However this isn't simply a matter of getting with the digital revolution. The possibilities flagged raise issues that challenge culture and practice in an area where secrecy or at least caution about disclosure is close to the default position, and concern for foreign government sensibilities sometimes prevails over any public interest in our right to know.
The brief doesn't mention this cultural problem. Or the chilling effect on disclosure of Australia's hundreds of secrecy laws including s 70 of the Crimes Act which creates an offence to release information without authorisation.(There has been no government response to the ALRC report on this subject released in March.) It repeats a recommendation made in Lowy's ‘Australia’s Diplomatic Deficit’ last year that DFAT review "restrictive media guidelines with a view to making it much easier for staff to engage online." The necessary culture change will need more than that.
The release of the Lowy brief followed on the heels of a speech by Minister for Foreign Affairs Kevin Rudd last week to diplomats past and present about the centrality of foreign policy to the pursuit of our national interests and the role and challenges for the foreign service in responding to changing times. E-diplomacy wasn't mentioned, although public engagement made it into the Minister's calls to arms: for DFAT to be:
"even better at looking beyond the horizon to identify new threats and new opportunities"...; to be able "increasingly to think outside the traditional foreign policy square"..; to cultivate "an institutional culture that embraces new ideas, that engages with the nation’s and the world’s best think tanks, with our leading universities and with both the business and NGO community"...; to be good at "sucking in the best ideas from around the world"..; and finally "both at home and abroad (engaging) in the great policy debates at home where the global dimension to these debates is both clear and critical."
Tone at the top, leadership, example, the ability to get the balance right between the need for secrecy, the maintenance of our relations with others and the demands for openness, principlined consistency, and the capacity to explain actions satisfactorily all need to go hand in hand with the embrace of technology.
Hanson has given DFAT an insight into what might be. Creating the right environment is an essential first step.
Views expressed on this topic owe something to 14 years experience with the then Department of External Affairs, an ongoing interest in international affairs, and in open government.