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Data diplomacy and knowledge management – key skills for the next generation of diplomats

Published on 16 December 2016
Updated on 05 April 2024

Our December WebDebate focused on knowledge management and data diplomacy and the mind-set and skills that the next generation of diplomats needs in order to be effective in these areas. One of the key functions of diplomacy is to generate, manage, and use knowledge (Hocking & Melissen, 2015, p. 34). The WebDebate addressed this directly by providing a holistic picture on data, information, and knowledge.

Dr Petru Dumitriu and Prof. Raymond Saner, the speakers for this debate,  took a critical look at data diplomacy and knowledge management tools. Dr Dumitriu is a diplomat specialising in multilateral diplomacy who currently coordinates the review of the Joint Inspection Unit on Knowledge Management in the UN system. Prof. Saner teaches international and multistakeholder negotiations at the University of Basel (Switzerland) and at Sciences Po, Paris, and is Director of Diplomacy Dialogue at the Centre for Socio-Eco-Nomic Development (CSEND) in Geneva (Switzerland).

Data and the sustainable development goals (SDGs)

Prof. Saner began by reminding us of the complexity of the SDGs and the 2030 development agenda and argued that in light of this, the big question is how to measure progress. While a set of targets and indicators is in place, there is no agreed-upon methodology that countries can use when charting their progress every four years. Key questions include: What data is collected? How is it analysed? How is it presented to the public?

He also reminded us that there is a strong emphasis in the SDGs on participation, inclusiveness, and transparency. In this regard, we need to wonder how the complexity of the findings of the four-year reviews can be reported to the citizens. Experts are needed to collect and analyse the data, but we also need to ensure that citizens are not left behind and are engaged and informed. Regarding the latter, diplomats can play an important role.

For the complex implementation process, he suggested continuing in line with the idea of major stakeholder groups, which was utilised during the negotiation of the SDGs.

Knowledge management and the UN system

Dr Dumitriu highlighted the important work of the Joint Inspection Unit (JIU), which, under his leadership, conducts a review of knowledge management in the UN system. His review uses the knowledge pyramid to narrow the scope of the investigation, distinguishing between data, information, and knowledge. Information is data presented in a specific context and with additional meaning. Knowledge adds layers of understanding in context, insights about relationships, and value judgements. As we move from data to knowledge the human factor becomes more important in order to create understanding and interpretation.

Dumitriu stressed that UN organisations should be viewed as knowledge-based organisations. Yet, they face particular challenges when using knowledge management tools. The UN system is incredibly complex; it faces institutional fragmentation, a variety of governance approaches, and diverse mandates. It suffers from the tendency to work and act in silos. In contrast to, for example, the private sector, the UN system faces greater challenges in making a compelling case that funds and resources should be allocated to develop and implement knowledge management tools.

Dumitriu also highlighted two different ways in which knowledge can be approached that are utilised in the JIU report. First, knowledge can be understood as a resource. The various organisations in the UN system are more than executers of tasks; they are conveyors of knowledge and implementers. Yet, knowledge comes at a price; it demands the sufficient allocation of human and financial resources. Second, knowledge should also be seen as a service for member states and other institutions. This is, potentially, an important contribution of the UN system.

Recommendations for initiatives, training, and skills needed for data diplomacy and knowledge management

Saner stressed transparency, openness, and interest in the inputs of a diversity of actors as key factors for successful data diplomacy. Diplomats play an important role in managing the flows of information from and to international agencies. They are important in sharing knowledge and conveying the highly complex and technical elements of the SDGs to domestic constituencies. As such, they can contribute to a democratisation of data collection and processing.

Saner also pointed out that diplomats need to have the skills to organise engagement with key stakeholders and allow for their participation in consultation, dissemination, and implementation.

Lastly, he underscored the importance of inter-ministerial policy coordination and the inclusion of various ministries when negotiating abroad as well as the inclusion of the foreign ministry in domestic dialogues and implementation.

Dumitriu stressed the importance of the human factor in knowledge management and called for engaging UN staff through awareness raising and training to avoid duplication of effort.

Similarly, institutional mechanisms that work to preserve and facilitate access to knowledge, when personnel change or retire, need to be built. Dumitriu highlighted the Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Development as a good example. To overcome silo approaches, he recommended staff training to create a common language and holistic approaches. Communities of practice should be supported and fostered. Dialogue platforms, which bring together individuals and institutions across the UN system, and the engagement of knowledge management champions were also recommended.

Further resources:

The WebDebates on the future of diplomacy are organised by DiploFoundation within the framework of the International Forum on Diplomatic Training (IFDT), which gathers close to 100 diplomatic training institutions worldwide. Join us on the first Tuesday of each month.

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