Foreign Office needs reform

Published September 14, 2020
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

NO institution can perform effectively unless it is able to adapt to changes around it, leverage the opportunities offered by a globalised world and learn new skills to deal with emerging challenges. Periodic review and reform are essential to reinvigorate any organisation and make it fit for purpose. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is no exception to this rule.

For decades little has changed in its working methods, structure, training of personnel and mode of recruitment — and thus in its outlook and approach. If foreign policy is the country’s first line of defence, Pakistan’s foreign service needs serious attention and reform.

A frequent and justified lament heard from the ministry is that over the years it has steadily lost its centrality in the foreign policy-making process to other stakeholders in the country’s hybrid civil-military system. But the answer to this is to make the ministry more relevant, even pivotal, by improving the quality of its policy inputs and by showing initiative to stay ahead of the curve. After all, demoralisation only disempowers the institution.

Leadership by the head of the service, the foreign secretary, is the key to revival of its once central role. But this has long been in short supply as careerism has been prioritised over professionalism. An unnecessarily timid and subservient attitude towards other stakeholders has characterised the conduct of recent holders of this office. This is a far cry from the 1990s and 2000s when foreign secretaries stood their ground to a military ruler and assertively gave policy advice to prime ministers even when that did not accord with their views.

As a first step a task force should be appointed to propose reforms for the PM’s approval.

The foreign secretary’s principal role is to lead, inspire and motivate the service by offering intellectually sound advice and resist any politicisation of decisions and personnel policy by the government of the day. A culture of open internal discussion should be fostered not of discouraging independent, out-of-the-box thinking.

Beyond behavioural changes, a number of structural measures are essential. An adequately resourced ministry that has financial autonomy is crucial to the performance of its basic functions. It must have the means to adapt quickly to changing needs and for that it needs greater financial authority, within its allocated budget. The numerical strength of the service also needs to expand especially as the number of missions has risen, complexity of international issues has increased and so have avenues for diplomacy. The financial cost can be offset by cutting down the support staff of a tail-heavy service.

A second structural change is to reduce the centralisation that has occurred over the years with decisions on even minor administrative matters concentrated in the foreign secretary’s office. Empowering additional secretaries and giving them greater policy responsibility will encourage initiative and fresh thinking. The director general should be the tier assigned to initiate new ideas and become the thinking post for the concerned division.

Three, working methods should be substantially overhauled to improve communication within headquarters, between divisions still operating in silos, and with Missions. The information flow is either too slow or absent, seriously handicapping mission work. Ambassadors can only be effective if they are kept regularly briefed. Sharing of timely information is hobbled by a communication and feedback system that needs urgent modernisation, without compromising security. It also needs a change in mindset from one that prizes monopolising information over sharing it. Clear lines of communication have to be instituted for the information flow.

Four, training requires major reform in several areas. The generalised initial training has to be replaced by more specialised training in which practical aspects of diplomacy should be taught along with knowledge of foreign policy. In other words, training modules should be focused on how to negotiate, communicate, practise public diplomacy and deal with a complex media landscape — modern tools every diplomat needs. Diverse expertise is now required on a complex array of global issues. Training should cater to these rather than be mired in mental maps of the past. The ministry’s lack of legal expertise also needs to be addressed at the training stage. This weakness was tellingly exposed during Pakistan’s representation at the International Court of Justice in the Kulbhushan Jadhav case.

As economic diplomacy acquires more importance, diplomats, who have long thought this wasn’t their job, need exposure to the country’s trade and business environment to be knowledgeable and effective. Above all a know-your-country (not just its foreign policy) approach is essential as sometimes diplomats appear out of sync with the domestic dynamics of a changing Pakistan.

Short courses at mid-career can also be introduced on public diplomacy especially as new opportunities open up to deploy soft power in a more globalised world in which diverse non-state actors increasingly shape a country’s foreign policy outlook. Certainly, use of the social media should be in the diplomat’s toolkit, but as of now, the foreign ministry has yet to evolve any rules for its use.

Promotions and postings are issues that generate much controversy and in-house resentment as they are either predicated on narrowly defined criteria (eg length of service) or favouritism rather than performance. A truly merit-based policy will lift the service’s sinking morale by rewarding the best officers, rather than those politically connected or favoured by the ministry’s top echelon.

Finally, a longer-term reform to consider is direct recruitment to the foreign service rather than through a generalised civil service examination. Long discussed, this has always been discarded for involving cumbersome changes including in the law. But as foreign service work is very different from that of other government departments its entrance exam should serve specific service requirements. This would attract better candidates and make the initial training process focused on the skills needed for diplomacy. The process can remain entrenched in the Federal Public Service Commission.

The menu of reforms to make the Foreign Office fit for purpose is extensive but aversion to change should not stand in the way of measures to make Pakistan’s diplomacy more effective and able to capitalise on the opportunities unleashed by a more multipolar and multi-stakeholder world. The government can take the first step by appointing a task force to propose reforms for approval of the prime minister within a specified time frame.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, September 14th, 2020

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