An Interview with Alec Ross, State Department Senior Advisor for Innovation

by Meghan Healy Luecke

Alec Ross joined the State Department in April 2009 after coordinating hundreds of policy advisers for the Obama campaign. He is in charge of developing the concept of 21stCentury Statecraft, using communication technologies and social networks to help governments connect with their constituents and help build American leadership. He is also spearheading Civil Society 2.0, a program to train grassroots organizations around the globe in how to use Web sites, text messaging campaigns and other new tools to reach out to their communities. Alec visited the Fletcher School during the fall semester of 2010. One year later, he spoke with us about his job, the limitations of new media tools for governance, and how the Arab Spring is changing 21st century statecraft.

MHL: How have you been lately? I know you’ve been traveling like wild.

AR: I’ve been great. I think I’m having as much fun as anybody in government.

MHL: Why’s that?

AR: Because I’ve got a really cool job. I love what I’m doing.

MHL: What’s the best part of it?

AR: The best part of it is you are faced with really tough challenges and, in what is historically a somewhat risk-averse environment, I’m encouraged to think completely out of the box.

MHL: Yes. That’s something I had wanted to ask you about. If you could say a few words about your work before working for President Obama and ultimately coming to the State Department— about some of the differences between how innovation works outside of government versus in government?

AR: Innovation itself – you know, the roots of innovation are similar wherever they come from. However, the actual implementation of innovation is significantly different between the public and private sectors.

When I was working as a social entrepreneur at my NGO, there was very little barrier between inspiration and implementation. It is a more open, frictionless environment where you are unbound by long procurement processes. The organizations are built to move fast, and private sector entrepreneurship is not as consensus-bound as public sector innovation. Having said that, one of the wonderful and important things about innovation in government is that when you get it right and you get it done, the impact can be of fairly significant scale. Further, I think that a lot of government innovation, by the nature of the appropriate role of government, can take place in domains where private sector innovation would be extremely difficult, for example, in the security domain. In the security domain, NGOs might be able to do things at the edges. But as a very practical matter it’s very rare to see a private sector entity, be it for-profit or not-for-profit, be able to do projects that collaborate with the military, intelligence community or law enforcement at any sort of significant scale.

MHL: Right. That makes a lot of sense. Are there any initiatives specifically along those lines that you’ve been part of recently?

AR: You know, this is at the core of much of what we do. I guess one thing that I would point to is thinking about how we can leverage mobile networks, newly lit-up mobile networks in the developing world for the purpose of enhancing security. Again, NGOs have the capability of doing this, but as a very practical matter if you are going to achieve, number one, collaboration and coordination with law enforcement, and number two, significant scale, it helps to be able to work with government.

MHL: Absolutely. This brings me to my next set of questions, which have to do with the Arab Spring. What we’ve seen are citizens, netizens, really seizing on the new tools available to them to spread information about how they believe governments should change. What are some of the similarities and differences between how governments use tech and social media for 21st century statecraft and how opposition movements use some of those same tools?

AR: That’s a good question. I think that citizens using connection technologies for the purposes of exercising dissent have an explicitly different goal in mind than governments undertaking diplomatic activities using those same tools. What I believe is that the one shared trait that both governments and revolutionaries have to account for and can both benefit from is how connection technologies disrupt geopolitical power. A lot of people talk about presumed transfer of power from West to East and North to South, on a geographic basis. Whether that is true or not, what I think the far more profound transfer of power is from hierarchies, like the nation-state and large institutions to individuals and small institutions. So for a government, what we are seeking to do essentially is keep pace with the rate of innovation and attempt to adapt to a world in which citizens are increasingly connected and increasingly powerful. For citizens in the Arab world to use connection technologies for the purposes of organizing dissent, these are tools that they can use to their great advantage because the nation-states, the governments are implicitly disadvantaged by the transfer of power to newly empowered citizens.

MHL: Right.

AR: So for government it’s really about trying to keep up, and for citizens it’s about getting ahead.

MHL: I agree, and it makes me wonder: in an ideal world, even for states as developed as the United States, how innovative, how cutting edge, should the government be? If you were able to keep up fully with the trends of the times is that the ideal goal? And what are the risks of using new technologies before we really fully understand how they work?

AR: Government can innovate. So if you look for example at what the State Department did with the Text Haiti campaign, we built a mobile giving program the likes of which this world had never seen before. That’s evidence that government can innovate, and it can innovate successfully.

That said, it doesn’t have to be the goal of government to be at the head of the pack. But what a government has to be able to do is adapt to what has been proven to work in the private sector and adapt it for its own purposes. Now having said that I think people oftentimes diminish the role of government innovation. I mean, GPS is something that was a government innovation. The Internet was born in a defense lab, out of DARPA. So government has historically been both an engine of and a supporter of innovation. But I think that innovation is such today that with individuals and smaller firms being able to innovate, I don’t know that it has to be the goal of the United States government itself to innovate but rather to understand and appropriately capture the innovation of others.

In terms of risks, which you asked about, I think the far greater risk is to be on the outside looking in. Perhaps government can’t lead, but if it is unwilling or unable to follow then it is decreasingly relevant and decreasingly powerful.

MHL: I agree. This makes me wonder about the other direction of the learning curve. We see here that governments do and will always have a lot to learn from the private sector, from NGOs and from individual citizens who innovate. What about the other direction, particularly looking at the Arab spring. Can these same tools that people used to tear down governments – can they use them to build up new governments? Can resistance movements generate the same revolutionary passion using social media to build up states? You talk often about how what the U.S. government is trying to do is make ourselves more approachable – because we have all of these white men in white shirts with red ties that people don’t have a chance to connect with. How can you use the tools used in the Arab Spring to make government exciting and move forward?

AR: Look, it’s difficult. And I am hopeful but not optimistic. I think that these tools have proven powerful for the purposes of exercising dissent. But as I see countries transitioning into elections and to governance, I see their uses contributing as much to the stratification and dissent within society as it does to consensus building.

For all of my enthusiasm about 21st century tools, I think we have to be clear-eyed and recognize that historically the Internet has empowered the political edges and it has disadvantaged moderate voices. The Internet is not a particularly effective medium for consensus building. I wish that were the case. Perhaps in the future it will help to strengthen moderate voices and there will be tools to help develop consensus and compromise, but at this point what I think it does is amplify voices at the edges.

And it doesn’t matter whether these are democratic voices or extremist voices or others, but the Internet is very good at amplifying the purists within any given political movement. Having said that, I do think the United States has to — in the face of the difficulties and the challenges that this presents, I do think that we cannot just curl up into the fetal position.

MHL: Right.

AR: We have to make the highest and best use of the talents, tools and resources we have at hand to try to make these tools used toward productive ends. So for example, you’ve heard we’ve had very encouraging communications with the Libyans and the Tunisians regarding how they would like for their governments to become more citizen-centered, transparent and participatory. If we’re able to see this through, obviously some of our technologists and innovators from both the public sector as well as civil society in the United States can contribute greatly to this end. So I’m hopeful, but it’s hard to be optimistic.

MHL: Well, and it begs some questions even about our own system. This is a very challenging new area. It makes me wonder about the question of democracy and foreign policy specifically, in the United States — not even just in these newly forming governments in the Arab Spring states. You’ve said yourself that the Internet offers our government new opportunities to connect with American citizens and use it as a platform to explain as well as to take in new information. How much can these new media enable us to incorporate citizens’ voices in foreign policy decision-making and where do you draw that line?

AR: I don’t know. I mean, look, if you’re at all familiar with me and my work you know I’m pretty plain-spoken and I would tell you if I had an opinion. I don’t think, despite my affinity for things digital, I don’t think you can crowd-source foreign policy. I do think there are techniques, important things to account for – ways to better listen to people, tools that can take advantage of the connectedness of citizens. It may not be for the purposes of creating direct democracy in foreign policy but perhaps we can leverage the connectedness of citizens to help build anti-kleptocracy programs. Everybody with cell phones can name and shame shakedowns as they occur. I think that there are ways of incorporating citizens – and the intelligence and connectedness of citizens – into the foreign policy domain, but I do not think it is advisable to crowd-source foreign policy.

MHL: Wherever the line does fall, it’s a very delicate question.

AR: And I don’t think you can — you know, one way in which I’m considerably more moderate than many of my peers is I question the extent to which you can Wiki a treaty and other forms of transnational agreements. You know, call me old-fashioned, but I do think that I will have to be proven wrong before I believe that can work.

MHL: Sure. And there are other countries that probably view us as taking risks that their own governments wouldn’t be comfortable with in terms of incorporating public opinion. Some of the initiatives that we have where we’re providing new technologies to people, empowering people who are impoverished, connecting them to education via new technologies like in the Haiti example — are there governments that are suspicious of our attempts to go into their countries and work with their citizens?

AR: Yes. There is in many cases considerable hostility toward this agenda. There are governments that seek to maintain the control within their societies through their citizens’ connectedness who take exception to 21st century statecraft.

MHL: The next thing I wanted to ask you is about lessons for the future. This position that you’re in now was created for you and I imagine it will continue into the next Administration. So two questions there. What should the future of government innovation look like? Should it be a larger department, should it be one person with a staff? And the second question: If you were to teach a course for people we knew were going to be the future ambassadors of the United States, what would you say they really must know about 21st century statecraft?

AR: So the first thing is, to the extent that innovation can be incorporated into the traditional bureaucracies, that is all for the better. You know, it was by design that I worked in the Secretary’s office, and I don’t think you necessarily want to silo off innovation and make it a department or something like that. In 2011 and going into 2012, I am obsessed with institutionalization. Part of what that means is that within the traditional arms of the bureaucracy you build in innovation and innovators, rather than just building a new silo. A friend of mine, Andrew Rasitj – to quote him, ‘innovation is not a slice of the pie — it’s the pan.’

To answer your second question, if I were to teach a course on this – first of all, I do teach a course on it. I teach America’s diplomats, from the A-100s — from the 23-year-old diplomats to a rising ambassador. Is your question about them or about undergrads?

MHL: Not undergrads, but diplomats close to getting started on the ground. I’m about to enter the Foreign Service and I have a lot of questions about how the Foreign Service should reform, so specifically on the question of innovation and how to use tools: what can foreign policy leaders do to adapt their more traditional skill sets to meet these new challenges?

AR: The first thing you need to do is make sure the Foreign Service exam reflects that — make sure the Foreign Service exam optimizes for the diplomats we want for the future. Two, it’s not necessary that everybody become social media savvy, but they all need to understand the foreign policy context behind connection technologies.

MHL: I see.

AR: I now teach every rising ambassador at the Foreign Service Institute, and I tell them that you don’t need to become a Twitter user or a user of other forms of social media yourself, but you must be sophisticated about the information environment in the country in which you are serving. If you don’t take this on yourself, you need to empower and protect people in your embassy who do understand it and who you are unleashing to engage within it. You are ceding power, you are reducing America’s influence and you are therefore less capable of maximizing our interests in a given country.


Alec Ross Full Bio: 

Alec Ross serves as Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, where he is tasked with maximizing the potential of technology and innovation in service of America’s diplomatic goals and stewarding Secretary of State Clinton’s 21st Century Statecraft agenda. In this role, Alec helps ensure America’s leadership and advances the State Department’s interests on a range of issues from Internet Freedom to disaster response to responding to regional conflicts.

Previously, Alec served as the Convener for Obama for America’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications Policy Committee and served on the Obama-Biden Presidential Transition Team.

In 2000, he and three colleagues co-founded the nonprofit organization One Economy and grew it from modest origins in a basement into the world’s largest digital divide organization, with programs on four continents.

He was named the 2010 Middle East/North Africa Technology Person of the Year, cited by the Huffington Post as one of “10 Game Changers in Politics,” named a “game changer” as one of Politico’s “50 Politicos to watch” in 2010, and named one of 40 under 40 leaders in international development.

Alec has served as a guest lecturer at numerous institutions including the United Nations, Harvard Law School, Stanford Business School, the London School of Economics, and a number of parliamentary bodies. His writing has appeared in publications including the SAIS Review of International Affairs, the NATO Review and the Hague Journal of Diplomacy.

Alec started his career as a sixth grade teacher through Teach for America in inner-city Baltimore where he lives with his wife and their three young children.

About the Author

Meghan Healy Luecke graduated from the Fletcher School in 2012 with a master’s degree focusing on security and Chinese foreign policy. She is a founder of The Fletcher Forum Online and served as its original project director and Managing Editor. She was also president of Fletcher’s International Law Society, a leader of the Boston chapter of Women in International Security, and a co-founder of Fletcher’s Diplomacy Club. While at Fletcher, New York Times reporter David E. Sanger hired Meghan to do research and writing for his 2012 book, Confront and Conceal. After completing her degree, Meghan joined the U.S. Foreign Service. She most recently worked at the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia. Her previous State Department service included work for the Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff and the U.S. Embassy to France.

How Mass Atrocities End: An Evidence-Based Counter-Narrative

Between the Senkakus and a Hard Place