In August 2011, the Lowy Institute published a paper by Alex Oliver and Andrew Shearer titled Diplomatic Disrepair: Rebuilding Australia’s International Policy Infrastructure. This followed an earlier paper Australia’s Diplomatic Deficit: reinvesting in our instruments of international policy (March 2009).
The recent paper undertook to assess progress in
rebuilding our diplomatic insfrastructure since the time of our Diplomatic Deficit report
Among other things the report found:
- Australia’s diplomatic footprint remains too limited – with the smallest diplomatic network of all G20 nations;
- the size of the diplomatic service is too small: there are 37 per cent fewer A-based staff abroad today then in 1988-89;
- the proportion of DFAT staff serving overseas is the lowest of 13 diplomatic services reviewed by the paper (although the paper was written before the UK decided to cut its foreign service by over 20 per cent);
- funding for DFAT has not kept pace with the growth of other agencies such as the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet; and
- demand for consular services outstrips resources and crowds out other activities.
I have a number of concerns with this type of analysis, and some more specific solutions to improve our diplomatic presence. My observations on the operations of Australia’s foreign service comes from numerous discussions I have had with knowledgeable individuals, including DFAT officers, and those posted from attached agencies.
First, the way in which comparisons are made to other jurisdictions may not be comparing like-with-like. The report notes that
… almost all government departments now have dedicated international divisions and have increased their international representation dramatically over the last two decades.
This may not be the case in the comparator countries; it may reflect a growing disdain for the capacity of DFAT to effectively deploy the resources provided to it by the Government.
Second, just because Australia has a smaller diplomatic presence is not evidence that it is under-resourced; indeed, other jurisdictions might over-resource their diplomatic services.
Third, time series comparisons are not very helpful. With the increased availability and pervasiveness of communications technology, there is considerable scope to source information and provide representation services from within Australia rather than at post. DFAT has been slow to appreciate these changes, with many of its cables reporting information readily available on the internet. This is not to suggest that on-the-ground personnel are not important. But it does suggest that the roles of such personnel (and the extent of the need for posted officers) changes over time.
Fourth, the proportion of DFAT officers employed in Canberra may be indicative of inefficiency or other priorities thrust upon it by the Government.
Fifth, the relative growth of consular services is related to the growth in international travel, although I suspect that there is a good deal of over-servicing by Australia’s consular services. Expectations of what the Australian Government should do for Australians (including dual nationals who can cherry-pick consular services) are clearly excessive – note that the Prime Minister phoned an Australian lad in an Indonesian prison.
From my observations, the work of the typical policy officer at a posting involves servicing visits by Ministers, MPs and government officials – effectively acting as a glorified travel agency (it would be interesting to calculate the total costs to DFAT and other agencies in providing services to the recent visit by the Prime Minister to Cannes for the G20).
Beyond that we get into a debate about the purpose of diplomacy in the 21st century and how (and why) a country needs (or wants) to exert influence through diplomacy. To this end, it should be noted that not all efforts of resourcing overseas’ operations are conducive to Australia’s national interest. For example, the efforts to procure a temporary seat on the United Nations are not only extraordinarily expensive but are likely to diminish Australia’s diplomatic standing by having to compromise our principles to secure votes from troubled regimes. We now have an Embassy in Ethiopia: clearly in line with Australia’s strategic concerns.
However, we do not have enough information to make a judgement on what should be the appropriate resourcing of Australia’s diplomatic service. That would require a significant independent study, perhaps conducted by the Productivity Commission. A study that would weigh the costs and benefits – broadly defined – of conducting a foreign service.
But for the purposes of this blog, let’s take the claims that Australia’s overseas representation is under-resourced as a given. The question then is whether more money should be spent on the current apparatus.
And I consider the answer to that question is a firm no.
The restructuring of Australia’s overseas service
Australia’s overseas presence includes High Commissions, Embassies, consulates and various other agencies. We have representation at international organisations such as the World Bank, IMF, OECD, EBRD, United Nations and ADB. It includes offices such as those of the Reserve Bank in London and New York; Defence and intelligence; trade commissioners; and short-term missions from Australia. This is all at the Federal level – there are representatives from State governments, such as Agents-General.
And in many Embassies, one will find employees of different agencies: DFAT, AusAID, Defence, Treasury and so forth.
Yet most of these are in silos, reporting principally to their employing agency (the Lowy Report notes this also).
This leads to numerous inefficiencies, overlaps, and poor coverage. So, for example, DFAT will often post a person to a nominally economic position (say a first secretary economic) who has no economics background.
There is no coordination on a whole-of-government basis.
That’s because the incentives are misaligned. DFAT posted officers (and those of attached agencies) are generally selected on the ‘operational convenience’ rule rather than by merit. This is understandable given the relatively small size of the pool of potential posted officers.
We in effect have constrained optimisation: DFAT only posts officers who are DFAT employees, even though there may be many more qualified officers working in other Government agencies.
DFAT has also created a myth around its graduates, treating them a cut above those who come in sideways. This discourages potential recruits and minimises competition. Basically there is a club which protects its own at the expense of a superior foreign service. Once again, a demonstration of the principal-agent problem, with the principal in this case being the Government / public and the agent the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Additionally DFAT appoints policy officers to its staffing branch – this is considered a good job as it offers an easy path to a plum posting. This is bizarre – running human resources in a complex department such as DFAT should be left to HR professionals who do not have their mind on the next posting. The opportunity cost of a policy officer working in HR is the loss of potential further policy experience too. Additionally, having access to personnel records can give such policy officers an untoward leverage over policy colleagues and raises serious privacy concerns.
The benefits of being posted are significant: it should be no surprise that the average retirement age for DFAT officers is higher than the public service generally. This is especially so among those who receive an ambassadorial appointment with its chauffeur, full time cleaner, butler and cook – it also seems that many heads of mission are granted an automatic acting appointment for some unknown reason.
DFAT also has a poor track record of dealing with bad performance – indeed it has often posted officers who are unwanted in Canberra. That’s hardly an effective way of improving Australia’s foreign relations, posting underperforming officers!
This charged atmosphere, with limited posting opportunities (and as noted in the Lowy report, a relatively high proportion of Canberra- based DFAT officers) leads to a spoils system, favouring a clique within DFAT and to a lack of collegiality as individuals try to outscore their colleagues to secure a posting.
It also means that DFAT officers (with few exceptions) are unwilling to move to line agencies to broaden and deepen their understanding of public policy. While those officers not in the clique can feel discouraged and leave.
Is it no wonder, then, that DFAT has been increasingly ignored and feels isolated as international policy is run from the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet and Treasury?
A career in DFAT is deskilling.
A whole-of-government approach to the foreign service
Before increasing resourcing to the foreign service, then, there is a need for substantial change in how we select and post officers. The benefits from a broader experience of public policy (both domestic and international) cannot be overstated.
DFAT should be reduced to an organisation that runs and coordinates our foreign missions, and perhaps provides consular services. Policy officers should be selected from qualified officers with the appropriate security clearance. Prior to a posting, officers should be given training to ensure that they will fulfill their role well and to prepare them for the new role.
On completion of the posting, the individual would return to the home agency or to another agency. Ultimately they could be posted again.
But importantly we would have a true whole-of-government foreign service. No more would there be a DFAT section and attached agencies. There would be a coherent mission staffed by officers selected on merit from across the public service. Selection of officers for a posting would be open and run by a small panel comprising an officer from DFAT and two officers from central agencies / line agencies.
This would inject long-needed competition into the diplomatic service, and improve the quality of our representation at any level of budget expenditure. It would break open the spoils system which has hindered DFAT’s performance and its ability to deliver sound foreign policy outcomes. There would be a considerably larger pool of officers available for posting, increasing the diversity of our foreign service.
And to further cement this improvement of quality, Ambassadors and High Commissioners (except perhaps the political appointees) should be required to have spent five years working in a central agency (PM&C, Treasury and Finance) or a line agency other than DFAT. Ultimately all policy officers including Ambassadors would come from the broad public service. DFAT would continue with important core foreign policy roles that do not fit well in other agencies, such as consular, protocol and bilateral desk work in Canberra.