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Diplomatic Relations

Volume 487: debated on Monday 26 January 2009

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs with reference to page 7 of his Department’s Autumn 2008 Performance Report, what the meaning is of (a) laptop diplomats and (b) virtual embassies; and if he will make a statement. (246266)

“Laptop diplomat” is a phrase we have coined to describe a member of staff equipped, with mobile communications and a laptop computer, to work away from the embassy. He or she could be based in London or at a Post overseas, working in a single country or on a regional basis, but will have the capability to travel outside the capital city to often remote locations (for example Goma in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, or Juba in southern Sudan) in response to a specific need.

We are already doing a lot of “laptop diplomacy”. We have laptop diplomats operating in a range of roles and environments across the network, including as conflict advisors and analysts in Africa, in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, or as roving envoys in the Pacific and Central Asia. Each scenario is different. But in each case, laptop diplomats give the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) a better understanding of events and a greater ability to influence those events by working more closely with the people who matter, whether they are UN agencies, non governmental organisations or local political figures. We are developing IT solutions that will enable us to do more of it and do it better.

Those solutions include the “Virtual Embassy”—an interactive website which will build on many of the features of our current embassy websites. They will consist of an external, public-facing web page that provides basic information for visitors (UK or local); some of the services a real embassy provides (for example a click through to real (call centre) or virtual (self help) consular and visa services); and allows some engagement on political issues, through the creative use of tailored, local content and interactive features (such as blogs; videoconferences; discussion forums, and personalisation). In addition, they will include a set of internet-based tools that enable a laptop diplomat to carry out all the functions they could do at their desk in the embassy, anywhere where they have an internet connection. So virtual embassies will provide us with a means to engage with stakeholders and advance policy campaigns in countries where we have no physical presence.

Laptop diplomats and virtual embassies are examples of the way the FCO is modernising, helping us to build a flexible, agile overseas network that adapts quickly to new challenges and delivers for the whole of Government.