Environmental and other brands — and John Allen

Last week Climate Change Ambassador Jo Tyndall briefed “stakeholders” on the global negotiations, in which New Zealand has an outsize role. Her briefing was clear, on both knowns and unknowns. That says two things about John Allen’s reconstruction of his ministry.
The first is the value of specialist topic expertise, long a marker of New Zealand’s international affairs brand in a number of fields. Allen wants to match that with deeper expertise in countries and regions; generic diplomatic skills are to be an underpinning, not the quintessence of the foreign service.

Tyndall’s little team, which includes specialist officials from the Environment and Primary Industry Ministries, has skill and depth.

At the Durban summit in December Tyndall’s predecessor, Adrian Macey, chaired the intensely difficult Kyoto Protocol track to a resolution which had looked out of reach. The forestry team got much of this country’s special needs. Former trade negotiations expert Tim Groser was pivotal in unblocking the standoff between “developed” Kyoto countries and the rest.

The second thing Tyndall’s briefing said about Allen’s reconstruction of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) is that if it damages morale too much, if there is too little buy-in and if too many more top people leave, that will undermine that international affairs brand of outsize performance as honest broker and with that our economic prospects. The two are linked.

Bothering about climate change, too, is about brand — reputation in consumer markets. The words “New Zealand” on a product or service need to evoke some version of “fresh/safe/natural” if food and fibre are to play a strong part in keeping up living standards.

Giant global food processing and retailing firms see it that way. They want to own a fresh/safe/natural brand in Asia.

For national policy that implies treating ecosystems as part of the economic infrastructure, which logically farmers (for example) would maintain, not treat as someone else’s business. In polite, careful language, that is part of the message from the natural resources state agencies cluster’s post-election briefing to ministers.

There is some reason to think that message is starting to seep through to ministers. John Key is to launch National’s Bluegreens’ next policy paper at their hui on Saturday. Nick Smith says unfluffy Steven Joyce will join him to respond to the green growth advisory group’s report. (Bill English joined Smith to launch it a year ago.)

This report is not likely to stampede green voters to National, which is nervous at how many of those who voted for National candidates in November party-voted Green. The thrust, as developed last year under Business New Zealand’s Phil O’Reilly, is “greening GDP growth” (with multi-dimensional monitoring and environmental accounting of exports), not promoting altogether-new forms of economic development.

But that small step is nonetheless a step away from Key’s habitual formula: that a bit more environment is a bit less economy and vice-versa — the environment or the economy. Keeping the fresh/safe/natural brand implies talking of the two as mutually supportive: the environment and the economy.

This is one of the places where international and domestic policy meet and merge. Another is trade, which ministers too often think can be done without tending the whole of each bilateral relationship with the full range of specialist foreign service skills.

Treasury Secretary Gabriel Makhlouf underlined this linkage in a speech last June: to be prosperous in the modern “global village”, domestic policy must have internationally competitive settings.

International has become the new domestic.

Domestic agencies are not separate from foreign policy (particularly the Treasury which, despite Makhlouf and to MFAT’s frustration, has sent junior staff to joint meetings). The foreign service is not separate from domestic policy.

Allen’s real challenge is not just to reorganise to get Austerity Bill’s “more with less”: for example, better use of modern technology, fewer routine reports from posts, folding into “hubs” more embassies in lower-priority countries, a flatter management structure and handling from Wellington run-of-the-mill support for citizens abroad — most of which equals “cuts” in the public mind.

Allen’s real challenge is get better “outcomes”, in line with the real thrust of English’s “better public services” drive. That means ensuring that the greater focus on regional expertise does not undermine broader skills and that his efficiencies don’t devalue critically important personal connections (Groser’s specialty) while at the same time making more porous the border between domestic and international policy.

And Allen must also keep delivering that outsize performance in global forums that is integral to the country brand abroad and invisibly benefits the “commercial” and all of us — and which (here’s the risk) can slip away without us knowing until too late.