By Fergus Hanson
(Director of Polling at the Lowy Institute and is currently a Visiting Fellow in ediplomacy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC.)
Across the foreign and security policy spectrum, Australia and the United States share a great deal in common.
On one foreign policy issue there is a virtual chasm between the two: ediplomacy.
For the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), launching a single Twitter feed was agonising.
The US State Department by contrast has almost 200 feeds and over 600 social media accounts worldwide.
Where DFAT obsesses over guidance and the supposed risk of letting highly educated adults post one sentence messages, Washington has a more laissez faire approach.
At a ‘Tweetorial’ I attended at the state department, training 50 diplomats on how to use Twitter, policy guidance 5 barely rated a mention, and participants—some of whom had never used social media before—were exhorted to give it a go, ‘you can’t go wrong’.
Failing to adapt DFAT’s communications and public diplomacy strategy to 21st century realities is concerning, but there is an even bigger consequence. The fixation on the risks of social media has blinded DFAT to the wider applications of new technologies to diplomacy.
While DFAT hasn’t even established a dedicated ediplomacy unit, at State it has now spread beyond the 40 person Office of eDiplomacy.
Ediplomacy now employs hundreds of American diplomats working in dozens of work areas as diverse as arms control to democracy promotion.
One major application of these new tools has been in the area of knowledge management, where a suite of technical tools have been developed to help harness any foreign ministries most valuable asset: human knowledge.
A Facebook-like site, Corridor, has been rolled-out to allow staff to track down colleagues with specific expertise (such as languages) and to share and discuss links to internal and external papers.
Diplopedia, an internal version of Wikipedia, has become a central repository for all State Department-specific knowledge, such as how to administer the foreign-service exam or tools for new desk officers.
More recently a $US2 million annual fund has been set up to crowd source ideas from State Department employees themselves.
Policy planning is another area where ediplomacy tools are being used to try and ensure State can retain its foreign policy coordinating role, even as
the bureaucracy is internationalised.
There are over 70 active blogs—many of them interagency—run on Community@State, drawing policy experts from across the bureaucracy together around topics such as China, economic strategy and Iran.
Ediplomacy tools are also becoming increasingly useful in disaster response situations as well as for consular affairs—one area where DFAT has at least begun to make steps in the right direction.
New technologies are commonly resisted by foreign ministries but it is now ten years since State established its Office of eDiplomacy. DFAT needs ediplomacy if it is going to continue to coordinate policy across an increasingly internationalised bureaucracy.
It needs it to help compensate for successive governments under-resourcing of the foreign affairs department and it needs it to understand better what is going on in the countries it reports from.
The author’s talk was given at the Australian Strategic Policy Institutes’ online forum on social networks and national security.