In conjunction with this week's launch of the Lowy Institute's Global Diplomacy Index, we present a series of pieces on the role and continued relevance of embassies.

Embassies — and their derivatives, high commissions and consulates — are significant instruments of government, and as for all such instruments the ways they are used have changed over time and continue to change.

In some areas their roles have changed, even diminished: the historically important role as the vehicle of communication between governments, for instance, has been overtaken by the many appurtenances of the communications revolution. But in other ways embassies remain as important as ever, including in the role traditionally and coyly described as 'reporting'. Today's intelligence is derived from more sources than ever, but there is still no source as consistently valued as eyes and ears of those on the ground.

Nor has the advocacy role changed. Indeed, as governments and other decision makers become exposed to a widening range of advice and opinion, face-to-face advocacy may have become more important. And of course with ever more people travelling (and governments hyper-sensitive to what they see as their responsibilities not only for ordinary citizens in trouble but for even the most adventuresome of their nationals), demand for consular services has boomed.

Embassies also remain invaluable in advising on and organising visits overseas visits by heads of government and state, parliamentarians and officials, and often business delegations. While embassy staff complain about their growing 'Thomas Cook' role, the smart ones know the importance of their role in the planning, choreography and tactics of a successful visit. Who should the PM see — not just counterparts, but emerging leaders? How should the objectives be expressed to ensure the best impact? Local knowledge matters in all this.

But there is another role for embassies which is often under-appreciated, even within governments: contributing to policy advice. This happens in a number of ways.

First, it is commonly the case that the embassy, and the ambassador in particular, has the government's most complete picture of a state's interests, political and otherwise, in the country of accreditation. 'Geographic branches' and their 'desk officers' in foreign ministries and 'central agencies' can be expected to have a pretty good grasp of the whole, but it will never be complete — not only for reasons of resources but because not everything gets to their attention. This has ever been the case, but is increasingly so in a world in which interactions between people extend so much beyond governments, and in which, with more government agencies represented in embassies, the foreign ministry itself is unlikely to have the full picture of what they are all doing.

Good ambassadors, in short, will have a much more comprehensive picture of the whole and of how the parts fit together — and will thus be best placed to advise their government of the implications for one part of the national interest of an action being contemplated in another part, or indeed of the consequences for the whole of action on any of the parts. Presumably, for instance, our embassy in Jakarta was telling the government of the day that to cut off our cattle exports to Indonesia would have ramifications much beyond the cattle trade itself. It's then of course for the government to accept this advice or not.

Second, policy development in home-based ministries, even in the best 'whole-of-government' and open processes, is likely to be shaped by orthodoxy, even 'group-think', and expressed in lowest common denominator terms. But the embassy has a contestability role — to think 'outside the box' and offer different and even lateral lines of thought. This may be a relatively small matter like recasting standard talking points to ensure they will work better in a particular country or circumstance. Foreign ministries often send out 'round-robin' type enquiries or messages to a range of governments: a good ambassador will look at them carefully and ask 'is that the best way to get the response we want from the government I am accredited to?' (The Australian Government would not expect, for instance, to have an American request for more support in Iraq to be addressed to it in exactly the same terms as the request was being put to other governments not already contributing substantially).

To take another example, those writing major speeches for prime ministers or foreign ministers will frequently canvas key embassies abroad for fresh ideas. A good ambassador will be alive to these opportunities when they arise, and might even anticipate them with a well-timed and targeted message to headquarters which reaches beyond the standard home-based thinking.

Both these examples are about the use of language, and few things are more important in international policy. But beyond that, embassies can and should be alert to possibilities for new policy objectives or interests, or for re-shaping strategies for the pursuit of existing ones. They can say 'look, we've been trying this course for a long time now and haven't got what we want. So here's another possible approach'. Of course, home-based ministries should be thinking this way too, but they often don't.

So, embassies today should be at least as valuable as ever, and in some ways arguably more so, in stimulating and driving policy and in shaping messages — in other words, as their government's internal contestability source.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user John Llanos