Response to the article on Public Diplomacy – new Foreign Ministry initiative (February 10, 2019) – http://www.island.lk/index.php?page_cat=article-details&page=article-details&code_title=199150
Anjalika (Malalgoda) Silva – USA
It is a timely initiative taken by the Foreign Ministry to provide some new insights into the requirements of Foreign Service Officers serving Sri Lanka in missions overseas to arrest losing opportunities for Sri Lanka through restraint due to many reasons.
Training, accountability and the freedom to use the ability to meet the standards of international diplomacy have been woefully inadequate for no fault of the participants. The initiative taken to provide training in Public Diplomacy and Media Relations is an excellent move. However, with that should come the need to reduce the tightening on freedom due to political restraints placed on diplomats as the ratio of political appointees has been highlighted in the article as exceeding the career diplomats. Sometimes, depending on the clout of political appointees, career diplomats are stifled. There is no reason that non-career diplomats should not be added to the mix to benefit from their proven skills, qualifications and experience with results driven track records. However, it is very clear that depending on the countries served by locating all individuals, there must be a better understanding of the culture and how to gain the best level of attention for Sri Lanka. There are many publications for a reader to access material in print or in electronic media for self-education or for incorporating into training programs.
The level of high literacy in Sri Lanka goes only so far and is of little value without complementary skills in communication both written and oral to be able to function in diplomatic roles to convincingly and confidently get a point of view across. Faltering in language and confidence in communication skills loses listeners. This, in the role of a diplomat is as important as any in other profession. The ability to impart knowledge is more important than knowledge that cannot be communicated. It is a skill that should be prime among skills needed in representing one’s country.
The country and the authorities with responsibility to set standards and be tuned into the needs vs. deficiencies have certainly not been adequate in many respects that include low priority for budgets needed in public relations activities. In contributing to feedback and improvement, one of the major resources that are underutilized are the well-educated expatriates among whom are great minds with a broad spectrum of skills that can be utilized to strengthen the short-term serving diplomats. There is absolutely no transfer of input from this segment to frame activities or harness talent beneficial to the country.
Three-year terms being standard puts diplomats on a learning curve and with successive groups, they are on a new learning curve that cannot be shortened without a strategy to change. If every major country considered critical to Sri Lanka’s representation is considered by the government as requiring strength without extra personnel or the ever-tightening budgets, there are creative ways that can be considered within the framework of foreign service to Sri Lanka.
A council of expats with rotating terms to strengthen and contribute to the institutional memory of the communities they represent, will undoubtedly increase efficiency and shorten repeated short learning curve to eliminate practices followed before with poor or no results. Expat experience can be applied to gain success and timely action when needed. Of course, there will be a push by some expats to serve on such councils for a personal agenda and gains without tangible contribution. This should be avoided if such an exercise is to prove fruitful. The Government can set some required and optional criteria that need to be fulfilled in order to get meaningful contributors to the forefront.
The country, its leaders and all those concerned must take seriously the responsibility to groom officers by giving them all the tools to excel with their potential to make a meaningful contribution in the international arena. Training and preparation are critical needs that offer a fair chance for foreign service officers to excel and succeed not only for the country but also in their personal careers. It is not chronological service in number of years that is a criterion to follow. The role played by even junior level officers with exceptional accomplishments that benefit the country should be recognized over seniority. There will be no argument in overcoming the special accomplishments if the service adopts a system of management based on individual career objectives to be met and accomplishments completed and evaluated for career progress every year. Such objective setting can be a joint exercise between the Foreign Ministry and the prospect for diplomacy. Each individual can pursue areas in which they are equipped and comfortable provided they fit into the specified role. Gaining recognition for special contributions will be an incentive to participants to go the extra mile.
Knowing that one must fulfill several years with no accountability for quality or accomplishments for moving further is the wrong recipe for success. It is the sure recipe for frustrating bright and capable individuals who succeed when challenged but have no hope of recognition until and unless the number of years is counted regardless of accomplishment unless they have the right connections.
It is refreshing that the current Foreign Ministry has made some headway in this direction. It must also recognize that there is a dire need for picking the right talent and identifying those who have potential. Meaningful recruitment strategies to reach candidates from the right environments is also a critical element to add to this equation. Making a career attractive will certainly net in the best and capable candidates. Mentoring programs for prospects to learn about the career from those who have served and can impart their experiences will go a long way. This can also be used to shorten the learning curve by guidance through mentoring.
Making the Foreign Service attractive to new talent is an area that needs to be addressed if the country is really interested in taking advantage of the best and the brightest to represent it globally. This is important for no other reason than for advancing opportunities for the country and its people with a continuous supply of candidates for succession planning. Talent, training, creativity, ingenuity and all the other positive attributes in selected candidates will be of no use if there is a political bias in the selection of only those that are on the right side of current politics at any given time. If so, the most important selection criteria become the least relevant resulting in unproductive appointees.
The return on investments made in the cost of maintaining diplomats must be measured in the success of the developments achieved. Maintaining status quo and being proactive as advisors to the central Government plays an important part. It is also incumbent on the Government in power to be objective with the feedback brought by representatives overseas so that they are not fearful of political persecution for recognizing the truth and advising with observations that must be listened to and objectively evaluated for necessary action. The new recruits must be trained to have confidence that no question is a dumb question and no idea is a dumb idea. Creativity should not be stifled with fear of reprisal or political vendetta.
At the helm of the war and the adverse propaganda against Sri Lanka during and after, had to be countered and addressed with the progressive initiatives referred to in the article during the tenure of Lakshman Kadirgamar. The action to do so lost its momentum and Sri Lanka fell victim to harsh tactics that went unanswered. There was a build up to the adverse propaganda that went unnoticed except anecdotally and never accounted for the need to formulate a strong policy to quell it in the bud. The greatest part of this task was taken up by committed patriotic expats who did so sometimes at personal risk, with no expectations in return. The least they could be afforded and hardly received, is acknowledgement in the form of a handshake or an introduction from visiting politicians. The contribution by expats has gone a long way to gain visibility for the country with outreach to educate others about Sri Lanka. Visiting politicians do not take the trouble to get to know the communities or discuss the activities undertaken to promote the country. The apathy toward active and committed expats is the most discouraging part for communities living overseas.
The country started to limp along due to the lack of a strong counterforce that is regrettable because of the long-term ramifications. The push that culminated in sending decorated military officers to the jaws of war crimes court without due process to prove some of the false information fed into a system was deliberately biased against a democratic country, an elected government and a security system and forces that had a responsibility to an entire population regardless of any divisive agenda. There were many dots of credible information from US military experts and others that went without being connected to the propaganda machine due to political biases that led the way, exerted pressure and acted for preconceived outcomes. Most of it was tied to the obvious --- the electability issue and pandering to voter blocks. It happens in the most successful nations to the same extent, but the ramifications are felt in the lack of vision for the future generations of a country forsaken for immediate political victory and static “apparent” development that does not consider the future.
It is a sad situation that has been generalized due to a few exceptions that were not addressed through appropriate use of media communication and diplomacy that was proactive, effective and well strategized to defend the truth with tangible counter arguments. This is largely attributed to an issue of competence in communication but accepted as almost an excuse with no remedial policy or strategy except to let it continue with complacency. What Sri Lanka needs is a strong Public Relations Policy through the Publicity Division in every major mission or a centralized unit in Sri Lanka to be proactive with release of official authentic information. All data and sources are not only for the missions. They must be freely available to expats supporting the country to be used in validating their discussions and interactions. In this era of advanced technology, this is also an important skill to require from those serving globally and to use such skilled personnel to speedily provide supporting data. Anecdotal references don’t carry weight.
A reasonable argument brought forward for staffing needs in the diplomatic arena is the short supply of qualified candidates with not only academic credentials but a whole collection of soft skills to complement the educational credentials. Soft skills and social graces can be learned by training but most of the skill set is innate and a great part of the fit for a career in the international arena comes from attitude to play the role, learn the skills and walk a tight rope. In proven data, 85% is attitude coupled with 15% being aptitude. In the attitude segment falls the passion, commitment and the desire to serve the country and serve well.
Diplomacy is a relatively easy career to embark on with the right training and the right set of skills. It should not be assumed that all applicants come tailor made. They need to be molded through training and learn from the best. If not, the standard and shortfall in quality is easily identified when matched to international standards. The training must be expanded and in keeping with the times and the challenges that are dynamic. Those selected for the diplomatic service must meet the right set of criteria and get away from “who you know” and emphasize “what you know” in order to correct the situation with political appointees that are not always a right fit. This can be achieved, and Sri Lanka can produce very successful representatives with the right policies and strategies that is the key. People must be aware of their weaknesses and provided opportunities to improve in those areas. Self-assessment can provide for broadening the value of any employee by addressing specific training. It should not be assumed that anyone is expected to “know it all” and be afraid of criticism if they admit to deficiencies that are correctable. This is a sensitive area but if addressed can pay high dividends.
Another segment of prospects for the future can be approached if the right opportunities are made available. There are many students who travel overseas and are educated in global environments that can be encouraged to take to careers representing the country regardless of their professional education.
Summer holidays returning to Sri Lanka can be turned into summer internships that can provide insight for young people to get hands on experience. This can be applied not only to the foreign service but also in other government and corporate environments.
Education in any field can be transitioned knowledge to help in any area that fits. In addition to students educated overseas, there are about three to four generations of young people born overseas in the pipeline from expatriate families with excellent credentials who can be attracted to diplomatic service. Instead of looking at them for their deficiencies like the use of Sri Lankan language and being born overseas, the roots of their heritage should be celebrated as an asset. In such cases, a part of the dual citizenship awards should be available to such youth of Sri Lankan heritage even if they are born overseas or some allowance made to fulfill their need to be legitimate if they are considered otherwise.
The deficiency in language skills is easily remedied using crash courses in language as done by foreign diplomats who learn language skills when they are appointed to Sri Lanka. These shortcomings are the least of the problem but netting a younger generation, mentoring them and preparing them for future careers will be a good planning strategy if the political biases are removed and the real value and skills for the purpose of representing the country is given high priority.
In this era of advanced technology, accessibility with speed, outreach can be easy and efficient. If positive attributes are celebrated as the main focus over political connections and favours that don’t benefit the country at large, there is much to be gained. Reinventing the Publicity Machine for Sri Lanka to be more aggressive using the truth to be marketed first with a long-term vision is the immediate need. The valuable resource of people in their jobs must be enhanced and human capital development must take precedence to make a difference to the country and offer a brighter future for those in the profession.
Time is slipping by. It must be clinched right away. Opportunities for a small country like Sri Lanka cannot wait. Who will take this on?