Dutch diplomatic network must be better geared to new world order
The Advisory Committee on Modernising the Diplomatic Service (chaired by Arthur Docters van Leeuwen) has issued a progress report with measures aimed at making the Ministry of Foreign Affairs more effective in a changing world. These include clustering the network of diplomatic missions (with a coordinating role for larger embassies within the network), broader training for diplomats based on fixed standards, and a more publicly visible foreign ministry. Today the Committee presented the report to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Frans Timmermans, who will use it in drawing up the policy letter on modernising the diplomatic service that he will submit to the House of Representatives in June.
The Committee’s main point of departure is today’s fundamentally changing world. In addition to clearly demarcated state power blocs, we are now seeing the emergence of a network world in which not only the various power blocs but also NGOs, the private sector and the media are influencing international developments. Diplomats must be able to operate in all these networks.
Today’s professional diplomats must be able to conduct not only traditional diplomacy aimed at governments, but also diplomacy in the new networks. This must be guaranteed by clearly quantifiable performance indicators, including through permanent training. The Committee also advises the Ministry to let diplomats specialise more: the current staff transfer system too often causes valuable knowledge and experience to be lost. The Committee considers the Ministry’s seven-year diplomat training programme a good start.
The network of missions must be able to function more effectively in the new world order, responding rapidly and appropriately to emerging priorities and crises. Embassies will need to work in clusters on specific themes and be more flexibly organised (which may involve flexible staffing levels). The result, says the Committee, will be an organisational model based on four kinds of mission: regional embassies, medium-sized embassies, small embassies and missions staffed by just one diplomat. The basic principle is still maximum on-the-ground presence, since this is the only way to maintain long-term relations with other states and organisations. Some policymaking tasks will be transferred from The Hague to the missions, which will act as regional or thematic centres of expertise. The Committee sees the ambition expressed by the ministers and senior leadership – to transform the diplomatic service into a network organisation – as a step in the right direction.
In the Committee’s view, the typical features of a network organisation are openness and exchange of information and contacts. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to become more visible, both to the general public and to stakeholders. The Committee sees digitisation as a valuable way to bridge the gulf between the Ministry and the Dutch people. Panels should be set up so that stakeholders can say whether they think the Ministry is on the right track.
The Committee can see that the Ministry is working in many places and areas to create an organisation more in keeping with today’s realities, for instance through co-location of missions, setting up collaborative digital workspaces and making intensive, interactive use of social media. According to Committee chair Arthur Docters van Leeuwen, ‘A lot is already happening, but there’s still a long way to go. Keep going!’
Finally, the Committee commented on the contrast between the ambitious international agenda set out in the coalition agreement and the major cutbacks in the available instruments, such as the diplomatic network and funding: ‘Even in times of budgetary restraint, it is by no means clear how more can be done with less money. In recent years, bodies like the police and the Ministry of Infrastructure and the Environment have received additional funding to pay for the extra tasks they have been given.’