This morning, I attended an event at the US Embassy Public Affairs Unit in Canberra designed to discuss matters of eDiplomacy and use of online tools in diplomatic and international affairs efforts.

The event, being hosted specifically for an Australian audience by the State Department included a conversation with Alec J Ross (he is @AlecJRoss on Twitter), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s Senior Advisor for Innovation and Ben Scott, Policy Advisor for Innovation at the State Department. Alec and Ben were in Washington DC and the hook up was done via a telepresence suite. A replay of the session is available online (it loops the replay, so you may need to pick the right time to begin). A summary of the Twitter conversation that occurred during the session is available at #oznetfreedom.

Alec and Ben answered questions from a wide audience including me, Pia Waugh from Senator Lundy’s office, Annabel Crabb (ABC Online), Bernard Keane (Crikey), Fergus Hanson (Lowy Institute) a journalist from TripleJ and an online audience of several others including a number of Australian Government representatives. DFAT were invited, but did not attend.

The agenda, based on a question and answer format, ranged across a number of subjects associated with online diplomacy, open government, open data, use of online tools for disaster management and 21st Century statecraft.

Alec and Ben answered questions frankly and shared the responsibilities.

On the matter of open data and the freedom to access the Internet unrestricted, the point was made that the US position is very much that the Internet is viewed by State as a place for dialog about what government is doing. For open data, there is singular importance being placed on all agencies in the US Government ensuring that all non-national security data is available (under Presidential Order, no less) in a searchable, reusable, open licensed format.

Alec noted that the network effects present in encouraging public servants to collaborate and communicate online are manifold. He noted that the “weak ties” effect (though Mark Granovetter’s groundbreaking research in this field at Stanford University was not cited) can be observed over and over when disparate groups are empowered to connect and collaborate – from activists in Egypt and Tunisia to enthusiasts hacking at datasets to improve national park information, to volunteer technical communities assisting civil-military workers indisaster management and conflict zones. Particular note was made of Australian efforts by Queensland Police Media on Twitter and Facebook during the recent floods and on an ongoing basis since.

With respect to disaster and conflict management work, social media are viewed by State and other US agencies as a rapid distribution method for authoritative information in situations where rapid change is the norm. An agency’s messages can be spread faster, to more people on a far greater scale than through formal, press conferences or other media use.

On the matter of the tension between open government and the need for diplomatic confidentiality, it was noted that while much of government needs to make continued efforts to be more open, secrecy remains important, particularly during sensitive negotiations.

In response to a question on how foreign service workers could best use the tools of eDiplomacy to improve their work, it was noted that online tools can be used effectively to reach out and engage the disengaged; to connect to those who normally would not be present in the discussion around issues. In particular the “two ears, one mouth and use them in that proportion” maxim was cited as a way for public sector agencies, especially the diplomatic corps, to use online tools to build a nuanced understanding of the countries and environments they work in.

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