After a decade of swimming against the tide, the Australian Government is slowly engaging in the world of digital diplomacy.

The term 'DFAT the Dinosaur' no longer applies, a label slapped onto our foreign affairs department in 2010 after a series of public refusals to incorporate the internet into its engagements with the world. This strategy, or lack thereof, was a bizarre own goal.

Rather alarmingly, the Government's extended inertia in this area exposed a lack of understanding of the evolving ways in which states, organisations and individuals use information and communication technology (ICT) tools to engage, coordinate and influence one another in an increasingly crowded environment of international actors.

Today, digital diplomacy is a foreign policy essential. We live in a world where state and non-state entities all compete for influence and power in the same online space. That space now hosts more than 3 billion people, most of whom only access the internet through their mobile phone. When used properly, digital diplomacy is a persuasive and timely supplement to traditional diplomacy that can help a country advance its foreign policy goals, extend international reach, and influence people who will never set foot in any of the world's embassies.

The good news is that DFAT's online reach has grown significantly over the past two years.

Most major embassies now have a Facebook account and a growing number of ambassadors have an active Twitter presence. Some social media accounts are doing better than others (Ireland needs a little help; Pakistan and Indonesia do not). A number of embassies have piloted small exercises. For example, Australia's High Commission in PNG attempted live topical Q&A sessions. Hashtags like #NewColomboPlan and #innovationXchange are used by the generic @dfat Twitter account to promote initiatives and link stakeholders. Recently, a blog was launched authored by Australia's Ambassador in Germany (in German). Leveraging off the success of 'The Embassy' TV show, online forums were hosted on the Smartraveller Facebook page (there is also a Smartraveller mobile app). DFAT's new consular strategy briefly mentions an intention to improve and expand social media use. 

Social media is a valuable tool the Government should continue to use and expand on to enhance its international footprint. But digital diplomacy is far more than diplomats and embassies communicating via social media. 

The Brits define digital diplomacy as 'solving foreign policy problems using the Internet'. The Americans have coined the term '21st Century Statecraft,' of which their well-resourced decade old e-diplomacy team forms but one part. No matter which definition you subscribe to, a social media presence is only a part of an evolving picture. Ben Scott, Innovation Advisor to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, outlines three components of digital diplomacy:

  1. Public diplomacy, including the use of online platforms.
  2. Building expertise in technology policy and understanding the way the internet impacts international developments such as political movements (ie. Hong Kong's Umbrella movement).
  3. Impact on development policy and how ICT can be used more effectively to promote economic growth around the world.

With these definitions in mind, a comparison of Australia's efforts with those of our counterparts proves rather humiliating and should serve as a rude awakening for the Australian Government.

The US leads from the front, as it should given the resources at its disposal. Fergus Hanson's analysis of the US State Department's digital diplomacy remains unrivalled, and State's DipNote blog provides regular updates on new initiatives, including how the US uses open data and collaborative mapping to enhance diplomacy. The US, along with a number of other countries, is also building online networks to counter the digital momentum of ISIS. 

The UK isn't far behind, having published a digital strategy in 2012 after widespread consultation, which led to the launch of a new Digital Transformation Unit within the Foreign Office (case studies of successes can be found here). Its empowered staff – through social media and blogging – actually play a part in the public policy discourse, unlike our own. 

France decided in 2008 that its soft power relied on digital technologies, while Polish and Japanese foreign affairs departments employ an extensive collection of social media networks, quadruple the size of our own. Germany turned to ICT platforms to crowd-source opinion and new ideas from the public that fed into its 2014 foreign policy review. India continues to invest heavily in building up its online reach despite resource constraints. Israel has matched its aggressive traditional diplomacy with one of the most active digital diplomacy units in the world, which has worked hard to influence the outcomes of US-Iran nuclear talks. 

Following former Canadian Foreign Minister Baird's speech to Silicon Valley last year, his department's online presence has exploded. Canada is now experimenting with how to best advance its interests online, including by funding university projects that use ICT to circumvent Iranian Government censorship. Sweden's digital diplomacy flourished under former Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, a long-time master of Twitter, who can now be found helping Canada. Small countries are also making significant progress: Romania hosts regular forums to discuss how to enhance its efforts and Kosovo has a (apparently lauded) digital diplomacy strategy.

So what of Australia? DFAT's social media accounts efficiently push out and amplify information, the majority of which is already publicly available via other channels. But these accounts are almost entirely devoid of policy detail and you'll be hard pressed to find the views or positions of the Australian Government beyond a re-tweeted media release.

Instead, the accounts are dominated by Ambassador photo-ops, visa information, trade facts and cute snippets about Australia (koalas, beaches, sport etc). Photos of officials shaking hands are uploaded, an article on why to study/holiday in Australia is posted, a link to an aid announcement is shared and the odd Ambassador tweets their schedule. Engagement with others is generally limited to tweets praising the 'good' and 'useful' meetings they've just had.

There is value in this. But because DFAT communicates only this, its social media accounts are performing more of a marketing function rather than a diplomacy function. But most importantly, communicating is not the same as influencing. This is where Australia's attempts at digital diplomacy come completely unstuck.

Along with many readers of this site, I've sat through dozens of events where Australian officials have delivered muscular public speeches advocating the Government's views on any number of contemporary issues, be it relations with China, resetting our relationship with PNG or the peace process in the Philippines. But while these official views are public, they are not reflected or advocated for online. Why does the Government suppress its own policy positions online while other countries leverage the internet to project their viewpoints and jockey for influence. It is perplexing, and even stranger given Australia has a foreign minister who so easily conveys her personality online and who has such a personal approach to her use of the internet.

It's time the Australian Government invested in digital diplomacy capabilities that extend far beyond regurgitating traditional media. There are risks, as there are when any organisation uses the internet. But the biggest risk of all is not engaging in this space, because the world will soon be home to four, five, then six billion internet users. Until digital diplomacy is taken seriously as a tool of foreign policy, the Australian Government is not equipped to reach them.