Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 00:34 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 00:34 | SYDNEY

DFAT needs a Googleplex


Fergus Hanson


18 October 2011 09:09

It was nice to read that the latest Australian parliamentary inquiry includes, as one of its four terms of reference, the examination of 'the affect (sic) of e-diplomacy...on the activities of diplomatic posts'. Given DFAT doesn't even have an ediplomacy office, you have to suspect that point is designed to give the department another nudge towards adopting at least some of the most useful new digital tools on offer.

I was lucky enough to spend last week at the Office of eDiplomacy at the US State Department. The experience reinforced at least two points for me. First, how entrenched ediplomacy is becoming at State. Whereas DFAT is still debating whether it needs ediplomacy, that debate seems more settled in the US. The Office of eDiplomacy now has 80 people, about half of whom are dedicated exclusively to ediplomacy-related activities, and there are a staggering number of other ediplomacy nodes throughout the department, many with impressive staff sizes and budgets.

Second, the cutting edge work was a reminder not just of how much further advanced State's thinking is on ediplomacy, but also the creative culture of innovation it has managed to entrench in what is a very traditional bureaucratic institution. The Office of eDiplomacy is the bureaucratic equivalent of the Googleplex.

The dynamo head doesn't have an office and instead sits, Intel CEO Andy Groves-like, at a cubicle. Junior staff lead major new projects while their seniors sit relaxed through their presentations. New ideas and tweaks to platforms are tossed about in corridor conversation. People excitedly tell you about the 'passion projects' they are developing in addition to their regular duties and senior leaders talk about 'tolerating ambiguity'.

The integration of ediplomacy into every facet of State's activities is a work in progress, but it has more than begun. The Office of eDiplomacy is now only one of many parts of State that are running, developing and creating new digital platforms. In fact the entire staffing complement of the State Department has recently been tapped, through a new Innovation Fund, to come up with and develop their own solutions to any problem they are confronted with.

Individual officers have also got the message their Secretary wants them to use technology to do things more efficiently and better, with several examples of employees taking initiative to come up with their own digital solutions. 

It's time DFAT established its own Office of eDiplomacy and started looking at ways to do things better and more efficiently. Ediplomacy could improve almost every aspect of its work, from consular service provision, crisis response, staff management, worker satisfaction, reporting, understanding global dynamics, coordination and communication.

The parliamentary inquiry should give ediplomacy some serious scrutiny, because doubts clearly remain about its utility in Australia. However, a look at how it's transforming State suggests it will easily withstand any serious review.

Photo by Flickr user mariachily.