Civil Society Consulation on Foreign Policy (DE0017)
Action Plan: Germany Action Plan 2019-2021
Action Plan Cycle: 2019
Lead Institution: Federal Foreign Office (FFO)
Support Institution(s): Directorates-General 1, 4, 6, and S are involved, as are the Policy Planning Staff and the Press Division
Policy AreasPublic Participation
What is the public problem that the commitment will address?
The Federal Foreign Office currently offers citizens’ dialogues and civil society participation
procedures that enable interested individuals to get involved in discussing German foreign
policy. These formats are informative and consultative, but they are not always visible
enough. Data from the holdings of the Federal Foreign Office are occasionally available to
the public in digital form.
What is the commitment?
The Federal Foreign Office will increase the visibility of many existing formats and activities
in the area of foreign policy that correspond to the guiding principle of open government,
and will make greater use of the potential for further measures.
The civil society dialogue with think tanks and civil society organisations as well as with the
general public is to be continued in a variety of formats, including formats related to the
Federal Foreign Office’s 150th anniversary. These dialogue events are informative in nature
and take place both on- and offline. In consultative formats such as blog-based debates
and a hackathon, civil society is to be given the opportunity for more input of opinions and
ideas for shaping German foreign policy.
Furthermore, via social media, those who are interested can contact the Federal Foreign
Office and the Federal Foreign Minister and ask questions and make comments – for example,
through formats like the Instagram question sticker – which will then receive responses.
The Federal Foreign Office is digitising some of the holdings of its Political Archive, and will
put these online for free, non-commercial use. Metadata on approximately 20 km of paper
files and approximately 18 million digital images, some of them in machine-readable form,
will be put online in downloadable form for free research.
How will the commitment contribute to solving the public problem?
Through the commitment, citizens will be better informed about German foreign policy and
will be included more in consultative processes.
The digitisation and publication of parts of the Political Archive will make large volumes of
data from retro-digitised files of the Federal Foreign Office available to the public for the
Why is this commitment relevant to OGP values?
Providing previously unavailable political and historical information and data from the
field of foreign policy will add a large measure of additional transparency. Creating better
options for informing the public and for public involvement will increase participation in
foreign policy matters, and make the foreign policy environment even more conducive to
civil society engagement.
IRM Midterm Status Summary
2. Civil society dialogue on foreign policy
“The Federal Foreign Office will increase the visibility of many existing formats and activities in the area of foreign policy that correspond to the guiding principle of open government, and will make greater use of the potential for further measures.
The civil society dialogue with think tanks and civil society organizations as well as with the general public is to be continued in a variety of formats, including formats related to the Federal Foreign Office’s 150th anniversary. These dialogue events are informative in nature and take place both on- and offline. In consultative formats such as blog-based debates and a hackathon, civil society is to be given the opportunity for more input of opinions and ideas for shaping German foreign policy.
Furthermore, via social media, those who are interested can contact the Federal Foreign Office and the Federal Foreign Minister and ask questions and make comments – for example, through formats like the Instagram question sticker – which will then receive responses. The Federal Foreign Office is digitizing some of the holdings of its Political Archive, and will put these online for free, non-commercial use. Metadata on approximately 20 km of paper files and approximately 18 million digital images, some of them in machine-readable form, will be put online in downloadable form for free research.”
2.1. Explaining and discussing German foreign policy: Informative formats with think tanks and citizens, on- and offline
- Broad-ranging informational events on 150 years of the Federal Foreign Office
- Ongoing citizens’ dialogues
- Annual citizens’ workshop on foreign policy
- Regular Open Situation Rooms
2.2. Having a say in German foreign policy: Consultative formats
- An additional blog-based debate on peacelab.blog, the results of which will be taken into account in implementing the Federal Foreign Office’s crisis guidelines
- Organization of a hackathon to improve models for early recognition of crises and early warning tools with academic experts
2.3. Digitizing and publishing selected parts of the FFO Political Archive: Making files accessible online for everyone
Editorial Note: For the complete text of this commitment, please see Germany’s action plan at: https://www.opengovpartnership.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Germany_Action-Plan_2019-2021_EN.pdf.
This commitment aims to make Germany’s foreign policy more accessible and open. The first set of activities will expand and deepen citizen engagement in foreign policymaking. This will include holding information events on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Federal Foreign Office’s founding, as well as citizen dialogues, open situation rooms, and a hackathon. The commitment also focuses on the ongoing digitization and opening of the main documentary archive of the Foreign Office (Politisches Archiv ) to online access. The commitment is directly relevant to the OGP values of access to information (online availability of the Political Archive) and civic participation (interactive elements contained in the planned communication formats and events).
Recent surveys indicate that public interest in foreign policy is high in Germany, with 69% of surveyed Germans indicating that they have a strong or very strong interest in this policy area. This is accompanied by a desire for more engagement and communication but tempered by concerns about the complexity of the issues.  As of 2018, over 190 organizations are actively engaging the public on foreign policy issues in Germany and more than 70% of these groups are already collaborating with the Federal Foreign Office in citizen outreach. However, the exercise also identified a number of significant challenges. Most of these organizations are NGOs with small budgets for these activities. Attention is focused on a narrow set of topics, leaving many thematic blind spots, for example on UN-related issues. Only 20% of the assessed organizations use innovative and interactive formats. Outreach is focused on citizens who are already politically engaged, and most events are hosted in either Berlin or Bonn. 
As of early 2020, more than 18-million archival records of the Federal Foreign Office’s Political Archive have been converted to digital formats and the process is ongoing. However, access to these records is only possible onsite, and only to paper documents and microfiche-based holdings. Access is also primarily geared toward servicing specialized scholars. A 2012 assessment of access did not find any evidence for discriminatory or politically-shaped access, which was a potential concern given that the archive is part of and operated by the Foreign Office, and not hosted by a national archive with a higher degree of institutional independence. The assessment also found high levels of satisfaction among the primarily academic onsite users with the service and support available through archival staff, but also pointed to the desirability of more electronic search tools and options. 
Digitizing and publishing the main archive of German foreign policy is an arcane scholarly concern but rather potentially a centerpiece of a more holistic opening of government. Open access to the historical work of Germany’s foreign policy and diplomatic service could ensure that historical characterizations are not selectively filtered but open to public scrutiny. It could also enable broader scrutiny of how Germany has approached and navigated its historical responsibilities. Furthermore, it could strengthen public engagement with Germany’s current role in the world and foreign policy going forward.  However, while the commitment mentions that access will be open to everyone, it does not specify how many archival materials will be digitized and opened.
The move from onsite to online access represents a considerable improvement in access. More than 18-million records that have already been digitized will become instantly accessible.  Digitization will make it much easier for the considerable number of interested foreign policy scholars to access these resources  and for nonacademic organizations and citizens to undertake their own explorations, provided that usability standards are high and exceptions for disclosure are defined narrowly.
The engagement activities under this commitment could also further expand and diversify public interest in this area. However, these improvements will depend on how ambitiously the engagement is implemented, and with what degree of transparency and determination received suggestions are integrated into foreign policy and its practice. An email interview with the incumbent government unit indicates that the commitment will focus on outreach beyond Bonn and Berlin and will include a credible intention for experimenting with innovative engagement formats.  Prior suggestions from citizen engagement have influenced diplomatic practices, such as making more female diplomats available as contact points for women in patriarchal societies.
Overall, the digitization of historical documents and the planned engagement activities could be a significant step toward greater openness and accessibility of historical German foreign policy materials. Several complementary activities could further enhance the ambition, including: clearly defined performance targets for both publication of archives and public engagement; maximizing interactivity by enabling public input in the design phase; and actively soliciting user feedback. The government could also close the feedback loop by communicating how suggestions are incorporated. The digitization of the political archive could be guided by clear targets. Lastly, the Federal Foreign Office could also openly display user feedback and fully explain which segments of files are not made available.
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