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MFAT needs to open up to outside help, modern management

MFAT needs to open up to outside help, modern management, says review

By Pattrick Smellie

June 27 (BusinessDesk) - New Zealand's foreign ministry is stuck in the past with its approach to career management, skills deployment and information management, says a review of its performance that finds a bruising period of internal restructuring has left the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade anxious about change and with a weak internal culture.

The Performance Improvement Framework report was requested by MFAT under its new chief executive, career diplomat Brook Barrington, replacing former NZ Post chief executive John Allen, who led a restructuring exercise overseen by then-Foreign Minister Murray McCully, whose reputation for blame-seeking, micro-management and scepticism about the quality of public servants preceded him.

"The ministry is experiencing increased confidence and cohesion and is in a good position to continue the evolution of its organisational direction and capability," say the reviewers, Jenn Bestwick and Sandi Beattie. However, foreign ministries around the world are reconsidering traditional ways of operating and an increasingly fast-paced and unpredictable international environment requires MFAT to "accelerate and focus on its efforts to align its culture and operating model with achievement of its 10 year strategic ambition" rather than relying on an organisation strategy and model that have been "relatively static".

The ministry needs to rely less on "career MFATers" and more on a model "that better supports its people to have fulfilling and successful careers and which facilitates the organisation to recruit and retain expertise at all levels based on modern leadership and management practices".

Among changes the PIF proposes are to end the traditional practice of "rotating" staff between overseas postings, where staff performance is widely praised and Wellington "desk jobs", where the ministry is perceived not to replicate its offshore successes.

It recommends "shifting from the blunt instrument of rotation to smart deployment (including onshore/offshore career opportunities) and give licence to recognising and valuing career development inside and outside the ministry with external experience seen as an essential element to a leadership pathway".

"If the ministry does not better connect and integrate externally, it will be left behind by other agencies and lose its leadership edge," the PIF report says, identifying a loss of goodwill among hard-pressed staff as a risk. "If it does not actively embrace new ways of working, it will be stuck in an old paradigm while decision-makers and businesses are communicating and getting their intelligence to support decision-making from other sources."

The reviewers believe the ministry is "confident, capable and positioned" to take those initiatives, which would move away from a "default operating style" based on "rules and process which in turn lead to frustration and workarounds".

It also suggests the ministry tends to be too secretive with too many of its documents, leading to a tendency to "over-classification" and it finds MFAT is among the slower government agencies to embrace information management technology, despite information being its stock in trade.

Also needing improvement was developing "a shared understanding of what its value proposition is for and with Maori".

"The relationship cannot be defined simply by ceremony for visitors or reliance on specialist advisers but embraced as a core part of how the ministry does its business, including at offshore posts."

With a relatively youthful workforce, MFAT also requires a focus on "the fundamentals of how to provide free and frank advice", the PIF report says.


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