Blurring the domestic and foreign

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Earlier this week I sent a compelling new report by the Mercator Capacity Building Centre for Leadership and Advocacy (LEAD) to Sri Lanka’s Foreign Minister. I picked up an extra copy for him from a workshop in Berlin I attended in February, where the report was co-presented by someone from the German government and LEAD. The report captures an interesting change-management process at the German Federal Foreign Office, tied to radically revising decision making and strategic response in an increasingly complex and inter-dependent international landscape. In a covering note I sent the Minister, I noted how the significant challenges faced by the Germans around changing a conservative, risk and change averse, anachronistic institutional culture resonated deeply with the organisational culture within Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry, and indeed, across the whole of government in Sri Lanka. The overall conclusion of the report is worth flagging.

“Adapting a foreign policy organisation to the realities of the digital age is first and foremost a leadership question: Only with the right personnel in leadership positions within the organisation can a resilient internal culture based on trust and individual agency flourish. Robust institutions are those that internalise change and empower their employees and stakeholders while creating space for risk-taking and failure – two things that are critical to building a learning organisation.”

This admittedly may sound like gobbledegook for many readers here. What in essence the report suggests is that old thinking (doing things a certain way because they have always been done a certain way), and any information gathering, analysis and response based on it, is grossly inadequate to deal with foreign policy considerations today. It is true in the case of Germany. It is true for Sri Lanka.

Several other points were made. How today, domestic policies and foreign policy are inextricably entwined. Playing to the gallery at home has deep and enduring implications, in an age of pervasive social media and rapid crowd-sourced translations, around how the country is perceived internationally. How without leveraging communications technology and social media in particular, a foreign ministry cannot fulfil its mandate, or indeed, keep a country and its interests secure. How there was a shift from using military, industrial or financial clout as the primary props of foreign policy to a renewed emphasis on soft-power (which small nation-states are often more adept and agile at wielding). How foreign policy, even within the government itself, was now being driven by other arms and agencies of government – for example in Sri Lanka, where at various times and for varied reasons, Ministers, with no mandate from the MFA, have spoken in public around reconciliation, accountability, diaspora issues, international obligations around transitional justice, the inclusion of international actors in domestic frameworks and investigations into alleged war crimes.

My interest in stealthily taking an extra copy of the report for Sri Lanka’s foreign ministry was to, in a little way, help him and his team to think about organisational change, from the bottom up, to deal with key challenges over the lifetime of the government. For example, the pro-LTTE diaspora is enervated, not erased. The Sinhala-Buddhist fringe lunatics are frothing from Canberra to Toronto. From individuals to institutions, overtly through positions of political authority and influence, to covertly, through trans-national networks of financing and power-brokering, Sri Lanka’s government will face the brunt of disaffection from powerful extremist forces outside our borders, and indeed, ability to control, contain or censor. It is simply a question of when and how often. Not if. This is not a challenge that a scorched earth policy akin to Nandikadal can mitigate or address. The challenge is organic, which requires entirely new frames of analysis and out-of-the-box thinking to effectively identify, assess, mitigate and respond. Furthermore, our Foreign Minister is going around making various promises around reconciliation and transitional justice that domestic institutions and mechanisms have clearly still not been set up to effectively address and act upon. The rather stark disconnect between the promises and pronouncements made internationally, and the confusion and chaos that dominates domestically, is really hard to cover-up. Domestic inaction will have an international fall-out. Increasing international impatience will have domestic implications.

In response, building in something called ‘agility’ will be the hardest challenge for our Foreign Minister – and one shared by change agents across the whole of government. Agility is the opposite of hierarchical decision making – it is the ability of a team, institution or indeed, government as a whole, to democratise decision making within an accountable framework, moving away from traditional models of authority to rapid, effective responses based on competency, consultation and collaboration. All of this is of course entirely alien to our government, and to be fair, most other governments. But what ails many is not an excuse to continue our own lethargy. As the LEAD report suggests, agility is central to institutional effectiveness, and can be engineered by looking at simple steps like more flexible job descriptions that allow short-term mobility within government ministries and between staff grades, to inter-departmental teams around key challenges and interests. It’s in essence moving away from ossified, soul destroying offices where everyone unquestioningly follows the Minister, the Deputy Minister, their Secretary’s, their Secretary’s minions, the minion’s favourites, their own deputy’s and then the close friends of the deputy’s – in that pecking order – to a ministry and indeed, a government that encourages and retains qualified, innovative, dynamic minds in an egalitarian, merit based culture. One can dream!

Yet, no matter how desirable, is any of this really possible? Was the change on the 8th of January 2015 deemed possible even on the 1st of January that month? From the end of apartheid to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, significant systemic change has a few key common markers. One, it often comes far faster than at first imagined, or thought possible. Two, it can come from within, because of a few inspired, visionary leaders. Three, context can force institutions to change, out of fear or an interest in retaining relevance. Four, institutions and individuals unable and unwilling to change, will fail – and do so spectacularly.

For a government, this means that unless they embrace what for example the LEAD report flags as vital issues to anchor policymaking around today, they will fail and essentially, lose voters. For a line ministry, like the MFA here, institutional change will require the Foreign Minister to set an example around how he empowers staff to leverage non-State actors, trans-national diaspora, bilateral relations and soft-power branding to further Sri Lanka’s interests, and indeed, use our international standing as currency to encourage other parts of and individuals in government to live up to expectations.

Can it be done? Perhaps Browning had the answer when he wrote that “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for”.

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Published first in The Sunday Island on 20th March 2016.

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