Building a Base of Knowledge for Advocacy Abroad in the Digital Age

Update on the Digital Economy Officers Program at the U.S. Department of State

By: Daniel Sepulveda, U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy in the State Department’s Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs.

Answering questions at the Internet Association’s Virtuous Circle conference last week, Secretary Kerry presented the U.S. Department of State’s effort to prioritize global digital economy issues abroad in order to reflect the growing importance of these issues in both economic and foreign policy. The State Department has made real progress on this initiative in the last year and hopes to continue our momentum going forward.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry chats with Fast Company Contributor E.B. “Liza” Boyd about Internet policy — during a swing through Silicon Valley — during the Virtuous Circle Conference on October 10, 2016, at the Rosewood Sandhill Hotel in Menlo Park, California. (State Department photo)

Approximately six months ago, we announced the State Department’s new Digital Economy Officers (DEO) Program with the goal of strengthening the capacity of our people, embassies, and consulates overseas to address the challenges and seize the opportunities that are emerging with the development of the global digital economy. We believe that this new global platform will help enhance the prosperity not only of U.S. people and firms, but that of other nations and their people, helping achieve more broadly shared prosperity and sparking innovative solutions to both commercial and social challenges that the world faces.

Given that the internet and the digital economy are global in scope and affect a range of U.S. interests, the State Department is uniquely equipped among U.S. agencies, to engage, lead, and advocate on these issues.

The component parts of the global digital economy are the communications networks that connect the world and the data, information, and services that ride over those wires and airwaves as well as every industry process across sectors dependent on those networks and services. With that definition in mind, it is clear that the global economy is in many ways dependent on the health of the global digital economy. And the issues involved — from debates over data localization to privacy to intellectual property and platform regulation — constitute a dynamic and rapidly changing area of foreign and economic policy that demands constant updating of skills, access to information, and new capacities to keep pace.

The development of the modern digital economy creates immense opportunity for economic social progress due to its economies of scale and scope but it is not without its challenges. It raises complex issues that are often technical but require an understanding of how the technical interacts with the political and economic outcomes we are pursuing in the world. Issues ranging from market competition between firms operating in the digital space to how changes in production resulting from the digital economy are impacting labor markets to how all of this information is transferred and used in a manner that respects our basic dignity are confronting us in dialogues and debates within and across markets all over the world.

Since the launch of the DEO program, we have identified nearly 140 digital economy officers at our embassies and consulates around the world.

To make sure that our diplomatic workforce is informed and competitive in this space, we have taken some important steps in the last six months in key areas to elevate our game in this space:

Training — we have strengthened our annual training course on Internet and telecommunications policy at the Foreign Service Institute and are working on a proposed global training event for digital economy officers to be held in the United States in the spring of next year.

Communications — we have increased the frequency of our communications with posts on digital economy issues, improved the Department’s internal website on digital economy issues, and kicked off a series of webinars on our work. We have hosted two webinars so far and have two more scheduled in the coming months.

Human Resources Management — we are continually striving to make sure that we have the right people working on digital economy issues and that their performance is recognized.

Through these measures, our economic officers are becoming more effective representatives of U.S. interests and values in digital economy policy dialogues in multilateral fora, as well as better prepared to address bilateral concerns relating to a variety of digital economy issues, including data privacy, data flows, and e-commerce as well as expanding connectivity — a Department priority through the Global Connect Initiative.

European Telecommunications Network Operators (ETNO) #ThinkDigital Debate Special General Assembly Edition, which included Digital Econ Officer Economic Officer from US Mission to the European Union (4th frm the left) on November 5 2015 in Sofia, Bulgaria (Photo courtesy of ETNO).

Close cooperation with our State Department colleagues and inter-agency partners has been critical to the success we’ve had so far in implementing this program. We work closely with the Office of the Coordinator for Cyber Issues and our Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor on the inter-related cyber and Internet freedom issues. We’ve coordinated with the Department of Commerce to share materials as it implements its own Digital Trade Officer Program. We’ve also exchanged information with the U.S. Agency for International Development as it has increased training for its own personnel on digital issues. In addition, we’ve taken advantage of the expertise of the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, the Federal Communications Commission, and other agencies in our training programs.

To build on the progress made thus far, we are looking to expand coordination with digital economy stakeholders in the private sector.

We see value in deepening our engagement with industry and civil society to gain the benefits of their knowledge and perspectives. We hope to have industry and civil society support as we plan the global digital economy officer training event in the United States next year — we welcome private sector collaboration to improve our understanding of the key issues affecting the sector. We would also like to take advantage of our discussions in the Advisory Committee for International Communications and Information Policy to share ideas on these efforts. We hope that many reading this blog will participate in supporting these initiatives.

The Internet and the digital economy will continue to transform how we work and live. We look forward to future discussions with you as we strive to build the capacity of our foreign affairs infrastructure to realize the full potential of these changes.


If you would like more information on the Digital Economic Officer initiative, please tweet us in the Office of International Communications and Information Policy at @StateCIP. This entry also appeared on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s Official Blog.