Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 06:45 | SYDNEY
Thursday 16 Aug 2018 | 06:45 | SYDNEY

Digital diplomacy and DFAT


Fergus Hanson


30 September 2010 16:02

I've been traveling in the US, Canada and the UK looking, among other things, at the use by their foreign ministries of new technologies. So I enjoyed Dan Flitton's piece on this subject as well as comments from Andrew and Jim.

After taking a look at what these foreign ministries are doing, it is striking how far behind DFAT is. Andrew is right to point to Tim Fischer's new Twitter feed as a sign DFAT might be looking at the benefits of at least one of the many new technologies now available. It's not the first Twitter flirtation the Department has had — the Embassy in Chile made six tweets during the earthquake — suggesting an appreciation of the potential utility of these technologies in crisis situations.     

It's good that DFAT is starting to look at new technologies, but this incremental, ad hoc approach is unlikely to yield much or generate a worthwhile following. It is also unlikely to help DFAT staff develop the necessary fluency and ease with the technologies.

The breadth of experimentation currently underway, particularly in the State Department (some of which we have covered before), suggests there is still some time to go before it will be possible to see which platforms work best in which countries and to assist which objectives. The rate of innovation in the IT sector also makes it probable that it will be more a case of constant adaptation rather than picking a platform, like Facebook, and sticking with it.

It will be culturally counter-intuitive, but foreign ministries need to create incentives to encourage innovation in e-diplomacy (one State Department official mentioned being given a KPI of having to fail several times a year). That will require significant cultural change, which all the foreign ministries I visited seemed to be struggling with to some extent, and clear signals from senior leaders indicating an increased appetite for risk.

Culture within foreign ministries is crucial, because while much of the focus of e-diplomacy is on its use as a communications tool in public diplomacy campaigns, one of the greatest opportunities it offers is for better internal communication. The State Department's wiki, Diplopedia, is a standout in this regard, but the Canadians have also discovered some clever uses for their wiki and the Brits have experimented with cross-government coordination through a closed-group wiki for the Olympic Games.

With no sign DFAT is going to be properly funded any time soon, these new tools to extend reach at a modest cost make a lot of sense. Hopefully, DFAT will dare to be at least as radical as the Canadians, Brits or Americans. Given Kevin Rudd's own familiarity with social media, maybe he is just the person to drive the reform.