Private vs. public: Bridging the gap

Interactions between the private and the public sector do not always run smoothly, especially when it comes to digital issues. Conflicts between state privacy watchdogs and social media companies over data breaches, encryption wars between intelligence agencies and text messaging firms, and rigorous attempts at regulating app-based ridesharing businesses by cities and municipalities in an effort to protect traditional taxi drivers are just three examples of this difficult relationship. Denmark hopes to bridge this “digital divide” between the public and the private sector by appointing a digital diplomat

It's Anders Samuelsen's flagship proposal, the Danish Minister for Foreign Affairs. He argues that reaching out to technology companies is a necessary step for his country because “there are a lot of tech issues at stake right now.” From settling data disputes to acquiring employment opportunities and even to fighting Islamic State terrorists, many of the big questions of today require close involvement from private, digital businesses. Several countries are struggling to keep companies with online platforms and disruptive business models in check by crafting new laws or filing lawsuits. Denmark wants an extra means of interaction: direct dialogue. “Google, Facebook, Amazon, Uber, and so on move at a very fast pace,” says Samuelsen. “You cannot regulate everything.”

The ambassador model is appropriate because some tech companies are as significant as nation states. “We need a more direct dialogue with these heavy players because they affect the daily lives of Danish citizens more than some countries,” Samuelsen says. They are also akin to countries from an economic point of view, he explains: “In an economic sense, some tech companies are like countries, yes. For example, Amazon has a total value that is three times the gross domestic product of Denmark.” 

“We need a more direct dialogue with these heavy players because they affect the daily lives of Danish citizens more than some countries.”

The new post will be filled this summer. The tech ambassador will then be sent to California’s Silicon Valley. From there, he or she will work with giants such as Google’s parent company, Alphabet, but also with smaller companies that might grow up to be giants in the future. “The ambassador might be able to pinpoint which small companies are going to be important in a couple of years and enter into dialogue with them from an early stage,” says Samuelsen. The many tasks the envoy will have to take on include creating job opportunities by convincing big companies to open up offices in Denmark and finding fast ways of closing down extremist social media accounts in order to prevent terrorist organisations from recruiting fighters through online channels.

Although the appointed person will re- side in Silicon Valley, “it’s really a world-wide job,” says Samuelsen. Akin to a traditional foreign relations ambassador, the Danish tech ambassador will have to travel all around the globe to protect Danish interests. 

“It’s really a world-wide job.”

Chances and challenges

Alec Ross, senior advisor for innovation to former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, applauds the idea. However, he warns that the Danes “are going to have to work hard to get the companies to take them very seriously.”

Denmark is a relatively small country, Ross says, and although it’s quite advanced in terms of technology, it will need a really digitally savvy diplomat to accomplish anything. “If the companies see this person as a typical bureaucrat, as just the typical civil servant,” Ross says, “they will probably just ignore them.”

Besides establishing direct dialogue and fostering friendly ties with the tech sector, Ross encourages Denmark to use this opportunity to also implement more digitalisation within its ministries. For instance, he recommends the future ambassador use Facebook and other popular social networks to hear and understand the Danish people, their perspectives and their needs. 

Internet entrepreneur and dot-com pioneer Dan Wagner praises Samuelsen for recognizing the importance of technological development. “Sending a digital ambassador to Silicon Valley to interact with major companies and get insights from the Valley back to the Danish community is a good idea. Even if the only thing that comes out of it is that this digital ambassador comes back to Denmark with in- sights into how to create successful digital businesses in Denmark, it’s a worthwhile investment,” Wagner says. “If they’re able to create awareness of Denmark as a potential base for American companies looking to expand across Europe, then I think it’s even better. And I’m sure that there will be other benefits, too.”

Wagner does stress that the diplomat will have to bring something of real value to the negotiating table if they want a certain company to move to Denmark. Tax breaks and talented people with strong technical skills could serve as good incentives. He also says that it might become harder to strike deals if more countries follow in Denmark’s footsteps, as Samuelsen expects. “The problem is that if every country did it, nobody would get any real value from it, because companies like Alphabet are not going to entertain every single digital ambassador,” he says. “It’s fine with one, but if there’s many, there needs to be a clear remit.” Indeed, consulates and trade representatives from multiple countries, including Austria, Canada and Ireland are already present in Silicon Valley, meaning Denmark is really going to have to work hard in order to make its mark.

As with all new ideas, there are also critics. Technology commentator and writer Evgeny Morozov, for example, does not believe in the approach at all. “I find it an absolutely ridiculous idea,” he declared with a grimace, declining to elaborate. 

“The problem is that if every country did it, nobody would get any real value from it“ – Dan Wagner on Samuelsen's idea

What sector's next?

Samuelsen has not considered applying this relationship to other industries just yet. Technology companies are his priority – for now. “I think I will just work on this first. I have not considered any other sectors yet,” he says.

The idea does not make sense for all industries either, he explained. The oil industry, for instance, does not need a special ambassador, because “working with oil companies fits within traditional regulation frameworks quite well.” Nothing needs to be changed there to make deals happen.

Whether appointing ambassadors to the technology field, or to any sector for that matter, is the best way to alter the love-hate relationship between the private and the public sector for the better remains unclear. Wagner does believe it will help bridge the gap, improve the interaction and possibly even stimulate the public sector to innovate for once. “Right now, I don’t think there’s any innovation coming out of the public sector at all,” Wagner says. 

“Right now, I don’t think there’s any innovation coming out of the public sector at all.” – Dan Wagner