Networking is as old as diplomacy and often instinctively considered an “embassy game”. Foreign ministries themselves do however rely more and more on their networks. Collaboration with actors outside the public sector is on the rise. High-quality networks are not just for purposes of outreach, but also to help deliver concrete and measurable results, and contribute significantly to policy innovation.
As part of its broader action plan on the modernization of its diplomacy, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs has decided to take a closer look at its own networking practices. In close cooperation with the MFA Strategic Advisory Unit, the Clingendael Institute is currently conducting pilot research on the complex policy networks of the Ministry.
Changes in international relations require a more open and flexible organizational structure for the foreign ministry – and not just in The Hague. With this pioneering project, the Dutch seem to make the point that governmental networking practices may require an update to modern-day realities. Recent innovations in diplomatic policy making such as trilateral cooperation, digital diplomacy and the integrative approach of combining defence, diplomacy and development policies, require a more systematically networked approach. In actual fact, the need for more systematic networking applies to MFA activities across the board. It has everything to do with diplomacy becoming increasingly enmeshed with society and the need for more MFA extra-governmental collaboration.
Ten MFA departments, directorates, task forces and embassies in and outside Europe are participating in interactive workshop sessions, with the aim of thoroughly analysing their networks and networking practices. The workshops are part of a larger research effort aimed at a thorough understanding of current practices as well as the scope for improvement.
Surveys, in-depth interviews and the workshops in the purpose-designed MFA Strategy Lab result in a wealth of information about the diversity of networks and current practices. Local staff at the Dutch embassy in New Delhi, for instance, faces entirely different issues when broadening and deepening their networks, both India and back home, than employees of a task force or thematic directorate in the Foreign Ministry.
Inefficiencies in policy networks have to be addressed to stay ahead in the diplomatic environment of the 21st century. Indeed, openness and flexibility are the key ingredients of future diplomacy. Our preliminary conclusion warranted by discussions in the MFA Strategy Lab so far, is that individual diplomats, their teams and the MFA as a whole can significantly improve their performance through improved networking. A strategic perspective and more systematic approach will be instrumental in promoting desired diplomatic outcomes.
This project will result in a report for the Netherlands MFA. In the interests of sharing best practices, some of the main findings will be published on the Clingendael website in early 2015.
Jan Melissen is a Senior Research Fellow at the Clingendael Institute, Professor of Diplomacy at the University of Antwerp and founding Co-Editor of The Hague Journal of Diplomacy. Julian Slotman is a Clingendael Research Assistant on the Clingendael project on MFA Networking.