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E-diplomacy: The Indian experience

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This post is part of the E-diplomacy in action debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

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7 June 2011 14:42


This post is part of the E-diplomacy in action debate thread. To read other posts in this debate, click here.

India is famous for its IT industry and, not surprisingly, its foreign ministry sees a bright future for e-diplomacy. Navideep Suri is Joint Secretary for Public Diplomacy in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and oversees its new e-diplomacy push. He was kind enough to do an email interview on India's recent initiative in this space. 

Q: India has been active in the e-diplomacy space. What are some of the initiatives you’ve been working on and what platforms have you found most effective so far and for what purposes?

A: We entered the e-diplomacy space last July when we started our Twitter account. We followed it up with a Facebook page and a YouTube channel and also started using online publishing sites like Scribd and Issuu for some of our publications. We also started our Public Diplomacy website which, curiously, was the first in our government to be based on a Web 2.0 platform.

When we started our journey on the e-diplomacy path, our own systems and regulations were loaded against our initiatives and so we were, in a sense, the first in our government to start using social media. 

But despite the initial hurdles, I have to say that our experience has been very positive. The fact that the public diplomacy division has won two awards for most innovative use of social media in government has also helped us underscore the larger context in which our efforts are situated.

As we gain experience with social media, we are starting to recognise the importance of each individual platform on its own merits. 

On Twitter, we are inching close to the 11,000 followers mark and we see quite a few of our communications get re-tweeted by multiple individuals. Our experience with Twitter during the evacuation of our nationals from Libya was a real eye-opener. We used it to put out timely information about the evacuation schedule, we received invaluable information from the ground about the requirements of our nationals in distant parts of Libya, and we got large dollops of appreciation from tweeple who appreciated the effort that we were making in using new media. In the process, we also picked up quite a few additional followers and friends.

To me, frankly, the one specific case of listening to an individual in Chennai about the plight of his father and other Indians in Misratah was all the feedback that I needed to highlight the importance of listening in our public diplomacy efforts. The fact that real time feedback helped us with our evacuation efforts was a huge bonus.

On Facebook, we are trying to build a narrative about our soft power and create communities of Friends of India. We've had remarkable initial feedback on our ITEC page on Facebook which brings together individuals who have come to India under the Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation programme. Visit and you will get a flavour.

We have also asked our embassies and consulates to establish their own presence on Facebook and I am happy that in the month or so since we sent our communication to them, some 35 of them have already come online. I see this trend accelerating rapidly over the next few months in a way that it becomes part of a coherent and mutually supportive presence.

On YouTube, we are trying a somewhat different track. Our public diplomacy division has been commissioning documentary films on different facets of India for the last three decades. But during the last few months, we started the process of uploading shorter, tightly edited versions on YouTube and we have already received over 70,000 views. This is mostly due to the unexpected, runaway success of a short, quirky little film called 'The Musalman' (see above) that we commissioned last year. It is about the world's last handwritten Urdu language daily, published out of Chennai. The newspaper is really a labour of love and we've been stunned to see that as of today, the 2nd of June 2011, it has received over 40,000 views in barely three weeks since we uploaded it! This shows the power of the medium if we can provide intelligent content in an accessible format.

We hope that in the next few months we can integrate all platforms in a way that all our content is digital. We've created a Digital Diplomacy section as a starting point and I am sure that it will gather momentum in the coming months. But at present, this has limitations because I only speak for the public diplomacy division of the Ministry of External Affairs and not for the entire Ministry.

Q: What level of support does e-diplomacy enjoy within the Indian Foreign Ministry? Are there plans to expand the number of staff working in this area and to integrate e-diplomacy across the ministry?

A: We have been fortunate in getting strong support from Mrs Nirupama Rao, our Foreign Secretary. Her leadership has helped us steer many of our initiatives to the point that we have reached at present. But we also suffer from a major constraint because the broader responsibility for putting out all official information presently rests with our External Publicity division and not with us in the Public Diplomacy division. We are working towards a much closer integration so that we can make better use of all of the information available with us as an institution. We have to work towards getting out of our silos and presenting a much more comprehensive picture that respects the active interest of our audience and engages with them.

We will definitely need more staff. At present, we have the somewhat ridiculous situation of me and my colleague Abhay being a one-and-a-half man team trying to run our digital diplomacy initiatives. And I would be the first to concede that I have a lot of other issues on my plate even though my instinct says that we will get the most bang for the buck if we concentrate our limited resources on new media. 

But I do worry that we are raising expectations amongst our friends, followers and viewers without an effective back-end that can provide the kind of timely and substantive responses that we should gear ourselves to provide.

Q: In the US, in particular, IT corporations have worked closely with the State Department to develop various e-diplomacy tools. Has there been any similar collaboration in India with your own IT sector?

A: I sincerely hope that we too can leverage the formidable, world class capabilities of our private IT companies. In our public diplomacy efforts, we have been most effective where we have partnered with credible and competent private actors. I hope that we will soon be able to extend this to our e-diplomacy presence as well. We will obviously have to do this in a way that we can marry the needs for transparency and financial propriety with a model that enables us to leverage the best available talent and resources in our private sector. 

Q: What do you see as the future of e-diplomacy in the Indian MFA?

A: Well, to start with, let's call it the MEA instead of MFA since we are the Ministry of External Affairs. I feel that we have taken the difficult first steps that break traditional mindsets, establish an e-diplomacy platform and open the way for others to build upon it. I am particularly encouraged by the fact that so many of our colleagues, especially some of our younger diplomats, have been quick to seize the opportunity that we are creating. My gut instinct tells me that if we can unleash their creativity and innovation, we will soon see our e-diplomacy efforts move in directions that our bureaucracy may not even be able to envisage. That's the future of e-diplomacy and I am confident that we are going to be a fairly significant part of it. So watch this space and let's visit it again in a few months.

Do keep in mind that we still haven't celebrated our first birthday in terms of our presence in new media. That will happen in July! I do hope that by the end of this year, we will be counted amongst the top ten practitioners of e-diplomacy.

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