Katherine Ellena is a Research Associate with the US Naval Postgraduate School and a former New Zealand diplomat. The views expressed here are hers alone.
One of the key (but less remarked-upon) recommendations in Alex Oliver's policy brief The Consular Conundrum relates to the managing of public expectations for consular services, something New Zealand's MFAT – like DFAT and its political masters – has struggled to do.
The establishment of government programs such as www.smartraveller.gov.au and www.safetravel.govt.nz have been useful in publicising travel advisories, providing information on consular assistance and encouraging traveler registration so that governments may track citizens in an emergency. There is a sense, however, that these services also raise expectations.
As a 20-year old first-time solo traveler to Thailand I had the vague feeling that by registering my travel, a government official would be tracking my every move in the event that I needed any assistance along the way. Ten years later as a diplomat responding to a terrorist attack in Jakarta, the list of registered travelers was invaluable — but it was the first time I had accessed it.
Foreign services are bad at both highlighting their successes (such as responding to natural disasters) and publicising the limits of their assistance (no get-out-of-jail-free cards). This of course all sits within the wider issue of branding, at which DFAT and MFAT are notoriously weak.
Part of the general public's expectations of consular service stem from a lack of knowledge about what else the foreign service actually does. If my embassy doesn't provide the kind of consular assistance I was expecting, what exactly does it do to justify my tax payments?
This might seem obvious to the professional traveling public, but without access to hard figures I would hazard a guess that the average business traveler is not the largest consumer of consular services. As Oliver notes, it is the under-25 and over-55 traveling crowd that is burgeoning, and for these audiences a little creative public education might go a long way.
If that sounds patronising, it probably is. It's easy to list tales of what seem like outrageous consular requests, but until we get better at telling our own story — and sticking to our proscribed consular limits — then DFAT and MFAT are part of the problem. Consular assistance is the storefront of diplomacy, and while the customer may not always be right, it is a good idea to avoid false advertising — or, even worse, no advertising at all.