Chapter 4 E-diplomacy
This Chapter discusses the effect of e-diplomacy and information and
communication technology (ICT) on the activities of diplomatic posts.
The Lowy Institute acknowledged that the term ‘e-diplomacy’ is still
being defined, and adopted a broad working definition of e-diplomacy as ‘the
use of the web and ICT to help carry out diplomatic objectives’.
A witness from the Lowy Institute told the Committee that he had undertaken
extensive research into the emerging role of e-diplomacy at the US State
Department. He commented that
e-diplomacy was more than the use of either social media or public diplomacy:
... e-diplomacy is not just about diplomats getting on
Facebook and Twitter and promoting government messages; most of it is invisible
to the public.
A new technological environment for
Submissions to the Inquiry emphasised the transformative effects that
new communication technologies were having on traditional methods of diplomacy.
The Lowy Institute discussed the importance of new media in a changing
There are a lot of new actors out there that can affect our
interests, whereas traditionally it was okay just to go in and hand over your
third-person note to the desk officer in the foreign ministry. That is not good
enough in a world where you have everything from global NGOs through to social
movements and terrorist organisations, all of which can affect our interests.
We have to be much more broad ranging and much more creative in reaching out
and engaging those actors, so the internet and social media are very important
Empowerment of non-state actors
The Lowy Institute advised the Committee that the spread of new
communication technology, illustrated by the presence of around one billion
web-enabled phones worldwide, was empowering non-state actors:
The Arab Spring clearly highlighted at least some of the
implications of this new reality, particularly in developing countries:
revolutions can now be dramatically accelerated (reducing diplomatic decision
time frames) and largely leaderless.
The Lowy Institute added that these trends were particularly significant
for Australia considering that it is located in a region where 22 of 24
neighbouring countries were developing or fragile states, the citizens of which
were embracing communication technology.
The Lowy Institute discussed how this new paradigm is impacting on the
way that diplomats go about their business:
... online influencers, in key areas of interest to
Australia, have become legitimate and important diplomatic contacts, because of
the role they play in shaping and influencing debates. Traditionally,
identifying influencers has involved a degree of art and intuition, but the
digital nature of the online space means diplomats should be using empirical
data derived from analytic tools, not guesswork, to identify these influencers.
Internet freedom and transparency
The Lowy Institute suggested that the spread of new technologies had
opened up ‘new pressing and potentially ideological debates’, and that perhaps
the biggest was the debate over internet freedom:
This debate has assumed a higher profile in the wake of the
Arab Spring as governments across the world have come to appreciate the power
of connective technologies in disrupting previous power structures and in
dramatically accelerating social and political movements. This has led many
states to seek to censor, control and monitor Internet traffic.
The Lowy Institute outlined the US agenda of promoting internet freedom,
and asserted that Australian policy was somewhat at odds with this agenda.
The Lowy Institute continued:
Regardless of Australia’s current policy position, if the US
and UK analysis is correct, then as a democratic, Western country and US ally
it is likely Australia will increasingly be called upon to actively engage on
the issue of Internet freedom at a diplomatic level as part of its human
rights, democracy, free trade and rule of law interests.
The Lowy Institute told the Committee that DFAT was ‘uncomfortably
perched’ between ‘a world which was about controlling information’ and ‘a world
which was about exchanging information’:
… there needs to be a sort of recognition that it is totally
appropriate that some information which is sensitive remains in channels which
can manage it and make sure the people who need it see it, but not others. But
the mindset should be that most information is open and frankly, not that
sensitive, and we should exchange it more freely. It is a shift of the onus, if
you like, towards sharing and opening up the information away from holding it
Australia’s current e-diplomacy
Online public diplomacy
The impact of e-diplomacy on the activities of posts is most visible in
the area of public diplomacy. Evidence to the Inquiry focused on the
opportunities and challenges created by technology on the conduct of public
diplomacy, both in relation to traditional public websites and newer forms of
In 2007 the Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and
Trade produced a report into the nature and conduct of Australia’s public
diplomacy. The report defined public diplomacy as:
... work or activities undertaken to understand, inform and
engage individuals and organisations in other countries in order to shape their
perceptions in ways that will promote Australia and Australia’s policy goals
DFAT emphasised that its digital media presence was a tool for advancing
the department’s priorities in public diplomacy and that it was an important
part of its business:
DFAT delivers innovative and strategic public diplomacy as a
core component of its daily work. We invest considerable energy and resources
in long-term public diplomacy activities to advocate Australia’s interests
internationally, manage adverse perceptions and build images of Australia as a
dynamic and diverse nation. DFAT also communicates with Australian audiences
about the delivery of consular and passport services to the travelling public
and about DFAT’s role in advancing Australia’s national interests globally.
The ANZ Bank made the point that as a small country Australia should be
focused on public diplomacy and, in particular, e-diplomacy because ‘in the
absence of deep people-to-people links with many of our regional neighbours, it
is one of the most important tools the Government can use to influence our
Department of Foreign Affairs and
DFAT’s primary internet platform for public diplomacy is the department’s
public website. Ensuring its websites met the needs of clients and stakeholders
is a key priority for DFAT.
DFAT has over 100 websites comprising: the main departmental website,
the Smartraveller website, and the individual websites of overseas
posts. DFAT’s main website attracted 5 million unique visitors per year while Smartraveller
attracted over 30 million hits per year.
DFAT improved the performance of its public websites, recently
re-designing the Smartraveller website by making it more intuitive and incorporating
social media and videos. The website was embedded with an e-learning tool
intended to improve DFAT’s engagement with the travel industry by better
explaining its products and services.
DFAT also introduced a mobile version of Smartraveller to target
the increasing use of smart phones by the Australian public, enabling
travellers to register their itinerary with DFAT and more conveniently access
information that could affect their safety and security.
DFAT noted that the Smartraveller enhancements have been the most
significant recent development in new digital media platforms for the
Other Australian Government agency
The Committee received input from other Government agencies on the
importance of their websites in communicating to the wider public both in
Australia and overseas.
AusAID advised the Committee of the importance of its public websites in
directly connecting with individuals and organisations domestically and
internationally. AusAID made particular reference to the use of its website to
implement its Transparency Charter, which committed the agency to deliver
clear, accessible and timely reporting on its aid activities. This was done
via the publication of regularly updated information and data about its country
program activities, including expenditure, results and annual performance
DAFF also commented on the usefulness of its departmental website as a
tool for public diplomacy:
… we publish profiles of our overseas staff and their contact
details. We also provide updates on Free Trade Agreement negotiations and
market access issues and successes. We have pages dedicated to quarantine where
we provide e-brochures in support of biosecurity and protecting Australia’s
DIAC told the Committee that the web was the principal tool for
conveying information to people who were in locations where DIAC did not have
an office. For example, DIAC’s
website provided easily accessible information on how to apply for Australian
citizenship and a broad range of Australian visas, including a tool enabling
clients to identify which visa category was appropriate for their specific
The DIAC website also facilitated the electronic lodgement of a broad
range of visas. This will be discussed later in this Chapter under Consular
of Foreign Affairs and Trade
DFAT outlined its approach to the increasing prominence of social media:
This shift towards social networking technologies has been
most apparent in the area of e-diplomacy. DFAT recognises new digital media
platforms present bold opportunities to broaden and deepen our digital reach. At
the same time DFAT maintains a measured approach to adopting social media
DFAT headquarters’ engagement with social media consisted of a
departmental Twitter account and YouTube channels.
DFAT established a generic Twitter account in April 2011 with the stated
aim of ‘reach[ing] a wider and increasingly mobile audience, including people
with limited internet access and travellers who may rely on Twitter for
information’. DFAT’s Twitter account
had 7859 followers as at 31 May 2012.
Four YouTube channels have been established by DFAT since December 2010
and consisted of a generic departmental channel and Ministerial channels.
DFAT advised the Committee that it planned to increase the department’s
use of new media platforms in the near future, including:
- the launch of a DFAT Smartraveller
app for iPhones, and
- the development of
in-house production capabilities to increase the volume of material on DFAT and
Ministerial YouTube accounts.
Engagement with social media in DFAT is also undertaken by posts, which
included a Facebook page for the Australian embassy in Jakarta.
DFAT provided examples of posts successfully using social media:
- The Australian
Embassy in Beijing, in January 2011, set up three Chinese language social media
sites, similar to Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to support Imagine Australia:
Year of Australian Culture in China (www.imagineaustralia.net). Of the three,
the Sina microblog has attracted most attention, exceeding 88,000 subscribers
by July 2011. The three sites will … build its existing follower base as a
means of promoting both the Global China Dialogue and the 40th anniversary
of diplomatic relations in 2012.
- The Australian
Embassy in Seoul has been using YouTube and a Korean language i-Phone
application since January 2011 to promote events associated with
Australia-Korea Year of Friendship 2011 - the bilateral ‘Year of Friendship’
program marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations (www.australiakorea50.com)
- … Our posts in New
Delhi and Pretoria established Facebook and Twitter accounts for the 2010 FIFA
World Cup and 2010 Commonwealth Games respectively, while the Embassy in the
Holy See established a Twitter account for the canonisation of St Mary
Other Australian Government
AusAID,  Austrade
and DIAC also advised the
Committee about their engagement with social media platforms including YouTube,
Twitter, Flickr and LinkedIn as tools for enhancing awareness, promoting events
and programs and providing information to the public.
AusAID also told the Committee that it was using social media tools to
increase the transparency of Australia’s aid program:
In response to the need to communicate to a wide audience and
the demand for more frequent communication of the aid program’s outcomes,
AusAID is investing in public diplomacy and communications tools, such as the
‘Engage’ blog and AusAID’s twitter feed, which aim to reach a wider audience.
In doing this, AusAID is making itself more accountable for its work.
Austrade provided the Committee with a case study on how it used social
media to deliver key marketing and promotional messages on trade, investment
and education in Australia:
... Austrade established a Study in Australia Facebook page
in 2009 to help promote an education exhibition in Indonesia. Using Facebook’s
internal advertising tool, an advertisement for the exhibition was created to
promote it directly to Indonesian Facebook users. Approximately 200 users
confirmed their attendance through the page and 1,500 Facebook users declared
themselves as fans of the Study in Australia Indonesia page. The number of fans
to this Facebook page has since risen to over 10,000. The page was used to
promote another education event in early 2011, following which surveys revealed
that 10 per cent of attendees reported the Facebook page as the reason for
DIISRTE’s education counsellors used new media to advance their role of
supporting the growth of Australia’s international education links by ‘confidence
building cooperation strategies with government representatives and other major
In both China and India we have established blog services and
we are monitoring carefully how they develop. A Twitter service for students in
Chinese was established by AEI China Sina Weibo in May 2011, and it has over
10,000 subscribers. The service was recently … honoured with an award at the
annual sina.com education gala.
Customs also used social media as a tool for public diplomacy to ‘engage
in strategic communications and market research in relation to maritime people
smuggling’. Customs had undertaken
research into the attitudes of people regarding such travel to Australia, and
whether they were aware of the dangers. ‘Overt and sanctioned communications
campaigns’ were also conducted to provide factual information to communities
where people smuggling crews were being recruited.
Customs added it was constantly looking at how to reach people through
the Internet and through the ‘apps they have on their smart phones and the like’.
Criticisms of DFAT’s online public
Criticisms of the use of the internet for public diplomacy focussed on
- Australian embassy
- risk aversion to
- vulnerability to ‘nation
brand damaging incidents’;
- failure to keep up
with the leaders in e-diplomacy; and
- lack of engagement
with the Australian community.
Australian embassy websites
The Lowy Institute criticised the public websites of Australian
embassies overseas as being:
… among the worst websites hosted by any arm of the Federal
government and do nothing to capitalise on the main reason people visit the
websites (for visa and immigration purposes). There is no serious effort, for
example, to promote major Australian exports like education and tourism or to
attract quality skilled migrants.
Others expressed a similar sentiment. ACT Labor FADTC characterised
Australia’s embassy websites as ‘quite old and tired’. 
UMD told the Committee that the ‘problem with the [Australian embassy in
Belgrade’s] website is that it is very basic and has no imagination’.
DFAT agreed that some of the Lowy Institutes criticisms of their
websites were justified:
I would let their criticism stand. I do not think we are in
the business of defending everything we do as being the best. I think some of
their criticisms of our website are probably justified.
Risk aversion to social media
A number of organisations also identified excessive risk aversion as a
contributing factor to DFAT’s perceived failure to harness social media as a
tool for public diplomacy.
The Lowy Institute commented that DFAT’s risk aversion in relation to
social media engagement needed to be rethought:
DFAT needs to increase its risk appetite and be ready to back
its staff when controversies surrounding new media arise. To use ediplomacy
effectively requires acceptance of higher risk, for example, a small
controversy erupted over a British Ambassador’s blog post commenting on
Ayatollah Fadlallah. This needs to be put in context: the [ UK Foreign and
Commonwealth Office] has posted over 4,000 blogs over three years and estimates
these have resulted in just three controversies.
The Lowy Institute expanded on this point:
At the moment DFAT has one Twitter feed. They have trialled
in a few ad hoc social media sites in China and Korea. … I would recommend that
every ambassador is essentially, if not made to, then strongly encouraged to
get on social media. ... If there are middle ranking officers that want to try
to use social media in their work they should be encouraged to do that. The
fear in a lot of foreign ministries is that this creates some sort of enormous
sense of risk and I think that is just not the case …
The ACT Labor FADTC also told the Committee that in order to effectively
communicate Australia’s message via new media, ‘DFAT staff need to know that
they will be backed if they do make a mistake occasionally’.
DFAT advised the Committee that it was ‘giving the opportunity and
discretion for heads of mission in large posts to pursue e-diplomacy
initiatives where they think it is worthwhile in their own setting’:
Our embassy in Jakarta is going down the path of Facebook and
the like. Our embassy in Beijing established the equivalent thereof for the
Year of Australian Culture in China; however, the embassy there has just been
given the tick to go down that path more extensively.
The Committee sought comments on the potential risks of social media as
a tool for public diplomacy in countries where relations are strained, such as
Iran. In response, DFAT also qualified its movement towards giving ambassadors
greater autonomy in their use social media as a tool of diplomacy:
I would not do it in respect of Iran … because we have
diplomatic personnel in Iran and their safety on the ground is more important
to me than an e-diplomacy effort into Iran. If we were to … seek to foster what
we think might be particular directions or particular policies in respect of
Iran, we would need to do that very carefully … What you do in different
countries will depend very much on the circumstances of those countries.
Vulnerability to ‘nation brand
The Lowy Institute commented on the need for DFAT to play a role in
using social media to respond quickly to incidents that damage Australia’s
It is unrealistic to have a traditional, old-school approach
to this where you write to the newspaper editor or have a press statement or a
media conference a couple of days later after you have had a chance to think
about it. People demand that it is instantaneous.
As an example, the Lowy Institute identified DFAT’s lack of engagement
with social media as limiting Australia’s ability to defend itself against ‘nation
brand damaging incidents’ such as the 2009 attacks on Indian students in
Events such as the Indian student crisis have the potential
to do far more damage to Australia’s reputation and commercial interests,
because damaging information can be spread so rapidly and so extensively
online. Online forums are critical in many of these instances, but DFAT’s
knowledge of online influencers is limited, its presence in online forums is
minimal and it has no digital knowledge centre to draw upon in preparing a
rapid response. The rules of the game have changed, but so far diplomatic
processes are yet to adapt.
DIISRTE commented that the Indian student crisis had contributed to a
recent decline in student numbers and noted that international education was
Australia’s third largest overseas earnings sector.
It described how the issue quickly developed even though India had no permanent
reporters in Australia:
[It] started as a result of social media interactions between
students in Australia and people in India, be they media people or others. All
of the images transmitted 24 hours across the many TV stations in India
actually came largely from people who had taken those photographs and media
clips on their mobile phones and sent them across. It just illustrates the
power of the new media.
The Lowy Institute provided the Committee with a examples of how
e-diplomacy, and in particular social media, could be used to further Australia’s
diplomatic objectives in the context of the Indian student crisis:
First of all, it is very difficult to engage in these
conversations from a standing start. You have to have some kind of presence in
these social media forums if you want to have your voice heard ...
The second part is in the same way that a good diplomat will
go out, meet with and form relationships with the key opinion shapers in
traditional media, politics and business, now it is incumbent on a good
diplomat to go out and meet the key opinion shapers in the online space and
form relationships with them so that when a crisis breaks or when they need to
try to exert influence in a particular area, they can try and make the best
case to these powerful influences in the online world ...
The third element is that you need to have a team ready for
exactly these types of incidents where they can respond rapidly and develop a
communication strategy that brings in the key decision makers, that makes sure
that the statements that they are making are consistent with the government
line and that they craft a strategy that they think is going to play well in
that local audience.
DIISRTE added that it was important to engage in dialogue on the
Internet rather than simply transmit government messages:
… if you have a blog you cannot just use it as a propaganda
channel. It does not work that way, because if you want people to interact then
you have to have a real dialogue. That has a multiplier effect, because for
every tweet subscriber you get … they will tweet the thing on to another five
subscribers … and you will have this kind of dialogue going and it is better to
do that than just to try and run something as a propaganda channel.
Failure to keep up with the leaders
A number of submissions suggested that Australia was not keeping up with
best practice in e-diplomacy.
The Lowy Institute told the Committee that Australia is ‘underdone
compared with the UK, certainly, and the US, which is moving very fast’ on e-diplomacy.
UMD also endorsed the US State Department’s use of social media and recommended
that DFAT should do the same.
The Lowy Institute added that the US State Department ran:
… about 600 social media platforms just on Facebook. That is
not even counting the Chinese platforms or individual country platforms; it is
just the major ones. They reach an audience, directly, of 8 million people a
The ACT Labor FADTC noted that as of November 2011 the US State
Department’s Facebook page in Jakarta had 450,000 followers, and that given
Indonesian internet users are overwhelmingly in the 15-19 age bracket, this
allowed US diplomacy to reach, influence and engage more effectively with
DFAT acknowledged the success of the UK and the US in the area of
e-diplomacy, describing them as ‘vanguards in the field’,
but added that its engagement with e-diplomacy was constrained by limited
We are not at the forefront of [e-diplomacy] and we do not
apologise for that. We do not have the resources to do it.
DFAT also sought to place comparisons between it and the US State
Department in the context of their relative size:
… the Department of State have 40 people working on Facebook.
That is 40 in 30,000 people. Forty is to 30,000 as 5.33 recurring is to 4,000.
We have about six or seven people, including in the consular area, working on
Lack of engagement with the
The Lowy Institute commented that DFAT had failed to engage successfully
with the Australian community:
Part of the problem for DFAT is, for example, if you take a
trade liberalisation negotiation, which benefits Australians, but explaining
exactly how that works to a family that is struggling to make the budget
balance, how that trade negotiation can help them, seems to me something DFAT
needs to get much better at.
The Lowy Institute advised the Committee that an Office of E-Diplomacy
would be one way for DFAT to engage the Australian community more broadly than
it does now.
The Lowy Institute added that risk aversion was also an impediment to
DFAT properly selling its message to the Australian community, and that this
related to social media:
What if one of our people says the wrong thing, gets the message
wrong and so on? My answer to that is that if you are trusting them to be out
there representing the country overseas then surely you can trust them to turn
up and talk to Australians.
AusAID emphasised the importance of communicating with the Australian
community about AusAID’s work, and the focus on online communication in
achieving that aim:
If you think about it, not many Australians ever see anything
we do. On your visits you have seen our work. Technology provides us with the
opportunity to bring the aid program to Australians.
AusAID compared its use of ICT to communicate and promote its work to
DFAT’s ability to do the same:
We are fortunate in that most of our work is unclassified and
it is reasonable for Australians and the recipients of our assistance to
understand how much we are spending, what we are achieving and all the
accountability requirements. It is harder for DFAT to do that about the
intimacies of bilateral relationships or whatever. ... The community engagement
in the aid program is much different from the level of community engagement in
DIAC also advised the Committee about their use of social media to reach
out to a domestic audience:
I even did a YouTube clip, a stand-up to camera, explaining
visa changes that occurred 18 months to two years ago. ... When I did the
YouTube clip it was mainly for the domestic market to explain visa changes that
were going to impact the international student caseload in this country at that
The Committee has discussed the need for DFAT to engage with the
boardrooms of Australian companies in Chapter Three.
The Lowy Institute described the impact of poor knowledge management on
activities at posts:
DFAT’s most valuable asset is its knowledge, but ediplomacy
tools to capitalise on and retain this have not been adopted. For example, at
posts for sometime there have been no official handovers between departing and
arriving officers and the transfer of experience between individual officers
(eg of contacts) is ad hoc.
... Another related opportunity cost for DFAT is efficiently
identifying its resources and then marshalling them. If you are in the Jakarta
embassy, for example, and need to find a translator for X language the only
option now is to ask around.
The Lowy Institute told the Committee that knowledge management was
successfully facilitated by e-diplomacy tools at the US State Department:
Digital tools such as a modified Deskipedia (a US State
Department tool) would allow every officer to detail all their contacts for specific
issues on a centralised digital system... When officers finish a tour or are
reassigned another problem is retaining that more senior and experienced
officer’s knowledge... Digital tools such as virtual communities help
facilitate knowledge transfer...
Austrade advised the Committee that their integrated communications
network connects staff domestically and overseas to Austrade’s business
database and document management and collaboration system. Austrade advised the
Committee that a key outcome of their integrated communications network has
been enhanced knowledge sharing and retention.
Internal communication and global connectivity
DFAT’s international ICT network
DFAT advised the Committee about the importance of an effective, secure
communications network with posts:
The timely and efficient dissemination of information among
agencies with overseas representation is fundamental to ensuring effective
whole-of-government approaches to the Government’s international agenda. A
robust and secure information and communication technology network is therefore
critical to the [Head of Mission/Head of Post’s] ability to function as the
senior Australian Government representative in the host or accredited country.
DFAT’s core ICT system for posts is the Secure Australian
Telecommunication and Information Network (SATIN). SATIN was developed to ‘provide
a secure, standards-based, whole-of-government approach for the provision of
ICT services overseas.’  It features two specific
operating environments, SATIN High and SATIN Low. SATIN High is the National
Security classified system while SATIN Low is the unclassified system.
SATIN links over 140 sites in Australia and overseas including 95
diplomatic posts, Ministerial offices, State offices, and over 40 Government
agencies. The system supports a range of critical government business
operations at posts, including:
- diplomatic cables;
- consular services;
- passport services;
- visa services.
SATIN also provides essential ICT capabilities both domestically and at
posts, including email, telephony, internet and general policy, service delivery
and administrative computing applications.
SATIN has over 10 000 user accounts. 35 per cent of SATIN accounts are
provided for staff in other Government agencies. DFAT noted that the ‘ongoing
growth in client agency user numbers reflects the department’s evolving role as
a whole-of-government coordinator and service provider on the international
ICT support, monitoring and maintenance are provided centrally from
Canberra to domestic sites and overseas missions by the Global Support Centre
(GSC). The GSC delivers ‘helpdesk and problem resolution on a 3-tiered model
covering basic enquiries to complex technical issues based on priority and
DFAT also provided ICT and security services ‘off-post’ to support Prime
Ministerial, Ministerial and VIP delegations attending overseas forums such as
the G20 in collaboration with posts.
AusAID told the Committee that Australia’s Whole-of-Government secure
communications network ‘works pretty well compared with what most other
countries have’, and commented on its value to government:
If you have a system where whole-of-government can be kept informed
about what agencies and departments are doing in particular countries, that is
pretty good. Every system can be made better and more effective, but I think it
works pretty well.
International ICT networks at other
Australian Government agencies
A number of Government agencies advised the Committee about their ICT networks
which connected them internationally. All Government agencies with independent
international ICT networks rely in some way on DFAT’s ICT network.
As at 4 January 2012, 83 per cent of AusAID staff in 36 offices overseas
were connected to AusAID’s independent ICT network, with plans to connect its
entire staff globally. AusAID told the Committee that they would continue to
rely on DFAT for certain ICT services including SATIN High, satellite and cable
communications links to posts and SATIN low for AusAID staff in 20 countries. These
services were provided under a Service Level Agreement with DFAT.
Defence staff at posts were generally reliant on SATIN. DFAT ICT
services were provided to Defence under a Memorandum of Understanding. Staff in
London and Washington also have fixed connectivity to the Defence Restricted
and Secret networks. Defence commented that the existing SATIN networks provided
good connectivity for its representational staff.
The AFP have their own secure international ICT system providing
real-time connectivity to systems in Australia which ‘leverages off’ DFAT’s ICT
network. The AFP labelled their ICT system as ‘absolutely crucial’ and of ‘huge
benefit’ in terms of working overseas. The AFP also stated that its ICT stood
up well when compared to some of their international counterparts such as the
US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.
The AEC told the Committee that they used SATIN, and in particular the
cable system, to task posts during Federal election delivery periods:
The tasking directives for staff at diplomatic posts sent through
the cable system covered election related tasks, such as performing stocktakes
of election materials at their posts and receiving and checking election
material despatch consignments.
The AEC commented on the slowness of the cable system and advised the
Committee that, because a high level of security was not generally necessary
for its work, it was in the process of developing an alternative method of
communication with posts:
The cable system is slow, it is bureaucratic and it is
layered, so one of the innovations that we want to employ for, I assume, 2013
is that DFAT posts—Austrade posts—will be given direct access to an AEC portal.
They will be able to use that portal, not only to get tasking instructions but
training materials, forms and those sorts of things, rather than going through
the layered process of the cable system. Obviously, the cable system has a
range of security issues which are important, but we do not think that level of
security is necessary for our current services ...
The AEC outlined the benefits of its planned internet communications
portal to officers at posts by providing:
electronic election material;
- online training;
- easy and timely
access to AEC materials and communications;
- minimised problems
related to email congestion; and
- media release shells
and templates for promotional activities which allowed posts to insert relevant
Austrade outlined the functionality of its independent global ICT
Austrade maintains a broad, independent electronic
communications network which provides national and international end points
with data, voice and video services. The network provides reliable, low-cost
connectivity between Austrade’s international posts and its office structure
throughout the Australian states and territories.
Austrade also highlighted the cost saving benefits on telephone costs
and travel arising from its ICT network:
With the fixed infrastructure in place, telephone call costs
via the network are negligible and the recent roll-out to all Austrade users of
the internal network has seen mobile costs trend markedly lower …
Austrade’s use of videoconferencing increased by around 12
per cent in 2010–11 over the previous year to a total of almost 49,000 hours.
In the same period, Austrade’s total travel expenditure decreased by 28 per
cent, to which videoconferencing has contributed.
Cisco Systems Australia Pty Ltd proposed that the Australian government
extend its highly successful deployment of its high definition video conferencing
technologies for public administration activities. Cisco told the Committee
that Australia’s overseas representation could be an area where this technology
could create greater efficiencies in a resource constrained environment.
ICT reform at DFAT
DFAT advised the Committee that it was facing increasing demands on its
ICT systems as Australia’s operational and strategic objectives continue to
DFAT identified various challenges that are unique to a secure ICT
network providing global connectivity, including:
- providing ICT support
to different time zones;
appropriate levels of resourcing in critical ICT disciplines to balance
maintenance and project work in the context of the ICT employment market;
- logistics for
securely transporting, installing and maintaining ICT assets at posts; and
- the security of
staff, systems and information, which remains a paramount concern.
DFAT added that while posts were electronically well-connected with the
Government, Australia did not have the best available ICT network.
DFAT commenced a major three year reform of ICT strategy and operations in
July 2011, with a particular emphasis on performance at posts. This reform
encompassed the following short to medium term projects:
- post infrastructure
- mobility pilot
- Electronic Document
and Records Management System;
- bandwidth upgrades;
- resourcing for ICT sustainability.
DFAT is also planning two key long term ICT reform projects—replacing
SATIN, and replacing the passport issuing system.
DFAT advised that the demand on SATIN, which was introduced in 2007, was
exceeding its capacity and ‘nearing the end of its viable operating life’. This
led to system instability and use of increasing resources to manage risk. As such,
the replacement of SATIN was ‘a critical strategic goal’ for DFAT.
DFAT advised the Committee about plans for the International
Communications Network (ICN) as a replacement of SATIN. DFAT was taking forward
the ICN’s business case through the Department of Finance and Deregulation’s
... the ICN will revitalise the department’s global ICT
capability – providing standardised, modern, flexible, and sustainable ICT
infrastructure for government out to 2023.
DFAT added that the ICN proposal focussed on making it easier for users
of the system, including those at overseas posts, to do their job and that
‘improved collaboration, interaction, information sharing, service provision
and mobility’ were all key goals of the new system.
A three year roll-out for the ICN was scheduled to commence in mid-2014.
The cost of replacing SATIN would be ‘up to $250 million’.
DFAT advised that a new passport issuing system would also be introduced
by 2016 and would ‘provide a more secure, efficient and responsive passport
service for Australia.’ The cost would be $100.8 million.
Consular service delivery
Consular service delivery evoked a significant amount of discussion
about the current uses and potential benefits of e-diplomacy.
The Lowy Institute highlighted the ability for technology to create
direct, personal communications channels with citizens travelling overseas,
including in crisis situations:
With some six billion mobile phone subscriptions, an
increasing proportion of which are smart phones able to access the web, it is
now technically viable for foreign ministries to easily reach an increasingly
large proportion of their citizens travelling or living overseas in crisis
The Lowy Institute criticised DFAT’s engagement with new media to
facilitate consular service delivery as an opportunity cost. The Lowy Institute
made the point that the less than 70,000 people who subscribed to DFAT’s travel
advice in the year ending 30 June 2010 constituted a small fraction of the
seven million overseas trips Australians take each year.
The Lowy Institute suggested three digital solutions for improving the
uptake of DFAT’s travel advice subscriber service and the quality of its
consular services and reducing the response burden:
- a smart phone travel
app designed for the largest smart phone platforms beamed to all Australians at
points of departure;
- online competitions
to derive crowd sourced promotional material for the apps; and
- arranging the option
to register with DFAT on online travel booking sites. 
As previously mentioned, DFAT advised the Committee of its plan to
launch a Smartraveller app for iPhones.
DFAT also drew attention to its Smartraveller website and advised
that it played a critical role in enabling DFAT to advance its consular
responsibilities. DFAT launched an
updated Smartraveller website in November 2011 ‘making the site more
intuitive and easier to read as well as incorporating videos and social media
DIAC advised that the internet was the primary means by which the
department engaged with clients that were located in areas abroad that do not
have Australian representation. DIAC labelled its website as the ‘core and
principal source of detailed information about the multiple pathways for
migration to Australia’.
DIAC told the Committee that it was ‘committed to improving the
efficiency and effectiveness of the way it does business through innovative service
delivery on and offshore’, and described the digitisation of their visa
DIAC has progressively moved more visa categories to
electronic lodgement in recent years, particularly to client groups that
demonstrate compliance with visa conditions and where safeguards can be put in
place to ensure the integrity of the Australian visa program. Clients from a
broad range of countries can now apply for a range of visas, particularly
temporary entry visas, online. To date in 2011 DIAC has expanded the
availability of the Electronic Tourist Visa (e676) to nationals of the
Maldives, Chile, Croatia and Turkish officials and special passport holders.
DIAC is aiming to further expand e-Visa access to clients over the next three
DIAC provided the Committee with data indicating that a significant
proportion of visitor visas are now lodged online. According to this data 83
per cent of temporary visas applications and 81% of permanent visa applications
were lodged online in the 2010-11 financial year.
DIAC also noted that the movement towards an online visa application
model alleviated the need for a distribution network tasked with collecting
UMD agreed that ‘e-consular’ services alleviated the demands on consular
staff on the ground. It added that ‘most people prefer to engage online until
such time as they get into trouble, then they need someone to help them out’.
The Committee sought comment on the risks in conducting consular
activities online in place of face-to-face contact, including the risk of
UMD acknowledged that there were risks in processing visa applications
without face-to-face contact and responded that there was an enhanced role for
consular and diplomatic staff:
There has to be scrutiny. We have to be street smart as well;
we cannot just say that everything will be online and we accept everything on
face value—it does not work that way. Of course, there needs to be an
The MIA also commented on the advantageous effect ICT had on consular
service delivery, but emphasised that such technology ‘will never be a
substitute for the need for direct face-to-face services or contact as sources
Overseas voting in Australian
The AEC works with posts to facilitate Australians voting in Australian
general elections from overseas. This activity was discussed in Chapter Three.
The AEC commented that there was an increasing expectation by Australian
electors travelling or residing overseas to be able to interact with the
Australian Government through electronic means.
The Committee explored the various ways in which overseas voting in
Australian elections could be made more efficient by digitising whole or part
of the process. The options discussed with the AEC included allowing overseas
- lodge postal voting
- cast votes on the
- cast votes
electronically on specialised equipment at posts.
The AEC commented on the possibility of allowing overseas voters to
lodge postal voting applications online in order to speed up the overseas
postal voting process:
It is one of the complaints that we receive, that people do
not have enough time to get their ballot papers back. That is one of the
reasons that we are moving to online applications and we hope that will make a
big difference, because it, essentially, cuts out one-third of the time.
Building on this point, the AEC told the Committee that it had
implemented an online enrolment update system and that it planned to implement
an online postal vote application (online PVA) which would lighten the workload
The online PVA facility should significantly reduce the
manual postal vote processing workload at diplomatic posts. This will mean that
the processing workload is diverted away from diplomatic posts, back to the AEC
for the central automated production of postal voting material. This should
also result in a more timely outcome for electors.
The AEC noted that legislation currently limits electronic voting to sight-impaired
people. It discussed,
nevertheless, the possibility of allowing Australians overseas to cast their
... while it is an attractive proposition at a superficial
level, it certainly does have some questions about its reliability. If you are
extending it across the globe you can never be totally confident whether the
systems are going to be available to everybody all the time.
The AEC commented on the possibility installing equipment at posts that
would allow overseas voters to lodge their vote electronically when attending
posts on polling day:
First, we do not have the legislation for it but it would
certainly be a mechanism that would overcome some of the issues in relation to
handling of materials. If it is conducted at a consulate or a commission then
you can be reasonably confident about the reliability of the systems.
... If you go to electronic, then the whole nature of the
polling place changes and it is then a question of the sort of equipment that
you have, the computers and so forth. That is extra work on DFAT’s part and it
is extra work on our part.
The Lowy Institute commented on the potential role for social media in
disaster response abroad:
Ediplomacy and ICT tools played important roles in the Japan
and New Zealand earthquakes. But the experience in Haiti where social media and
SMS were used to raise funds for relief efforts, find missing persons, direct
relief efforts and crowd source unmapped areas of the country perhaps offer the
most important lessons for Australian posts in the Asia Pacific, but especially
in Indonesia. These were pioneering (and not always successful) efforts, but
there is clearly enormous potential to harness these tools in future disasters.
The Lowy Institute added that effectively using social media tools in
future emergencies required ‘groundwork to be laid beforehand and disaster
response plans worked through’. The Lowy Institute made the point that, with
the exception of a Twitter feed, new digital tools are ‘completely
underutilised’ in the disaster response toolkit at DFAT.
Referring to its Twitter account, adopted in April 2011, DFAT advised
that Twitter was ‘immensely valuable in enhancing dissemination of key messages
across the spectrum of DFAT’s activities, most importantly in the context of
DFAT also drew attention to its Australians Helping Japan portal which
provided information about Australia’s post Japanese tsunami assistance and
links to ‘accredited nongovernmental and community-based relief and
Defence emphasised that secure and reliable ICT was particularly
important regarding the role that Defence representational staff have in
coordinating an ADF response to any crisis in a host country:
This has been demonstrated most recently through Operation
PADANG ASSIST, following the earthquake in Padang, Indonesia (2009); Operation
PAKISTAN ASSIST II, in response to the floods in Pakistan (2010), and most
recently Operation PACIFIC ASSIST, following the earthquake and tsunami in
Austrade agreed that a stable, reliable and broad communications network
was important in responding to disasters abroad:
The 2011 Japan tsunami crisis, for example, represented a
high, instantaneous peak of consular activity followed by continuing elevated
levels of response. Communications support at such times is critical to
operational effectiveness and Austrade’s network remained stable and functional
through this peak level of activity.
Future directions in e-diplomacy
An office of e-diplomacy
In response to the perceived shortfalls in e-diplomacy, the Lowy Institute
recommended the establishment of a single area within DFAT with responsibility
for e-diplomacy along the lines of the US State Department’s ‘Office of eDiplomacy’.
This recommendation was echoed by a number of organisations throughout the
course of the Inquiry.
In the Lowy Institute report Revolution @State: The Spread of
Ediplomacy, Fergus Hanson described the role of the Office of eDiplomacy at
the US State Department as:
... the central ediplomacy hub at State, driving internal
innovation, responding to requests for ediplomacy fixes and managing new
internal ediplomacy communications platforms. 
The original, tripartite mandate of the Office of eDiplomacy, stemming
from perceived internal failures, was:
- To promote end-user
involvement in decision-making on information technology;
- To improve the way
the State Department connects to and works with its [United States Government]
foreign affairs partner agencies, with other nations’ diplomatic institutions,
and with other entities involved in international affairs;
- To foster knowledge
management at State.
The Lowy Institute described the structure of the e-diplomacy unit in the
US State Department:
The Office of E-Diplomacy at the US State Department was set
up 10 years ago now. At the moment it has 80 staff members, about half of whom
are exclusively focused on e-diplomacy work. However, there are another 24
separate e-diplomacy nodes at the State Department in DC. All of these
different nodes employ collectively about 150 people in e-diplomacy and, if you
include posts abroad, about another 900 people are working on e-diplomacy to
DFAT does not have an office of e-diplomacy. Responsibility for social
media in DFAT is held by the Website Management Section.
As mentioned above, DFAT has six or seven people working on e-diplomacy.
The Lowy Institute saw the lack of a single area within DFAT that deals
with e-diplomacy as a stumbling block:
This makes the successful adoption of the next wave of
ediplomacy and ICT tools particularly difficult, as ediplomacy is a
crosscutting issue. The utility of ediplomacy tools are not limited to a single
area of DFAT and in many cases the same tools will serve multiple functions.
The Lowy Institute suggested how a centralised e-diplomacy branch within
DFAT could be established:
This should be staffed by a mix of policy and technical
experts and have a mandate to take a reasonable level of risk with the
platforms it develops and with which it experiments. This will likely require
recruiting people with specialist journalistic, social media and programming
expertise. Other related areas should be brought under its leadership (communications,
website and technical).
The Lowy Institute’s submission proceeded to detail specific tasks for
its proposed DFAT e-diplomacy office. These included:
- Developing and
rolling out all e-diplomacy
- Developing ediplomacy
guidelines for staff that encourage innovation and provide significant latitude
for experimentation. …
- Training staff,
especially Heads of Mission, in the use and utility of e-diplomacy tools. …
consolidating e-diplomacy platforms as new ones are rolled out and old ones
- Taking the lead on e-diplomacy
campaigns - that is, promulgating priority departmental messages using ediplomacy
tools and assisting with e-diplomacy
strategies for regular departmental communications. …
digital coordination mechanisms across relevant government agencies and
departments as well as with external stakeholders.
The establishment an office of e-diplomacy at DFAT was also supported by
ACT Labor FADTC, the ANZ Bank
UMD added that an office of e-diplomacy could be used by Diasporas to
enhance relationships without having extra posts and extra consuls.
The cost of e-diplomacy
DFAT advised the Committee that the opening of an office of e-diplomacy
was not a high priority in the current budgetary environment:
We do not have the resources to do it. If I had additional
resources now that is not where I would allocate those additional resources. I
would put people into Western China before I established an office of
e-diplomacy. It is not to say an office of e-diplomacy is not important, but
you have to make choices when you are running an organisation. ...
I would love the resources to open an office of e-diplomacy,
but if I got 10 additional people tomorrow I would be allocating them elsewhere
before opening such an office.
AAMIG expressed a similar sentiment to DFAT on the impact that funding
constraints had on an increased engagement with e-diplomacy:
Certainly, [public diplomacy] is always the area that gets
the squeeze when there is any budget tightening because it is a bit fluffy. You
will see in some of the submissions—I also read the submission of the Lowy
Institute—how some of these areas, particularly when it is linked into social
networking and so on, are major new directions in diplomacy. I would have said
that for a long time our foreign ministry kept up, was able to keep up and, in
many cases, was a leader. I do not for a moment decry the talent, ability and
commitment of these people, but it is not possible for them to keep up in all
areas now because there is just not enough money to do it—in my judgement,
ANZ also supported DFAT’s approach to placing additional resources in increasing
Australia’s diplomatic footprint ahead of increasing efforts in e-diplomacy.
The Lowy Institute responded that although lack of funding was an
impediment to increased engagement with social media, cultural change was also
DFAT is a traditional foreign ministry, and foreign
ministries are used to going overseas and talking to other diplomats. The whole
history of the profession, if you like, is a slightly secretive state-to-state
transaction, so it takes time to break that down.
The Lowy Institute added that better use of e-diplomacy does not
necessarily come at a high cost:
Part of what the adoption of e-diplomacy at State has
involved is senior management encouraging staff to innovate and look for new
solutions to the problems they face in their daily work.
In several cases this has allowed them to dramatically cut
costs because using technology has allowed State to do the same job much more
Customs had a different approach to DFAT regarding the allocation of
limited resources to ICT versus on-the-ground representation:
Frankly, you will get a bigger bang for your buck improving
that intelligence back end than having a formal diplomatic style representation
overseas. If someone was to offer me an extra dollar... it would frankly not go
to permanent presence overseas. Would it go to high-level exchanges, temporary
missions, ICT connectivity with foreign intelligence and law enforcement
agencies? Probably, but not to permanently assigned representatives.
Customs also made the point that the choice between having people on the
ground and ICT connectivity did not directly relate to Australia’s diplomatic
representation due to the nature of their operationally focused work. For
Customs, the answer to that question was ‘really a matter of judgement in each
E-diplomacy versus on-the-ground
A number of organisations commented on the relationship between e-diplomacy
and on-the-ground representation
DAFF advised that it did not consider e-diplomacy as a substitute for face-to-face
communication, particularly in the context of emerging markets:
The importance of communicating in person is relevant in
countries where there may be cultural sensitivities and language barriers. In
some countries it can be seen as insensitive to engage someone through non
visual communications, where body language is integral to building rapport. In
many developing countries the use of internet communications is far more
limited and we are unable to rely on information and communications technology.
DIISRTE told the Committee that in doing business around Asia ‘personal
contact still means a lot’.
DRET made the point that e-diplomacy should be used to support rather
than to supplant Australia’s overseas representation and that people-to-people
links were vital to their mission.
AAMIG advised the Committee that e-diplomacy increased the volume of
communication rather than minimising in-country workloads:
People seem to think [e-diplomacy] is a panacea. But if you
get 50 emails in your box from 50 Australian companies interested in something,
and you are the people on the ground having to deal with that, it does not
necessarily make it a panacea. The ease of communications means there are more
of them coming in, but someone still has to deal with all that. So I do not
really see e-diplomacy as a magical thing where you press the button and it
means you do not need people.
Similarly, the ANZ Bank told the Committee that building influence
occurred through people-to-people contact rather than ‘over a telephone line or
videoconferencing’, and that these tools helped to enhance already built
relationships and ‘quicken the pace’.
E-diplomacy is commonly perceived as the use of social media to promote government
messages overseas. The Committee, however, agrees with the Lowy Institute that
e-diplomacy encompasses a far broader range of activities and raises the issue
of the balance between DFAT controlling information as opposed to exchanging
information. The Committee considers the Government White Paper it has
recommended should review this balance.
E-diplomacy comprises many different ICT systems and online
communication platforms that are subject to rapid change and patterns of usage.
It holds great potential to manage information and facilitate communication
within DFAT and the whole of Government, to improve consular service delivery
and disaster response, and to understand, inform and engage audiences both in
Australia and overseas.
The Committee considers that the internet and particularly social media
platforms are underutilised by DFAT as tools for public diplomacy.
Australian embassy websites are often the first port-of-call for
foreigners seeking to visit, migrate or do business with Australia. The
Committee has reviewed various Australian embassy websites and considers that
they should be more informative, attractive and user-friendly.
The Committee notes DFAT’s advice that in the current budgetary
situation improving its websites was less of a priority than increasing
on-the-ground diplomatic representation. The Committee responds that it is not
a competition between e-diplomacy and increasing on-the-ground representation.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade immediately refurbish Australian embassy websites to make
them more informative, attractive and user-friendly.
DFAT’s international ICT network is vital to the functioning of
Australia’s overseas representation, as well as being of great value in
connecting and informing the whole of Government. The Committee highlights the
importance of obtaining the appropriate technology in the planned replacement
The progressive digitisation of the visa application process undertaken
by DIAC has created a more accessible and efficient system, alleviating the
demands on the activities of posts. The Committee encourages further progress
in this direction.
The Committee believes there is merit in establishing an office of e-diplomacy
within DFAT as the best way to harness the potential and deal with the
challenges of e-diplomacy, particularly in light of the constantly evolving nature
of ICT. The US State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy is considered to be a best
During the course of the inquiry it became clear that a significant
amount of e-diplomacy is successfully carried out by Australian government
agencies other than DFAT. The Committee sees potential for an office of
e-diplomacy to foster a more coordinated, whole-of-Government approach to these
The Committee is sympathetic with DFAT’s view that it would put any
additional funding into increasing Australia’s diplomatic footprint rather than
into an office of e-diplomacy. The Committee considers, however, that better
engagement with e-diplomacy requires cultural change and is not necessarily
resource intensive. It should not be a choice between extending Australia’
diplomatic network and an office of e-diplomacy.
E-diplomacy should be seen as an enhancement of Australia’s
on-the-ground representation, not a replacement of it.
The Committee concludes that the external review of DFAT which it has
proposed should include a consideration of the merits and feasibility of
establishing an office of e-diplomacy within DFAT.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade establish an Office of e-Diplomacy, subject to the external
review, the Government White Paper and any increase in resources.
It appears to the Committee that DFAT, and foreign policy in general,
does not have a broad basis of support—people and organisations who see the
value of DFAT’s overseas network and the work it does, and who are prepared to
advocate on its behalf.
The Committee believes that the use of social media platforms is an
ideal mechanism for DFAT to promote to a wider audience, knowledge and
appreciation of Australia’s foreign policy, trade opportunities, and DFAT’s
role. The aim should be to create a more dynamic public profile with a key
focus on the wider Australian public and key audiences in Asia and the Pacific.
The Committee recommends that the Department of Foreign
Affairs and Trade should make better use of social media platforms to promote
Australia’s foreign policy, trade opportunities, and the Department’s role to
the wider Australian public and key audiences in Asia and the Pacific.
The Committee has not commented on electronic voting as it considers
this to be a matter for the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters.
Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee
|Mr Michael Danby MP
Committee on Foreign
Affairs, Defence and Trade