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.
MFAT has managed to fight off change for many decades.
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.
MFAT seems to have this strange rule that you can’t be a senior manager there, unless you are also a diplomat.
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.
Diplomats deal with both diplomats and politicians. Sometimes the best person for the job will be a senior former politician such as Jim McLay. What should cease is the practice of sending politicians such as Graeme Kelly to a senior overseas post.
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.
That’s not a bad idea.