Dave Sharma on digital diplomacy

Aimee Chanthadavong
Senior Reporter

Australia’s former ambassador to Israel and Liberal candidate for the Sydney seat of Wentworth, Dave Sharma says Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) is struggling to master the new digital diplomacy.

In a paper for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Mr Sharma says DFAT lacked the ability to use digital tools to conduct its “mission of persuasion, influence and advocacy.”

“There’s too much use of new media channels to transmit old media content, a tendency to duck rather than address difficult issues, and a failure to engage within the digital life cycle of a news story,” he wrote.

Mr Sharma also pointed to how his old department failed to use data analytics and integrate digital tools into regular diplomatic campaigns.

This is despite the department boasting during its 2017-18 annual report that it now had a total of three million social media followers, up 23 per cent on the previous year.

The first official DFAT social media accounts were created in 2011. There are now more than 260 active accounts in Australia and overseas across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

A spokesperson for DFAT agreed that the department still has work to do when it comes to how its digital tools are used.

“As the paper acknowledges, DFAT has come a long way in our communications. However, we are always striving to improve further. We welcome ASPI’s contribution,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.com.

In 2016, DFAT launched its first digital media strategy. Then-Foreign Minister Julie Bishop explained that the plan for DFAT’s digital tools was to allow the department to broadcast messages and explain its work to the public.

“Enhanced digital engagement will enable DFAT to better connect with government and non-government organisations, business and community groups, aid and trade partners and recipients,” Ms Bishop said at the time.

“It will also help the Government better inform Australians of our foreign, aid and trade policies, and our consular and passport services, to explain why these matter, and the difference they make – globally and at home.

“Social media enables diplomats to share a contemporary view of Australia with the world, to showcase its unique qualities. It helps us reach people we may have struggled to reach in the past.”

However, according to Mr Sharma, DFAT is far from achieving any of it. He said part of the appeal of social media is its authenticity and directness, but DFAT’s digital media content was “stiff and aloof, and frequently non-responsive to attempts to engage.”

“That’s an approach that may remain suitable to traditional diplomatic settings, but it jars in the flat, non-hierarchical, informal world of digital,” he said.

He also used the opportunity to contrast Australia’s approach to overseas counterparts including the UK, Russia and Canada.

“These countries have each integrated digital platforms into the prosecution of mainstream diplomatic priorities and campaigns, realising that digital tools can have a potentiating effect in support of a diplomatic campaign,” he said.

“In Australia, we’re yet to do this properly. We maintain an unhelpful separation between the digital realm and the mainstream diplomatic realm.”

In his paper, Mr Sharma recommended that an independent review should be conducted into DFAT’s digital diplomacy efforts, and new positions of ambassador to Silicon Valley and to China’s tech giants should also be created.

Mr Sharma also suggested how a number of pilots should be carried out, including one of a more sophisticated data analytics tool and another where the stream of reporting is punchier and timelier.

DFAT also needs to adopt the “nimbleness and agility of the tech world in how it conducts Australia’s external policy”, according to Mr Sharma.

“The bureaucracy is still far too slow to adopt reform and changes…Why not encourage internal innovation…Test new platforms and business models. Run some pilots, iterate and adjust, gather the evidence, and see what works best. Don’t insist on homogeneity,” he said.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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