Chop the managers, save the diplomats

NOT SEEING EYE-TO-EYE: Neither Foreign Affairs Ministry chief executive John Allen, nor Foreign Minister Murray McCully seem to have escaped the implosion of their ministry unscathed.
NOT SEEING EYE-TO-EYE: Neither Foreign Affairs Ministry chief executive John Allen, nor Foreign Minister Murray McCully seem to have escaped the implosion of their ministry unscathed.

The proposed foreign affairs reforms are the opposite of what New Zealand needs to be doing, write diplomacy experts Ramesh Thakur and William Maley.

Twelve years ago, we wrote with admiration in The International Herald Tribune about how New Zealand managed to outperform its larger neighbour to the west on the world stage.

It is therefore with shock and disbelief that we have read in the past month about the strange goings-on between Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade officials, the ministry's chief executive and the minister.

We offer some comments with due diffidence, but also with the benefit of distance.

One of us directs the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, while the other served as a United Nations official for almost a decade and was, as an assistant secretary-general, for a brief period the highest-ranking New Zealander in the UN.

Both of us have had extensive dealings and contacts with New Zealand diplomats in our professional worlds. Neither of us has any material or family interest to colour our judgments on the quality of New Zealand diplomacy.

These disclaimers are important, because our sense of the New Zealand ministry's exceptional performance has not dimmed since 2000. Both of us separately and individually believe that New Zealand has the highest-quality and most cost-effective foreign service in the world.

Australia, China, India and the United States will always overshadow New Zealand on the world stage, but that is because of their much bigger size, weight and power, which gives them a correspondingly greater clout in world councils. They are all economic giants compared with New Zealand.

New Zealand has little by way of material resources to back up the pursuit of its interests in world affairs. Therefore, it is far more reliant on the sheer quality of its diplomacy and diplomats. Our 2000 comment still applies: "New Zealand is neither rich enough to bribe nor strong enough to bully others. But it is skilful enough to turn these apparent liabilities into assets, and principled enough to inspire".

Without the benefit of new chief executive John Allen's ideas, New Zealand has punched far above its weight in the world.
As an open trading nation with cultural and political roots in far-flung parts, New Zealand has a remarkably stretched train of interests around the world. Its security and prosperity depend more fundamentally on the global economy and world order than national defence and budgetary decisions.

Consequently, the margins of error in selecting, training, posting and promoting New Zealand diplomats are probably about the tightest of any foreign service.

That makes it hard to understand any rationale for the dramatic structural upheavals being contemplated, other than an ideological commitment to particular management models that are already beyond their sell-by date.
The reification of the corporate sector produced the biggest global financial and economic crisis since the Depression of the 1930s.

The corporate environment increasingly became an ethics-free zone. This is the opposite of what small states need to underpin their foreign policies.

The tragedy is that, as the prevailing ideology forced the corporate management culture increasingly into public-sector administrations, the risk grew of an infestation of public-sector chief executives without the vision and ethos of public service, with cost-cutting a chief criterion for selecting and rewarding them, and with a growing disparity between the pay packets of the median officials and the top managers.

As the mode of corporate leadership came to be widely admired and emulated in the worlds of the public sector, the vices of casino capitalism cross-infected the public sector.

Minster of Foreign Affairs Murray McCully is right to be critical of the lack of strategic vision guiding the proposed structural upheavals. He should go further and ask for evidence of lack of value for money in New Zealand 's diplomatic footprint.

One of us was involved in a 2009 Lowy Institute study of Australia's instruments of international policy. Some of its conclusions and observations are relevant to New Zealand now. Diplomacy is typically underfunded, compared with defence, and overseas diplomatic networks, once cut back, are hard to restore. Specialist language skills, often lost through clumsy restructuring, are exceedingly difficult to replace.

Most seriously, cutting staff tends to lead to a loss of influence in both bilateral and multilateral relations, as personnel end up spread too thinly to nurture the personal ties or promote the positive national images on which influence depends.
One of us was the principal writer for UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's reform report in 2002. The UN was facing many of the same issues on which MFAT's boss has made the wrong judgment call: employment with the UN as a career service and vocation, not job rotation; work and lifestyle balance; the increasing reluctance of officers to accept severe disruptions to children's education and spousal careers with overseas postings around the world; with demands for efficiency gains, the growing importance of raising the quality of intake and retention of officials.

The report emphasised the need to make the organisation more lean and efficient by demanding more from officials but also pointed out that being lean and mean did not require the UN to be mean-spirited, and conditions of service and employment had to reflect the changing world with respect to work-life balance as well in order to nurture and retain a cadre of loyal staff.

In actions without precedent anywhere in the world, the best and brightest of New Zealand's diplomats and their partners have warned the Government of the risks and costs of this path.

If staff are to be shed to destroy a ministry that provides exceptional service, Mr McCully should proceed with his chief executive's restructuring. If he wants to keep getting the best value for money, he might look to shedding some of the top managers instead.

Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Centre for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament, Crawford School, Australian National University. Professor William Maley is foundation director of the Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy at the ANU.

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