Planning, Evaluation and Public Diplomacy Part 2: MFAs, Militaries and Aid Agencies

April 11, 2011

Looking at the material on planning for part 1 of this post raised a broader issue about planning and diplomacy.   From the point of view of scholars of International Relations or Communications planning seems like a tedious topic but actually says quite a lot about the nature of foreign ministries and their relations with the rest of government – particularly with Ministries of Defence and Aid Agencies organizations where planning has been taken much more seriously.  Planning is where organizational culture and an evolving external environment intersect with each other.

Military organizations are inveterate planners. This is not just to say that they draw up contingency plans but that planning is how they deal with the world and define who they are.  Military staff training is about how to plan;  if something happens the response is to start planning.   What the military means by planning is how do we organize things so that we can achieve a defined end state.  Planning is the means by which the various elements of the military organization are brought together.

I’ve also seen it said (I think in relation to Bosnia) that the reason that the US Army finds it hard to work with the State Department is because State doesn’t plan (my italics) , also that the problem with other armies is that they don’t plan (how much you plan is relative the British military plans much more than the FCO but not as much as the US military) . What this says to me is that the process of planning is something close to the heart of the military identity.

Given the range of moving parts in a military operation is obvious that plans are necessary  but planning also has other consequences.   In looking at the development guides in the first part of this post  I was reminded of Eisenhower’s maxim -‘ plans are worthless but planning is essential’; the development community sees planning as way to build relationships.  Planning is a way to  learn about potential problems and opportunities, you learn about the people that you are working with and you develop a common understanding of what the problem is and what you are going to do about it that is relevant even if the specific plan is never used or has to evolve in unexpected ways.  This is an important lesson for relational (or collaborative) public diplomacy; that the process of planning is important part of the whole excercise.

In contrast with armies and aid agencies  MFAs have generally taken the line that the international environment is so complex and unpredictable that strategic planning is a waste of time.  Historically MFAs have done some  ‘policy planning’;   that is trying to imagine what the world will be like or how some issue will develop and  preparing policy options for what should be done – but  policy planning does not set objectives or allocate resources (Hocking 1999, Rubin 1987, Lan 2007).  Over the past couple of decades  this position has come under pressure from changing models of government organization and the changing nature of diplomacy itself.  As the scope of diplomatic action has expanded MFAs have been expected to become more strategic but there are big differences in how far these developments have gone. The FCO has moved towards a thoroughgoing strategic management approach while there are suspicions that despite innovations in planning the State Department doesn’t quite take this seriously.     Lane (2007) makes the point that the adoption of a much more strategic approach by the FCO over the past 10 years has changed the notion of planning from the old policy planning model to something that is much more strategic. As I’ve noted before the FCO seems to be much successful in meeting objectives that involve its own processes (eg consular support)  than the ones that depend on foreigners which perhaps suggests that there is something to the traditional suspicion of planning.   Lane also warns that operational planning can  lead to organizations focusing on the immediate objective  and losing sight of how the changing environment may require a change of policy.

What is interesting though is a certain convergence between the planners and the diplomats.  There is a rather obscure  debate going on in the US Army over the topic of ‘design’ .  The starting point is the danger that the current way of thinking about plans leads to rigidity and an inability to adapt to rapidly changing environments.  The new edition of field manual  FM5-0 The Operations Process draws on concepts of complex systems to advocate a mode of thinking that encourages adaptation and learning in response to a complex and interdependent world non linear transformations are the norm. Unsurprisingly some of the reaction to this has been frustration;  how are these abstract exhortations to be translated into real plans? I think that this also parallels the way that aid organizations are trying to break out of the rigidities that can emerge with formal planning.  To some extent it suggests a movement towards the traditional diplomatic position that improvisation is the only really feasible approach to international relations.

I don’t think that the divide between the military and aid planners and the improvising diplomats is going to disappear anytime soon but it does appear that both sides of the divide are moving towards each other.

Hocking, B., ed. (1999) Foreign ministries : change and adaption. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Lane, A. (2007) ‘Modernising the management of British diplomacy: towards a Foreign Office policy on policy-making?’, Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 20: 179-193.
Rubin, B. (1987) Secrets of state : the State Department and the struggle over U.S. foreign policy. New York: Oxford University Press.

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