I met a former MFAT colleague a few days after Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully had delivered his speech on planned changes to the way the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry does its business.
I was reminded that many of the proposed changes were actually suggested in the 1989-90 period and about how the MFAT system had been able to muster so much opposition to the proposals that few were implemented. It is therefore with little surprise that I read editorials and op-eds from former diplomats questioning some of what is being proposed.
I too am a former diplomat. Indeed, I was born into the MFAT whanau and have an association now stretching over 50 years with the ministry. After six years working outside the ministry I was restructured into the place in 1988 and did reasonably well enjoying good promotion and serving in Singapore, Beijing and Taipei, the latter as head of mission. It was a surprise to many when I announced my departure in 2004.
Unlike some of the people commenting on Mr McCully's vision, I pretty much agree with every word he uttered.
Change in MFAT is long overdue. And it is wonderful to observe the coincidence of John Allen as CEO and Mr McCully as the minister to allow this change to be attempted.
MFAT is able to recruit some of the most able and talented employees in the New Zealand workforce. Most are incredibly hard-working and dedicated to making New Zealand a better place. Many make enormous sacrifices for their country during their time with the ministry. And this sacrifice often involves partners interrupting or ruining careers, and children.
But MFAT has been extremely resistant to change. It has taken longer to embrace new technologies and management systems than pretty much every other organ of government. It is hierarchical and it has never quite come to grips with the tension that exists between specialists and generalists within the organisation. And until Mr Allen took over as CEO, it has never valued experience gained outside the ministry. Those seeking to come back to the ministry after years away were told that they would have to enter at the level they were at when they departed.
I don't sense that much criticism of most of the reforms Mr McCully was talking about, but the ideas of hub and spoke posts, and about looking outside the ministry for heads of missions, have attracted considerable criticism.
IF BUSINESSES all over the world, and other foreign services, are able to centralise or outsource administrative support functions such as payroll, property management, payment of bills, telephone inquiries, etc, then I cannot see why the ministry's plans to remove administrative functions from many posts abroad cannot work. I also cannot see why diplomatic staff can't take on the same responsibilities for personal management (finding a place to live, applying for driving licences, opening bank accounts, cooking their own meals, driving their own car) as would be expected of them when working back in head office in Wellington. Reform has to happen.
And I agree fully with Mr McCully that competition should be introduced at head of mission level. There are plenty of current and past public servants from New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, Treasury, the Economic Development Ministry, Customs and Defence with the skill-set and experience necessary to do a head-of- mission job. Martyn Dunne, who is about to go off to Canberra as high commissioner, is an example of this type of person. And from time to time politicians will be the right person for an assignment. Mike Moore is doing a great job in Washington DC right now, as is Jim McLay in New York. If Helen Clark hadn't gone to the United Nations Development Programme, she would have been (and may still be) a great ambassador. And from time to time someone in the business world might be the right appointment.
Mr McCully has broken new ground by advertising the head of mission role in Kiribati. He wants to test the market. It has not been much reported, but in his speech Mr McCully noted that there were some very good internal candidates. An external appointment for this job is far from a done deal.
I would expect that most head- of-mission jobs, most of the time, will continue to be filled by staff from the Foreign Affairs and Trade Ministry. But it is important that these people be the right one for the job. Staff should not be excluded from appointment simply because they might be overseas on assignment, or because the ministry doesn't know what to do with someone more senior.
I am on record calling for even more radical reforms of the head- of-mission appointment process than Mr McCully. I believe those nominated for these important roles should be forced to appear before the foreign affairs and defence select committee and be the subject of questioning on their knowledge and experience relevant to the proposed assignment.
John Allen and Murray McCully deserve our support for the changes they seek. Once implemented, we will have foreign service occupying a larger geographic footprint staffed by people with greater expertise than we have at present. In an ever more complex world, this has to be good for New Zealand.
Charles Finny is now at public relations company Saunders Unsworth.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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