What's Taking us So Long to Catch On?

Electronic Embassy Project To Bring Diplomacy Online WASHINGTON, DC, USA

A unique project in Washington DC is aiming to bring the city’s foreign embassies onto the Internet as the basis for a "comprehensive resource of foreign government information."

The Electronic Embassy project grew out of Director Ross Stapleton-Gray’s desire to get his previous employer online. He was a member of the White House Information Infrastructure Task Force (IITF) until October, 1994.

Stapleton-Gray described how the project was born. "The idea was something that I developed over the last several years," he said. "I was trying hard to encourage the government to take up the idea of a ‘virtual embassy,’ putting some foreign service officers on the Internet with a ‘license’ to try and augment, complement or supplement traditional foreign affairs work, and not getting far. And one day, I even wrote it down. October 16, 1993, I was standing in line at the espresso bar at Borders when it hit me! I realized that there were some 170 other governments to try here in DC."

Currently the World Wide Web page points to foreign embassies already online, although none have begun operation. Said Stapleton-Gray, "I’m still in the process of signing the first embassy participants. I’m pointing to embassies on the Net, even if I haven’t put them on the Internet firsthand."

Whilst he wants to provide the service of choice, Stapleton-Gray does not hold anything against embassies that use other service providers, "Given that I’m trying to build a comprehensive resource, I can’t not point to an embassy, regardless of how it gets on the Web. My goal is to be more of a full-service resource for my clients, for instance, including support and HTML (hypertext markup language) work, and, what might be most important, adapting their materials to the Internet audience, and providing strategic guidance on use of the Internet."

According to Stapleton-Gray, the ideas that each embassy has for an Internet service are different. "I’m in the final stages of negotiating with one embassy’s cultural division, which would like to use the Internet to better provide support to its students in the US, while another embassy had a succinct shopping list of the ways it wants to promote travel, trade, and tourism," he said.

The users of his system have also been providing feedback on what they would like to see from their the embassies online. One of the most popular areas is information about visas, while foreign students studying in the United States have been asking for information on how they can renew their passports whilst overseas.

The project is designed to pay for itself and even turn a profit, although the director sees that coming mainly from corporate sponsorship rather than from the embassies themselves, "My guess is that commercial tie-ins will end up subsidizing the embassy participation, some of them have said they have little or no money to spend on the Internet. I’d really like to find one or more large corporate sponsors, such as one of the major telecom providers, which could underwrite embassy participation in return for the very positive visibility they’d get for the gesture."

Users can find the electronic embassy project on the Internet’s World Wide Web at http://www.embassy.org/

So far Australia, Canada, France, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Spain are all represented. In a more elegant age, our government would have the nous to ask the BBC to take care of such things (and incidentally, their Web presence is really starting to blossom). But we live in the austere proft-driven nineties. There’s nary a link to one of the UK governments various disparate services. So what am I bid for the opportunity to present the United Kingdom’s image on the Washington Emabassy Web ciruit? Step forward Mr Maxwell and place your sealed bid here.

Maybe this item will cause a few sealed bids to arrive at Number 10. Better still, Buck House.

(Press & public contact: Dr. Ross Stapleton-Gray, TeleDiplomacy Inc., tel 703-685-5197, fax 703-685-5197, Internet e-mail director@embassy.org)