Australia's approach to digital diplomacy is second-rate and entirely inadequate for a nation that sees itself as 'a top 20 country'. Despite an expanded social media presence, Australia continues to lag far behind other countries – large and small – that are investing serious resources into building up their digital diplomacy capabilities.

The Australian Government is failing to leverage the internet and other information and communication technology (ICT) tools to carry out foreign policy objectives; rather, it has confined itself to using these tools to communicate the fact that diplomatic activities are occurring. This approach is limiting Australia's ability to project global influence.

Our diplomats have developed an online passivity that is disconnected from the reality of Australian diplomacy. Given that Australia is located in the most digitally dynamic region of the world (45% of the world's internet users live in Asia), and that our ability to reach and influence the populations that live in our region has diminished following the Government's divestment in international broadcasting; Australia can no longer afford to remain ineffectual in this area.

Here are six policy recommendations for how the Australian Government can build a digital diplomacy capability:

1. Develop a strategy

A digital diplomacy strategy can guide the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) from online communications to using the internet for influence. The Department should learn from the experience of other countries, particularly those that have already fleshed out and are now implementing a strategy. A 1.5 track dialogue would be a good way to bring together experts with officials to share experiences and map out a draft approach. Crowdsourcing public opinion is an additional and inexpensive way to feed through proposals; DFAT could use its growing crop of social media networks to do this. 

2. Create a digital diplomacy unit and recruit experts

The Government should create a dedicated digital diplomacy unit and recruit experts to staff it. Bureaucracies are generally averse to hiring outside the public service but few countries have successfully developed these capabilities without external help. Other countries have tended to poach from their domestic tech industries, civil society organisations and from abroad to build such teams.

This unit should take advantage of the latest innovations in ICT to creatively contribute to solving foreign policy problems. It will need to be given the freedom and flexibility to adapt quickly to changing circumstances and respond to international developments without having to go through rigid clearance processes. This new unit should be independent of DFAT communications and public diplomacy. While it will need to work with such teams, attaching the unit onto well-developed bureaucratic functions runs the risk that the end result will evolve into nothing more than an extension of those functions.

3. Empower officials

Ambassadors and other officials using social media need to be unleashed to talk, explain and advocate for official policy positions. They need to be given the freedom to engage with the public online and respond to international developments. Diplomats are not limited to reading aloud official releases when they represent Australia at public events, so why is a re-tweeted media release as exciting as it gets when they're online? If it is talked about publicly, it should be able to be tweeted publicly. Providing officials with training and access to a dedicated digital diplomacy unit will help alleviate risk. 

4. A social media review 

DFAT has built a social media presence that mirrors its physical presence. Such a set-up means each post must take responsibility for its patch, leading to a messy and uneven presence, good in some countries but neglected in others.

In China, for example, there is an opportunity to use the country's favoured online platforms to influence the largest single purchaser of Australian products and our top holiday spenders. But DFAT is currently only present on a small number of Chinese social media channels and is not keeping pace with how China's 600 million online users are using the internet. A review of social media accounts could address this, and form part of the overarching strategy.

5. Start a blog

Blogs have long been a standard feature for foreign affairs and aid departments around the world (the UK has 85). Blogs provide governments with a forum to informally and intellectually discuss issues and ideas in a format that is accessible to the public. DFAT has no online mechanism to engage in public policy discussion and currently limits itself to 'announcing' information via media releases and a news feature. A blog that hosts individually authored posts would provide a one-stop shop for the Government to informally contextualise and discuss its position on various issues. It would also provide a space to better articulate, to the public and other stakeholders, what DFAT does and what modern Australia diplomacy looks like. Presently, the Australian media largely controls the messaging on foreign policy; a blog could help shift that.

6. Revive the online identity of Australian aid

Digital diplomacy must be used to enhance all foreign policy functions, but there is currently an imbalance: the flagship of Australian foreign policy, its aid program, is being neglected.

When AusAID's merger into DFAT kicked off in 2013, almost all of the aid program's online channels were stopped or deleted — an odd decision given AusAID and Australian aid are not the same thing. Those who want timely updates about Australian aid must now comb through the website to see if any webpages have been updated, and search through generic DFAT and embassy feeds. It's a messy process that makes it almost impossible for Australians to stay updated on developments with our own aid program. It is obvious that this diminished digital identity has hampered DFAT's ability to engage with the aid program's stakeholders, many of whom unwittingly continue to use the AusAID Twitter handle (even some other Australian Government departments do this!) despite its closure.

When Canada went through a similar integration in 2013 it retained almost all of its communication channels, simply changing the names of the accounts from CIDA to 'Canada International Development' (including on Facebook and Twitter). The Australian Government should revive and re-badge the aid program's idle online accounts. These accounts are a valuable commodity, providing Government with an opportunity to leverage off influential aid-related online networks and a further avenue to reach the Australian public via an area of foreign policy that is more relatable than is other parts of DFAT's core business.

Australia's digital diplomacy capabilities have the potential to provide government with an inexpensive and powerful mechanism to reach global audiences. It can convey vital messages, develop networks (at times more useful than physical networks), monitor and respond to breaking events, correct misinformation (vital when free press is compromised), coordinate and harness goodwill, participate in public discourse and promote Australian soft power.

But none of this will happen unless the Government commits to catching up to the rest of the world. In the meantime, we remain behind and our failure to exploit the internet is hampering Australia's ability to shape global events.

Photo courtesy of @JulieBishopMP