Imagine if a single diplomat could communicate electronically with a quarter of a million people every day. Imagine if a single virtual network had an active population equivalent to the world's third largest country. Would diplomacy be any different? 

The answer is 'Yes', and don't bother imagining it — a diplomat at the US Embassy in Jakarta communicates with some 290,000 Indonesians daily and Facebook now has some half a billion active users spending some 700 billion minutes per month on it. 

Leading foreign ministries have realised the digital revolution means diplomacy will need a corresponding revolution.

Today the Lowy Institute launched a new policy brief: 'A Digital DFAT: Joining the 21st Century' on YouTube. Drawing on meetings with the e-diplomacy teams at the US, UK and Canadian foreign ministries, it argues that DFAT has a lot of catching up to do when it comes to the e-diplomacy revolution (to see how far, scroll to the bottom to see what DFAT's most visited overseas mission website looks like).

Apparently, when Colin Powell took his first tour through the State Department upon becoming Secretary of State, he was shocked to discover some staff didn't have computers. After a career in the world's most technologically advanced military, he had a few ideas about what needed to change; and so the political impetus for e-diplomacy at State began. Condoleezza Rice endorsed this shift with her transformational diplomacy agenda and as we have noted here more than once, Secretary Clinton is the 21st century's e-diplomat in chief.

Foreign ministries in Canada, the UK and elsewhere have also embraced the advantages the digital revolution offers diplomacy, but so far Australia has lacked a foreign minister willing and able to make the case for giving DFAT the funds needed to go digital and stay relevant. Our latest foreign minister is something of a social media whiz and was a savvy user of the new media in his 2007 election campaign. He also has a copy of the policy brief...so hopefully he can be DFAT's Colin Powell.

Other foreign ministries are experimenting with dozens and dozens of digital innovations, and some of the most useful ones for Australia are highlighted in the paper. A few of them include:

  • Internal blogs and communities: These bring together area experts (including external experts) to share information and discuss recent developments no matter where they are based. They also allow remote access which can be handy in consular emergencies. The US Deputy in Mexico, for example, communicated remotely with staff across Mexico using an internal blog during the H1N1 outbreak, meaning they didn't have to risk infection by coming into the office.
  • Blogosphere: Australia has spent billions fighting two recent wars to combat terrorism. Even though the internet's role in promoting radicalisation is often acknowledged, DFAT is cut off from this community. The US, UK and Canada have all entered the blogosphere and the State Department has nine full-time Arabic language bloggers, two Farsi bloggers and two Urdu bloggers, who actively enter into blog debates.
  • Diaspora platforms: Around five per cent of Australians live overseas. Harnessing this vast network has been a long-term challenge for DFAT. E-diplomacy offers a way of drawing these individuals into a network and providing them with meaningful connection tools and information. Connect2Canada, the Canadian diaspora networking site in the US, is one example in this space and has a membership of some 47,000 US-based Canadian expatriates.
  • Websites: These are now the public face of foreign ministries. They should be designed and used to advance key national interests (in Australia's case, promoting tourism, migration and education opportunities, for example). Unfortunately, DFAT's overseas websites do not do this and even its headquarters site lacks video and audio capabilities (although these are due to be added).    

Of course, the elephant in the room is funding (see the Lowy Institute's report on Australia's Diplomatic Deficit for the details). As the foreign minister acknowledged last week:

DFAT was starved for a decade...we now have 18% fewer staff abroad than we did in 1996...[and] of all G20 countries, Australia has the smallest diplomatic footprint of all...

Clearly, DFAT needs new funding if it is going to become a 21st century foreign ministry with the e-diplomacy tools to achieve Australia's international objectives. Hopefully Rudd is the person to make that happen.