Don't forget the small things

19 April 2011

By Dr Wendy Jarvie, Visiting professor, School of Business, UNSW at the Australian Defence Force Academy, Canberra. Former Deputy Secretary, Department of Education Science and Training and Education, Employment and Workplace Relations.

I’m a big supporter of this aid review. And delighted it has got this blog. I know the importance of the big questions being canvassed – objectives, geographic focus, sector, gender (and yes of course aid should be heavily focused on women!)

But, thinking back to my own international work, at both the World Bank and in the Australian government, sometimes I think the biggest impact I had was in the small things.

Take China for example: in the early 2000s we were heavily  engaged with the Chinese government in education. We had lots of interaction - regular policy dialogues, bringing ministry officials over to look at our quality assurance systems and, through AusAID, trialing our vocational education  system in Chonqing. But the most excitement I ever saw was after one particular policy discussion. We’d been talking all day. We’d gone through just about everything – where we could work together in schools, higher education and vocational education.

After the meeting, the Vice Minister came around the table eagerly to talk more with me. He was a wonderfully impressive person. He’d studied at Harvard in the 1980s, was very intelligent, imaginative and visionary. However, there was one thing he really wanted to talk to me about. He’d been looking at my meeting notes. The ones I’d been working from all day. You know the sort if you have ever worked in government – the huge 2-ring folder, with the official meeting papers on white paper on the right-hand side and the talking points for me and background information in green paper on the left-hand side. Something you used to learn on week one of any job in the Australian public service. In contrast his notes  were the meeting papers with handwritten notes down the side. He wanted his people to learn about these things – in fact he wanted someone to come and see how our department worked. “We have a lot to learn from you”, he said.

So the moral is: don’t forget the small things, particularly the impact of public servants and their personal interactions. In this case, it is the importance of simple regular policy/practical interaction between ministries. We need to build into our aid program, not just the dollars, but the personal interaction of Australian public servants with foreign ministries.

Want to help build capacity in other governments? Forget the formal training. Expose them to how we work. Not just with AusAID and DFAT, but with our education, health, justice, industry and other departments. The Australian public service is a great public service. Why not use it systematically in this way?

Image by Flickr user businessroundtable.