To write of bureaucratic culture is to venture into fog and quicksand and risk returning with mud and mush. Yet in understanding a power town like Canberra, culture offers answers not delivered by legal tomes or political theory. So this post is about culture—a nebulous element that can be decisive.
The previous column saw the integration of AusAID into the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as the greatest revolution in Australia’s foreign policy bureaucracy since 1987.
A later column will look at what Australia has lost and gained as DFAT swallowed AusAID (and it will be a discussion of capacity and culture, not just aid dollars). To set that up, consider the cultural revolution—the ‘integration’ of aidies with the diplomatic pinstripes.
Diplomacy and aid range over similar territory, but they have different mindsets and understandings and, yes, culture. To illustrate, take the idea that aid is the soft arm of defence policy and the financial arm of diplomacy. Defence, diplomacy and aid sit at different points on the same continuum of a state’s international policy. But army and aidies and pinstripes, all instruments of common state purpose, have extraordinarily different practices and understanding of their professional practice.
To see the culture clash now inside DFAT, here’s a comparison of pinstripes and aidies, based not so much on ideal types as standard models, leaning to an aid perspective.
(a) focused on ‘relationships’, and often on the short-term;
(b) utterly driven by what the minister wants;
(c) strongly influenced by Australian ambassadors and embassies overseas;
(d) not necessarily interested, nor trained, in financial matters or budgets;
(e) not used to outsourcing activities beyond the bureaucracy and dealing with a wide range of different partners who are delivering difficult programs;
(f) not used to working with contracts (drawing up and enforcing contracts, and then working out what to do when they go wrong);
(g) able to speak the language of diplomacy, realist in flavour and state-based;
(h) see bilateral relationships with other states as the basic building block.
In contrast, aidies are:
(a) focused on the long-term (five years is a short period in the aid game);
(b) responsive to the minister but aware that most aid work will extend beyond the appointment of any single minister;
(c) responsive to ambassadors but aware that most aid work in any country happens outside the embassy and beyond the current ambassador’s term;
(d) highly focused on budgets, detailed accountability and audits;
(e) heavily reliant on outsourcing because most aid is delivered or implemented by others—contractors, consultants, universities, scientific organisations, the Australian military and police, disaster organisations, NGOs, World Bank, Asian Development Bank and dozens of UN agencies;
(f) heavily reliant on contractual relationships;
(g) able to speak the language of aid which is internationalist, humanist and liberal;
(h) able to bring a multilateral mindset to bilateral work.
Now that AusAID has disappeared, the aidies are mainly reporting to Division Heads and Deputy Secretaries in DFAT who usually know little about foreign aid work. The pinstripes don’t understand the world in the way standard aidies are expected to think.
A Canberra veteran describes the differences this way:
Many aid people (not all, but many) have had extensive experience in aid delivery in developing countries. Over time, they learn, often from bitter experience, that there are lots and lots of things that go wrong with aid. You need to be watching programs all the time, every day, because things slip out of control. Before you know it, you’ve got financial and legal and audit problems on your hands—not to say ambassadors at each end getting irritated. Diplomats, as a general rule, just have not had these experiences. Lots of other things go wrong for diplomats, of course, but the things that go wrong tend to be relational and political rather than financial and legal.
The feedback on the integration is mixed. Many good aidies have gone. Important development experience has left the building. Australia’s capacity to design and deliver good aid is damaged. Some aidies think it’s been destroyed.
On the other side of the office, many pinstripes agree with their political masters that this doesn’t matter—Australia’s relations with Asia (or Africa) are ‘beyond aid’. Having a separate, dedicated aid agency was a luxury. Reform was needed to align aid money with diplomatic power. Governments shift and refine national interest priorities and the system responds to ministerial priorities. For the pinstripes, the cultural revolution has gone smoothly; the work ambit has widened but they’re not the ones having to change. The aidies who are left have to re-set the mindset and settle into a new world.