Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:40 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:40 | SYDNEY

New Zealand shrinks its diplomatic service

28 February 2012 10:05

Dr Richard Grant is Executive Director of the Asia:NZ Foundation. He was previously New Zealand's Ambassador to Germany and to France, and High Commissioner to the UK and to Singapore.

Readers of The Economist of 18 February would have seen the reference to the similar size of the Indian and New Zealand diplomatic services, the writer suggesting that India needed more resources to increase its influence in the world.

Well, the New Zealand Government has decided that it needs to go the other way and shrink its diplomatic service. The CEO of the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade announced on 23 February proposed changes to the staffing and organisation of the Ministry. There is likely to be a reduction of about 21% of total staff, spread right across its operations, on-shore and off-shore. This will include closure of some posts and shrinking of others to operate as spokes linked to a regional hub. In addition to staff reductions, the way New Zealand diplomacy operates will change, with outsourcing of a number of administrative operations, and the likely establishment of an 0800 service for global consular operations.

While some of these proposed changes look to be adapting the Ministry to practices used by other diplomatic services, the longer-term consequences are harder to see.

The motive for the changes is, firstly, fiscal, with the New Zealand Government trying to shrink its deficit by a widespread reduction in funding of the public service (the diplomatic service is by no means the only department feeling the cold wind of reductions). Second, efficient public service delivery is a theme for this New Zealand Government, worried about the ratio of front-line delivery to back-office operations.

Looking further ahead, the change in operations of the New Zealand diplomatic service is clearly going to put the machinery of diplomacy under considerable pressure. The world is not going to sit and wait for a new streamlined New Zealand diplomatic service to be operating effectively before it makes decisions on international issues. This will be a challenge to the well-known and globally respected professionalism of the New Zealand foreign service.

Second, some of the changes are going to raise questions for some New Zealand diplomats about whether this new model of diplomacy is what they want to belong to, particularly if the change process becomes arduous and contested. Others will see it as a step forward in their careers. Where the balance lies will be revealed over time.

There is also going to be a question about delivering results in some of the big international elections coming up over the next few years. New Zealand is a candidate for the UN Security Council in a couple of years. There will be New Zealanders who want to emulate the success of Don McKinnon and Mike Moore in getting elected to leading international jobs. These sorts of wins are harder to achieve against a background of shrinking diplomatic resources around the world.

Like all public services, diplomacy needs a good sense of priorities and the targeting of resources to the best national outcomes. This means not just that the diplomats have to concentrate, but so too the Government in determining what the key issues are for diplomatic effort. A smaller operation doing the same amount of business as before becomes a really challenging exercise.

The Lowy Institute made the case, in its widely read report 'Diplomatic Disrepair: Rebuilding Australia's International Policy Infrastructure' for Australia to react like India, not New Zealand, and increase its diplomatic footprint. The changes to the New Zealand diplomatic service will be closely watched, since a high-performance New Zealand diplomatic service is a plus for Australia.

Photo by Flickr user NASA Goddard Photo and Video.