MFAT- Privatisation and the end of diplomacy

When I was working at MFAT I was invited to be part of one of the many reviews that have taken place to re-look at the organisation. A very earnest consultant hired for the job asked the assembled group of MFAT staff to tell her what it was like when we first started. No one said anything for a while before I piped up and said. “Its like being shown into a dark room full of furniture. You spend all your time banging into the furniture, and no one turns on the light. Eventually you learn to navigate your way around the furniture, before they pick you up and put you in a room with the furniture differently organised and the process begins again.” The consultant decided to move on to a different exercise.

MFAT is an organisation that has been in need of change. It has operated for too long as an old boys club where innovation was stifled, postings were handed out like favours and time served ruled all. John Allen’s appointment as CEO gave some grounds for optimism. In his early days many staff warmed to the idea of change.

Now as the major change process is unleashed, morale is at an all time low, and the possibility of enhancing and improving our diplomatic service has been all but ruined by an abysmal process, and a drastic, ideological slash and burn exercise. Having talked to a number of my former colleagues its not possible to overstate what the impact of this process will be. We will lose a significant number of highly capable people.

This exercise effectively ends the notion of a diplomatic service. Those who go on postings have no guarantee of jobs on their return. The support on postings that has allowed families to stay together is being slashed. What’s more it appears to be being slashed while families are away on posting. One friend has calculated a 40% effective pay cut. Long serving local staff, paid a small wage that is vital to their families and villages are being dumped, all in the name of an experiment.

Meanwhile back at home, a large exercise in privatisation is to be launched. Anything from the management of property and assets, some aspects of Ministerial visits, managing staff transitions and other HR functions is all to be contracted out. This kind of contracting out has seen huge cost blowouts internationally. Moreover it won’t work. I will bet you anything that when the first logistical disaster involving a Minister occurs as a result of a private provider just not getting what is needed, it will all be back in-house.

I could go on and on. Suffice to say a pretty much unfettered free market model is to be unleashed at MFAT, and to hell with what it might mean for New Zealanders, our relationships developed over decades or our reputation on the world stage. This is nonsensical, unproven and such a lost opportunity. It also gives a hint to the further privatising of the public sector that lies ahead. This second term National government is going to make the 90s restructuring look like child’s play.

Grant Robertson
NZ Labour

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