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Thursday, November 25, 2010

Foreign affairs and the challenge of open government

The Lowy Institute Policy brief on E-diplomacy by Fergus Hanson points out how the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade could and should embrace internet technology in pursuing diplomatic objectives by improving internal debate, communication with stakeholders and public diplomacy through web presence, social media, blogs and wikis. Here's Hanson's three minute summary.

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.

While it uses international peer comparisons with the US, UK and Canada to make the case that Australia needs to act or be left behind in this area, the brief also omits mention of the Australian context, which includes developments that promote the ideas it advances. For example the Government's Open Government Declaration, the embrace of Gov 2.0 generally, the Prime Minister's "let the sun shine in" promise, and changes to the Freedom of Information Act that require a more open attitude, government information to be managed as a national resource, and from May next year, more proactive publication.

Another factor that will challenge traditional attitudes is the more lively interest in Parliament in transparency generally. The Government has agreed to establish a mechanism for independent assessment of claims of public interest immunity. The Greens, Andrew Wilkie and Senator Trood for starters are all very familiar with bald, and usually uncontested claims that disclosure of information could be expected to harm international relations or national security.

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."
Managing foreign policy and the conduct of international relations against the backdrop of changing attitudes to openness and transparency here and in the world around us (well not including North Korea, Burma and the like), will require a significant shift for DFAT, not to mention Defence, intelligence agencies and others with a stake in this.

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.

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