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'The godmother of 21st-C statecraft'

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3 August 2010 10:37

That's how Alec Ross, the first senior adviser for innovation to the US Secretary of State, describes his boss Hillary Clinton in this fascinating NY Times piece, which tracks the work of Ross and Jared Cohen (the youngest member of the State Department's policy planning staff). It shows just how right Nick Gruen and Sam are about the timidity of the Australian public service when it comes to harnessing social media.

The article points to the beginnings of an entirely new approach to public diplomacy that is almost impossible to conceive of here in Australia. Exhibit A is the Australian embassy websites, which are worse than hopeless, even in our most important posts (actually, they all follow the same depressing design). Imagine having to refer someone to that site (try these two for a comparison). 

Ross and Cohen are depicted as freewheeling new-media junkies and their roughshod approach to diplomatic tradition and caution must drive many of their colleagues mad. They flit between organising private dinners between the Secretary of State and the new tech titans, to circumventing the usual deadening hierarchy to keep Twitter afloat during Iran's post-elections protests.

One moment they are harnessing the power and goodwill of tech geeks to raise millions after the Haiti disaster, the next they are trying to sidestep corrupt officials in the Congo by developing methods to pay officials directly using mobile phones.

If it's already sounding too evangelical, you don't want to know about the 'techdels'.

While the godmother of 21st-century diplomacy might be working the frontiers, surely Australia could be a little more ambitious. DFAT's public diplomacy team has been working on some interesting innovations (and a new website is in the pipeline) but, as this article suggests, there's a long way to go.

Photo by Flickr user TarynMarie's photostream, used under a Creative Commons license.