response teams and for non-profits. During periods of non-crisis the team could work on these projects or supporting groups like CrisisCommons or OpenStreetMaps, helping contribute to open source projects that can be instrumental in a humanitarian crisis.


Note to Balsillie: Lack of funding didn't kill the CIIA, its culture did

Interesting news on the Canadian international policy front. Some of you may have read this story outlining how Balsillie has given $1million dollars, and will lead the fundraising effort for another million, to establish the Canadian International Council.

This is a good news/bad news story with some important lessons for anyone running a national organization.

First, the good news.

Any funding into the study of Canadian Foreign Policy is good news. Thanks to Andrew Cohen, the notion that Canada’s influence in the world is in virtual free fall is now accepted orthodoxy. As Jeffrey Simpson aptly put it: “never before has the world meant more to Canada; never has Canada meant less to the world.” A wider set of voices, activitely engaging in public debates about Canada and the world, should be a welcome development.

Moreover, this move will rescue the fast declining Canadian Institute for International Affairs (CIIA). At one time the CIIA was the crucible in which the international affairs were debated and discussed in Canada. Membership was essential for anyone active in the development of foreign policy.

Times, however, have changed. Today there are a wealth of groups that engage international issues: Engineers without Borders, Journalists for Human Rights, the Canadian Red Cross, Oxfam Canada, Greenpeace, Canadian Council of Chief Executives, etc… offer both a more focused discussion and, perhaps more importantly, tangible impact, in a way the CIIA couldn’t, and the CIC can’t. Common wisdom says the glory days of the CIIA ended for a reason… as the above mentioned list attests, the marketplace simply became more competitive and specialized. That said, it may be that there is both an interest in, and a critical role for, a non-partisan organization that brings Canadians together to talk about foreign policy in the broadest sense. I certainly hope so.

And now, the bad news

Rebranding and plowing money back into the CIIA saves it from having to ask itself the tough question: why is it dying? And have no doubt, the CIIA is dying. This is true in the figurative sense, something John MacNaughton, its chair conceded in the Globe when he noted that the establishment of the CIC “moves CIIA from the deathbed to the launching pad.” It is also true in the literal sense. The average age of the CIIA’s 1300 members is in the 60s and possibly 70s (remember, this is the average age). I went to several events in Ottawa where the under 50 crowd represented maybe 5-7% of the audience.

The challenge for the CIIA, and now the CIC, is twofold, but with a single goal: become relevant by attracting new, younger, members.

Part of this problem is structural. In many chapters (the Kitchener-Waterloo branch being a notable exception) the CIIA has become a place where retired diplomats gather. It’s boards are dominated by retired diplomats (although there is often a token young person, usually from the local university). This means the issues, discussions, and networks are geared towards an older audience. When the CIIA was a place where aspiring diplomats and foreign policy geeks gathered, the network effect caused more young members to join, so they could meet peers who were rising stars. Today, the CIIA is a place where retired diplomats and foreign policy geeks meet, this means the network effects work against younger people, who while possibly keen to learn from wiser souls, recognize they are less likely to meet contemporaries and peers. In short, the CIIA lacks critical mass in the right demographics.

The part of the problem is cultural. CIIA meetings tend to be stuffy, formal events, reflecting the diplomatic tradition from its founding period (1930’s-50’s). While there is not dress code, members tend to wear suits and events focus on speeches with some Q&A. It’s all very traditional, formal and hierarchical. International affairs already suffers from a reputation as a snobby subject, this formality almost certainly discourages novices and younger members from participating, and returning.

In short, the CIIA financial issues were never the problem, just the symptom. The problem is cultural.

Money: an opportunity rife with risk

Without a real change in course, things at the CIC will look very much like they do at the CIIA today. Moreover, if past performance is anything to go by, the selection of 20 fellows will have little impact, and could make things worse. My suspicion (and fear) is that the CIC’s fellowships will become the retirement home for Canada’s foreign policy old guard, men like the eminent and highly qualified Allan Gotlieb. Worse still, the alleged “innovative” choices will people like Jennifer Welsh, Michael Byers or Rob Huebert (just to cover the political spectrum). In reality these people should be “safe” choices. As they, and the old guard, already have a pulpit from which to speak, and have done so effectively. If the CIC wants to be about new ideas and compelling debates, it should bring in some younger and more diverse blood. Perhaps set a target of making a third to half its fellows true “risky” choices – rising voices, or those outside the old safe, stodgy world of the foreign policy cocktail circuit. Ideally, they’d target people with credibility, and an emerging track record of engaging in public debates.

So in closing… here are some people I’d like to see nominated for the CIC fellowships (in no particular order):

And for some older voices probably not on the radar of the CIC I might include:

  • Daryl Copeland – Public servant, outside thinker
  • Max Wyman – the arts in Canadian foreign policy
  • Chief Billy Diamond – business and first nations perspective

So there it is, the unvarnished analysis of the challenges facing the CIC. I’m cheering for them, I just hope they are willing to break the old-boys network mold. If not, we’ll be back where we were in no time.