Managing DFAT in Challenging Times


Speaker: Secretary, Dr Ashton Calvert to the Australian Institute of International Affairs (ACT Branch)


28 October 2003


Ladies and Gentlemen

Thank you for the invitation to speak to you today.

The membership of the AIIA, and the ACT Branch in particular, are recognised as informed observers of the conduct of Australia’s foreign and trade policy.

I welcome, therefore, this opportunity to talk with you today about two interrelated subjects:

  • First, the dynamic foreign and trade policy agenda that Australia is pursuing in response to the fluid international environment in which we now operate; and
  • Secondly, how we in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are reforming and reorganising ourselves so that we are best placed to support the Government in responding to this agenda.

And, finally, I should like to describe for you briefly some practical examples in specific areas which demonstrate how DFAT is contributing to the Government’s work in foreign and trade policy.

Foreign and Trade Policy Agenda

In the recent period, Australia, like many other countries, has had to contend with a range of new challenges to international security.

Three particular issues have acquired high profile on the foreign policy agenda

  • international terrorism
  • the spread of weapons of mass destruction; and
  • instability and threats caused by weak and failing states.

You are aware, I think, of the ways in which Australia has sought to protect and advance our national interests by responding to these challenges.

We made a high-quality contribution to the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, and we are working hard in South-East Asia to help Indonesia and other partners defeat the scourge of terrorism.

We participated in the war in Iraq to remove the proliferation threat posed by the Saddam Hussein regime, and we are now helping with the ongoing effort to stabilise and rehabilitate Iraq after years of oppression and dislocation.

The Australian Government is supporting the international effort to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue, and we are a leading participant in the Proliferation Security Initiative which is designed to check the illicit trade in weapons of mass destruction technology and materials, and in the missiles that deliver them.

And in the South Pacific, we have responded to a request from the Solomon Islands Government to lead a major regional intervention which is designed to restore law and order and a better level of governance to that troubled country.

The Government is also making a major effort with Papua New Guinea to improve its law and order situation, governance and financial management.

And more broadly in the South Pacific, we are actively supporting efforts to strengthen regional institutions including, where appropriate, promoting the pooling of resources, to ensure services are both deliverable and sustainable.

An uncertain and unstable world has made it more likely that Australians living, working and visiting overseas will need our consular assistance.

It has also made it vitally important that we continue to provide accurate and timely travel advice to the Australian public, particularly at a time when the threat posed by indiscriminate acts of terror remains very real.

Another characteristic of our times is the globalisation of the world economy which is continuing apace.

Globalisation imposes disciplines of competition that reward those countries with open policies and sound institutions, and disadvantage those without.

The impressive record of the Australian economy relative to other advanced economies over the past decade demonstrates that Australia has the policy and institutional attributes to succeed in an era of globalisation.

But, of course, we have no grounds for complacency.

Continued and sustained efforts are required to improve the competitiveness of our national economy and to promote as effectively as we can the further liberalisation of international flows of goods, services and capital.

As part of this, the Government is currently pursuing the most ambitious trade policy agenda in our history.

In Australia’s trade policy, we accord primacy to the WTO multilateral process because it has the capacity to deliver the biggest and widest gains for international market access over time.

We are still working hard to achieve a positive outcome in the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations, particularly on agriculture, despite the recent major setback at Cancun.

But we are also pursuing bilateral free trade agreements with selected partners where these offer the prospect of significant gains ahead of what will be achievable in the WTO process.

Thus, earlier this year, we signed an FTA with Singapore.

At the recent APEC meetings in Bangkok, Prime Minister Howard and his Thai counterpart, Mr Thaksin, announced that the substance of an Australia-Thailand FTA had been agreed – the first between a developed and a developing country in our region.

And last week in Canberra, the Prime Minister and President Bush reaffirmed their commitment to concluding the negotiation of the Australia-US FTA by the end of the year if at all possible.

The Government has also been active in looking for ways to further strengthen our already excellent trade and economic relations with North Asia.

After the United States, Japan is our second biggest two-way trading partner and China is our third.

Last July, in Tokyo, Prime Ministers Howard and Koizumi signed a Trade and Economic Framework which charts a course for the future development of our trade and economic ties with Japan.

And last week’s visit to Australia by Chinese President Hu Jintao saw our two Governments announce their intention of conducting a joint feasibility study on a free trade agreement between Australia and China.

Alongside the particular matters I have highlighted, DFAT and our overseas posts are engaged in supporting the Government across a wide range of important work in bilateral and multilateral areas as well as in more specialist disciplines such as international security policy, international legal work including that related to trade disputes, and the international dimensions of environment policy.

This activity includes, among other things:

  • broadening and deepening a sound and mutually beneficial relationship with Indonesia
  • building stronger relations with other key South-East Asian partners including especially Thailand and Singapore
  • finding ways to strengthen our policy dialogue with the European Union; and
  • promoting Australia’s commercial interests with the Middle East, including the Gulf countries.

Managing effectively

DFAT’s role in helping the Government manage such a wide-ranging and demanding foreign and trade policy agenda is obviously a major challenge.

Relative to other foreign and trade ministries, we are not large.

Currently DFAT comprises 1940 Australia-based staff serving in Australia and in our 86 overseas posts – with an additional 1413 locally engaged staff supporting our A-based staff overseas.

This means we have to be nimble and versatile, while still able to nurture and deploy a broad array of expertise and professional skills.

Of course, we are not starting from scratch.

In responding to the challenges of a dynamic and demanding foreign and trade policy agenda, we are able to draw on our traditional strengths as an organisation - in particular, the quality of our staff.

It helps in this respect that DFAT continues to be viewed as an attractive and interesting place to work.

Our graduate recruitment process, for example, remains highly competitive, with some 2500 graduates applying this year for a maximum 34 positions in the 2004 intake.

Typically, DFAT officers are high achievers, with strong analytical, communications and language skills.

And DFAT continues to have a strong reputation for the motivation and commitment of its staff.

This continues to be reflected in our retention rates which are very high by Australian Public Service standards.

For example, 90 per cent of our graduates recruited since 1996 remain in the Department.

This compares with an APS-wide graduate retention rate of around 60 per cent.

During the period of my leadership of the Department, my senior colleagues and I have worked hard to build on these strengths.

Our goal has been to have not just high-quality and highly motivated staff, but staff who are well led and well managed; and staff who can deliver outcomes with respect to the Government’s policy objectives and have careers that are professionally and personally fulfilling.

A key reform has been a deliberate switch to the centralised management of staffing, while maintaining our traditionally decentralised flows of policy advice to Ministers.

This has given us a much greater capacity to be responsive, flexible and efficient with respect to the deployment of staff.

It has also ensured a much fairer and more transparent process for staff with respect to postings, placements and promotions.

And significantly, we have achieved this centralisation while decreasing the number of staff working in the corporate management and corporate service areas.

In 1993, we had 486 staff working in corporate management and corporate service areas.

Today that number is down to 273.

We have retained, with minor adjustments, an eleven-division structure for DFAT headquarters because it provides a strong framework for handling efficiently most of the Department’s work.

But the adroit use of off-line senior positions such as an Ambassador for the Environment, an Ambassador for People Smuggling Issues and an Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism, and the temporary establishment of special task forces and crisis centres have allowed us to respond successfully to surges in work without detracting from the Government’s ongoing foreign and trade policy agenda.

More generally, we have made a deliberate effort to up-grade the status of and the resources devoted to trade policy and consular work; areas the Government has defined as key priorities.

With regard to our trade work, for example, a number of new senior positions have been created including two special negotiator positions at the FAS level.

Staff resources devoted to trade policy work have increased by 26 per cent since 1998.

Indeed, the division charged with pursuing the WTO Doha round has around 60 per cent more staff than the corresponding division had at the end of the Uruguay Round of multilateral trade negotiations.

Again, because of the centralisation of staffing and resource management, we have been able to do this in a rational and efficient manner, without detracting from our pursuit of the Government’s other key policy objectives.

The more efficient management and deployment of our staff has been one key pillar of our reforms.

But just as important has been our drive to ensure that our staff manage their own work more efficiently.

Central to this goal has been our Working Smarter campaign.

While the campaign is ongoing, it has already seen major changes in our work culture and is helping to create a new paradigm for the successful DFAT officer.

Working Smarter is today a key performance indicator for DFAT staff.

It defines success not by the number of hours an officer works, but by their ability to

  • focus on and achieve what is core, rather than what is peripheral;
  • organise their own time strategically and efficiently;
  • task any subordinates strategically and thoughtfully;
  • and maintain a healthy balance between their professional and private lives.

The campaign has been successful in radically streamlining the preparation of cables and other documents, and in improving the effectiveness and efficiency of meetings.
As a part of Working Smarter we have tried to focus much more on delivering outcomes rather than simply demonstrating activity.

In particular, we have elevated achieving outcomes from advocacy to be a key benchmark for measuring the effectiveness of DFAT’s work overseas.

I use “advocacy” here in the broadest possible sense to embrace all honourable forms of persuasion – policy representation, formal negotiation and public diplomacy.

We still value traditional diplomatic activities such as networking, policy liaison, reporting and analysis, and attending conferences and meetings – not as ends in themselves but as means for achieving better outcomes for Australia in the external environment.

There are four other initiatives that have strengthened DFAT as an organisation that I should like to mention: our ongoing commitment to diversity; our insistence on the highest professional and ethical standards; our commitment to training and staff development; and our leveraging of technology.

While we are not there yet, today DFAT’s workforce is coming closer to our aspiration of a Department which is a representative face of contemporary Australia.

Notably, the profile of women and indigenous officers in the Department has continued to rise.

Women now make up 23 per cent of the Senior Executive Service (SES), compared to 6.9 per cent ten years ago.

And in that same period, we have more than doubled the number of indigenous officers in DFAT from 14 in 1993 to 32 today.

Maintaining the highest possible standards of integrity and professionalism in the policy advice we provide to Ministers, in faithfully implementing the Government’s decisions, and in serving the Australian public to the fullest of our ability is a hallmark of the contemporary Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

We also place considerable emphasis on the maintenance of strong ethical standards, including observance of the Australian Public Service Code of Conduct.

A strong commitment to staff training and development has been a critical factor in raising the productivity and effectiveness of our employees.

Our training and development strategy is recognised as being at the forefront of APS practice, as was demonstrated by the Department being invited to participate in an ANAO and APS Commission reference group to prepare an APS guide to better practice in learning and development.

The Department delivers a wide range of in-house training workshops, covering key professional skills, leadership and management, finance and administration, consular skills, IT and security.

Professional language proficiency is central to the work of the department.

Following a comprehensive review of our language training programs in 2001, we introduced a new approach to more closely align our language training investment with Australia’s policy priorities.

The key outcomes of the review included a new tier structure of priority languages to more accurately reflect Australia’s foreign and trade priorities, and a reassessment of language-designated positions overseas to ensure that resources are allocated where they are most needed in accordance with those priorities.

In-country language training has been increased, and language proficiency allowances have also been increased to further encourage staff to retain their language skills ‘out of country’.

Finally, we have made a major effort to leverage advances in technology to improve our efficiency.

In recent years, the Department has invested in a new IT and communications system which provides a range of labour-saving databases to staff around the world.

It also provides access to classified and unclassified IT systems via one desktop.

And the Government has provided funds to upgrade the secure communication links with our overseas missions, ensuring that Australia’s official international communications can be carried out with greater speed, security and reliability.

It is important to note that all these reforms have taken place against the background of broader change in the Australian Public Service.

It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to carry out many of these changes we have made to the way DFAT works without the devolution that has taken place in the APS.

Similarly, APS reforms related to budget transparency and accrual accounting were the basis for our own marked improvements in financial management, including the appointment in 1999 of a specialist chief financial officer.

Managing for policy outcomes

Management and organisational reforms are not ends in themselves.

In DFAT our aim is to manage ourselves well so as to be in a better position to achieve policy outcomes for the Government and Australia.

Innovative and flexible work structures have helped us meet the challenges arising from a rapidly evolving international security environment.

This is well illustrated by the major role played by DFAT in support of Australia’s participation in the Iraq war and our intervention in the Solomon Islands.

Our Iraq Task Force led interagency coordination and was pivotal to the Government’s intensive diplomatic efforts.

It has since coordinated Australia’s contribution to Iraq’s rehabilitation.

Similarly, our Solomon Islands Task Force coordinated the Government’s strengthened assistance package and managed the dispatch of the multi-national regional assistance mission - itself coordinated by a senior DFAT colleague, Nick Warner.

In each case we were able to assemble quickly a team of officers to cope with the extra workload, and re-absorb and re-deploy staff once the surge in activity subsided.

Centralised management of staffing meant we could get the right people with the relevant expertise or work skills into the areas we needed them.

And our development of a range of IT and communications solutions for remote locations allowed diplomatic staff quickly to establish a fully operational presence in Baghdad following the end of major combat operations there, and with the Regional Assistance Mission to the Solomon Islands.

Our flexibility and responsiveness have also been tested and proven in major consular crises, notably the terrorist bombings in Bali on 12 October 2002.

Although these terrible events took place in the middle of the night, our consular crisis machinery was activated within three hours.

And the Inter-Departmental Emergency Taskforce, chaired by a DFAT Deputy Secretary, met within hours of the bombings to coordinate a whole-of-government response.

The Department’s Emergency Call Unit handled over 30 000 telephone calls in the first days of the crisis and recorded details of almost 5000 individuals for whom family members or friends had concerns.

The magnitude of the response required a concerted effort from all areas of the department.

Over 700 staff volunteered to work in the Crisis Centre and Emergency Call Unit.

Our posts in Bali and Jakarta moved quickly to respond to the unique demands placed on them.

Experienced consular, medical, military and policy personnel were immediately sent to Bali.

Of course, DFAT is also playing a role in support of the Government’s ongoing efforts to help defeat terrorism in South-East Asia.

We have helped to foster and strengthen regional cooperation, negotiating eight bilateral counter-terrorism MoUs, including with Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines and Cambodia.

These arrangements have been the basis for effective cooperation between regional law and order and security forces.

This cooperation has helped prevent terrorist attacks, disrupted terrorist groups and seen terrorists arrested and charged, including those responsible for the Bali bombings.

As I mentioned already, we have also created a new position of Ambassador for Counter-Terrorism to coordinate Australia’s international counter-terrorism policies and capacity-building efforts.

And we are working assiduously in support of the regional counter-terrorism summit that Mr Downer will co-host with his Indonesian counterpart next year.

In the trade policy area, another striking example of DFAT’s enhanced coordinating role is the leadership by my colleague, Steve Deady, of Australia’s team in the FTA negotiations with the United States.

This week, the fourth round of formal negotiations is taking place in Canberra.

Around 50 Australian officials are participating in this process, representing 18 separate departments and agencies and comprising some 20 different negotiating groups.

Between negotiating rounds, senior members of the Australian team are engaged in detailed consultations with relevant industry organisations and representatives.


These are just a few examples of the practical contributions that DFAT is making to the Government’s foreign and trade policy achievements.

As I mentioned earlier, I believe it would have been difficult for us to handle such a demanding and wide-ranging agenda without some of the fundamental management reforms we have undertaken in the last five years.

Indeed, this raises a broader point that is gaining increased recognition nowadays.

That is, that a critical component of a country’s international effectiveness is its institutional and organisational strengths; whether it be with respect to realising the opportunities afforded by economic globalisation, or responding to the challenges of a more uncertain international security environment.

Along with good policies, strong institutions are one of the main reasons that Australia is able to respond so effectively to today’s fluid international environment.

I believe that, in terms of professionalism, integrity and effectiveness, Australia has one of the best public services in the world.

My Department tries hard to contribute to that national asset.

Thank you.

Last Updated: 19 September 2014