Wednesday, February 17, 2016

[Guest post] Evaluating public participation in diplomacy

Marina Neves,

Neves image from article

‘The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless’, remembered Vaclav Havel in his assumption that power is something held and exerted by ordinary people. This argument is premised by the view that individuals are an active force in society, and therefore everyone has a small part in making politics.

We are living in an era in which individuals as single actors express their opinions, ideas, and identities, thus defining present and future policies on a global scale. Some important questions are: What are the obstacles faced by civil society and individuals in terms of civil engagement in the context of foreign service offices? To what degree are governments today cognisant of the need to reckon consciously with the necessity of engaging the public in diplomacy and foreign policy decisions?

I have been studying the right to participate in intergovernmental diplomacy for the past two years. I have documented conclusive evidence which shows that the right to participate in international affairs and diplomacy is uneven around the world. There are countries where individuals have been willing and able to have a major presence in foreign policy, but there are countries where their presence has been weak and irrelevant. Also, there are countries in which there is greater emphasis on government-to-people rather than government-to-government relationships. But there are also countries where government-to-people relationships are irrelevant.

The main challenge, in the context of Foreign Service offices, is the absence of platforms (i.e. tools, technologies, proceedings, and mechanisms of public participation that allow citizens to take part in foreign policy processes) for citizens or local groups in some countries. Although the Internet has led to a greater decentralisation of the information provision process, its potential and its impact on diplomacy are still not completely understood.

A standard criticism of citizen participation in diplomacy is that average citizens are not capable of making decisions about complex public policy matters. But average citizens can do so if the necessary resources are properly structured and made available to them. Here, one aspect of public participation must be evaluated for effectiveness: citizens have to be provided with accurate, organised, and relevant information. For instance, seminars and public participation programmes promoted by the Foreign Office facilitate citizen interaction in South Africa. The Foreign Office’s website provides information on events, programmes, and conferences. The United States Foreign Office [sic] website is very interactive and informative with positive information provided at all times. In the case of the United States, there are also programmes to engender public awareness and interest in the international activities of the Foreign Service, such as the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps. It is easy to perceive that this country, more than most, makes public diplomacy much more central in the implementation of its foreign policy.

Public participation can only exist in diplomacy if official bodies are not reluctant to create, or even hostile to the creation of tools or proceedings that might allow citizens to participate in the foreign policy process. Openness and transparency are elements in democracy that also affect participation. Democratising foreign policy in this context becomes synonymous with measures to strengthen the oversight and consultative functions. Nevertheless, as my studies point out, the issue of public involvement still finds limitations in diplomacy, making it a challenging task indeed.

This blog post presents an overview of public participation in the international arena, defines the terms, sets the context, and determines the premise of my research. In future posts, I will present a general analysis of the online questionnaire that was conducted for this study in order to explore to what degree individuals have expanded their role in foreign policy and how Foreign Service offices are dealing with this.

Marina Neves is a Commmunication Specialist currently completing her MA in International Politics at City University London. She has been studying public participation, public diplomacy or people's diplomacy, and e-governance since 2013. She appreciates the generous support from DiploFoundation for her research process.

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