eDemocracy report from Lowey – US striding ahead

If I were the leader of a nation that wasn’t friends with the US I would be very concerned with the successes of their eDiplomacy program and looking to counter it with my own.

And if I was the leader of a friendly nation, I’d still be seeking to carve out my own eDiplomacy space, to retain some element of influence in the future.

The UK has realised this, Canada has realised it, though I’m not as sure Australia has woken up to it as well.

The Lowey Institute has released an excellent report on the state of US eDiplomacy by Fergus Hanson, which may help as a wake up call.

Brought to my attention by Peter Timmin, who writes the Open and Shut FOI blog, Fergus’s report, the result of four months spent in the US with the State Department, found that there are now 25 separate ediplomacy nodes operating at State’s Washington DC Headquarters employing over 150 full-time equivalent staff.

Additionally (the report says) a recent internal study of US missions abroad found 935 overseas staff employing ediplomacy communications tools to some degree, or the equivalent of 175 full-time

The report states very clearly that, in some areas ediplomacy is changing the way State does business. For example,

In Public Diplomacy, State now operates what is effectively a global media empire, reaching a larger direct audience than the paid circulation of the ten largest US dailies and employing an army of diplomat-journalists to feed its 600-plus platforms.

In other areas, like Knowledge Management, ediplomacy is finding solutions to problems that have plagued foreign ministries for centuries.

One of the key changes that Fergus noted was how the organisation functioned as a start-up, not as a staid old-fashioned bureaucracy. For example,

In interviews with office staff, conversation quickly turns from notional duties to ‘passion projects’ – the new ideas and platforms staff work on in their spare time. And there are plenty in the works. The Inspector General, whose recent report on the office made it sound like a review of a Silicon Valley start-up, noted over 40 underway.

Other employees also seem to have got a message regularly repeated at the Office of eDiplomacy; Experiment. It’s okay to fail. One enterprising official working on US library spaces abroad realised how costly and pointless it was sending physical books across the globe and cut a deal with Amazon to get discounted Kindles delivered instead.

And in Zimbabwe, the greying US Ambassador, Charles A Ray, has embraced Facebook as a way of circumventing the iron grip Robert Mugabe exercises over freedom of the press. He engages in an active and animated discussion with Zimbabweans about how they view the world.

In my view this report doesn’t only highlight the new world of diplomacy, but also the new world of the public service.

The approach taken to engage foreign citizens could be transferred to domestic agencies and used to engage US citizens as well.

Is State the future of public services around the world? Time – and good leadership will tell.

However just as nations who fail to remain commercially competitive find it increasingly difficult to maintain incomes, education levels, lifestyles and services, countries that fail to be competitive in their public governance are likely to be at significant disadvantage in international relations.

eDiplomacy is already here and working. The challenge has been laid down. Can Australia’s present public sector and political leaders take it up?

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