Yellow banner with pen and letters

author: Colin Jennings

Wilton Park: sui generis knowledge organisation

2002

In his paper, Colin Jennings describes the way Wilton Park – an executive agency of the British FCO – operates. He highlights some of the key reasons for its success, and identifies some specific outcomes of the conferences organised by Wilton Park. The author also offers a few reflection on knowledge management based on his many years of experience.
2076877.jpg

I propose to make some fairly heretical comments about knowledge management. In doing so I take comfort from the fact that the instigator of Wilton Park, Sir Winston Churchill, believed in breaking the rules when necessary. I like, in particular, his comment that “a preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.”

When I saw the programme for this conference I couldn’t work out what the title of my talk meant. But the organisers kindly explained that I should simply explain the way in which the particular institution I lead, Wilton Park, operates. So I will:

    •     explain what Wilton Park does;
    •     highlight some of the key reasons for its success;
    •     identify some specific outcomes of the conferences; and
    •     offer a few reflections on the theme of knowledge management.

WILTON PARK

Wilton Park organises over 40 residential conferences a year on a wide range of key policy challenges, and produces reports on each one. Most last three and a half days, some are shorter. The conferences are mainly on international issues but there are also some on domestic policies of interest to a range of countries. Wilton Park is an Executive Agency of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office but is academically independent (an unusual and highly productive mix). Because of this status, 60% of the participants are government officials and politicians working on the issues, and the remaining 40% are from a range of non-government professions. Only a fifth are British. A few come to learn for the first time about an issue, but most are already highly knowledgeable. Wilton Park’s website at www.wiltonpark.org.uk provides more background.

Why does it succeed?

I was impressed that one of the things Al Berg, an IT expert speaking at the February 1999 conference on Knowledge and Diplomacy in Malta, mentioned was exactly our sort of method: bringing people together for conferences as one way of exchanging knowledge and information. It is important to hear that statement from an IT expert. One can easily argue, in our fast-moving world, with e-mails and the internet, that bringing people together, as we do, in a 16th century, rural location is out of date. Is it really worth it? Doesn’t it take a long time?

I would argue that it is definitely worth it, and that data alone will always be insufficient: personal contact between individuals has a very important part to play in exchanging views and information on complex subjects. Part of this is human nature. What do we remember most? What we have read, or what people have told us? For most of us it’s the latter, and the laptop won’t change that.

There are four basic reasons why the way we bring people together at Wilton Park is not only still necessary but is, in fact, on the increase.

First, despite all the conferences and other meetings that take place on so many different issues, and among so many different nationalities, there are very few occasions when policy makers and non-government people get together and really examine the underlying problems. What are the root causes of the dispute between the protagonists? Are their aims and needs really so different, or is that a failure of perception? What can all concerned do to bridge gaps and work to mutual advantage? What are their current plans, what are the real prospects of making progress? This may sound basic, but all of us who have experience of working on international issues know that this sort of discussion is vital yet doesn’t happen very often in a productive way. So that’s the first reason: those coming find the exchanges useful and, because so many work for governments, there is a very direct impact on policy formulation.

The second reason is that the unattributable nature of the discussions encourages frank but informed debate. The collective experience is always vast, but it’s not an international negotiation and you won’t be quoted. Those are real benefits. There are lots of meetings where you represent your institution or your government, but very few where you can talk off the record. Wilton Park’s confidential and residential environment encourages participants to say what they think. They may be a bit constrained on the first day, but once they’ve got to know their fellow participants they relax and talk frankly. That can lead to some quite stormy exchanges, but there’s no harm in that if it’s reasonably controlled.

The third reason it works is that by bringing in top people in their field, the updating of knowledge is always considerable. Everyone gains new insights and new information. However much you know, there is always more to learn.

The fourth is the fact that it’s residential nature helps develop personal contacts. I know cases where they have lasted a lifetime and been really valuable.

The outcome?

But does all this make any difference? Does it produce a real outcome? If I were in the British Treasury, I would be saying: that’s all very well, but it costs money. Not much taxpayer’s money, but nonetheless, some. And what’s the result?

It is certainly true that increasing knowledge in itself doesn’t solve problems. Wilton Park conferences over the last year or so have highlighted that there was going to be a major crisis in Kosovo, an escalation of overt nuclear proliferation between India and Pakistan and a serious crisis in Asia because of the social and political tensions. None of these were prevented. But nonetheless, better informed policy makers can at least be better prepared to deal with such crises when they happen, and do their best to prevent them if they can. And in addition to the obvious benefits of the cross-fertilisation of ideas and information, and the creation of new personal links with people of real influence, there are concrete outcomes. A few examples.

We held last year a conference on the Common Agricultural Policy and a planner from the German Foreign Ministry told us that it had been invaluable for him in preparing the German government’s policy for their Presidency on this very important policy area.

We held a conference two years ago on the Greek-Turkish relationship, with just Greeks and Turks and a few other observers, which produced Greek-Turkish talks led by another institution on media coverage, military links and other contentious areas. I am not aware of any other forum that’s doing that. The influential people involved on both sides find it very useful, I am told.

Smaller foreign ministries that come to our events tell us they use the reports we produce on each conference as a working tool to update knowledge and think through policies.

We had a conference last year on the forthcoming Lome aid and trade renegotiation. Several of the ACP people there told us they found it very useful in preparing their negotiating position.

The BBC used one of our conferences as a basis for briefing their journalists for coverage of the German elections last year, and interviewed quite a few of the people who came to the conference.

We held a conference on the future of the UN last year, out of which we think there may well come a new set of principles for rejuvenating the UN in various ways, not least its Agencies.

And we held a conference on welfare reform last year which undoubtedly fed directly into the 13 January article on the front page of the London “Times” about the introduction of new welfare policies in the UK, in this case a modified form of American style workfare. I know for a fact that this in part came out of our conference.

KNOWLEDGE MANAGEMENT

Perhaps I could conclude by offering a few personal reflections on the theme of knowledge management in diplomacy based on 22 years of working for the British government in the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign Office and now Wilton Park. None of this may be revolutionary but I hope its worth hearing.

First point. Diplomatic services have very high quality staff, with exceptional commitment, and in the British case a global heritage which produces an enormous number of networks through the Commonwealth and other institutions, a virtually incorruptible civil service, and a stable and transparent democracy. Despite this, we manage information badly.

In my experience, the life of a civil servant in Britain is almost constant crisis management. Cutbacks in staff and resources have led to real overstretch. There is precious little time to think. I’m sure this will be familiar to lots of you, it’s not just a British problem. But in our case, there is little time to read carefully and to think, and even less to organise your information. The interaction with non-government thinkers is greatly restrained by the pressure of work. That lack of interaction can be damaging. It leads to perpetuation of policies which are well past their shelf life because civil servants are only talking to each other.

Job turnover is far too high, which means that experience, certainly in capitals, is far too slim. That applies in virtually every area.

Key information and recent documents are often very hard to find. A lot of time is wasted looking for them. IT is not used nearly enough to overcome this. As mentioned by other speakers, the introduction of IT in our organisations in the last ten or so years hasn’t saved work. It’s created vast amounts of extra work. Of course it has benefits. E-mailing and so on is enormously useful and time saving, but in other respects we’re a long way off. When it comes to design and use of IT, it’s like the motor car in the early stages of the century. We have an awful lot further to go, in terms of having systems that are easy to use, where you don’t have to click on 25 different things to obtain what you want, which don’t crash twice a day or remove useful tools every time a programmer touches them , etc.

I am not suggesting that everything we do is ineffective. The qualities of the people we have make our organisations work. But it’s despite rather than because of good management and use of knowledge. This may be a heretical thought, but it is certainly my own experience as a practitioner.

CONCLUSION

There is an obvious conclusion: we should have more meetings like this. This one is excellently timed. There needs to be more such opportunities to exchange views, and have training on the management and use of knowledge. Many of the things other speakers mentioned are new and directly relevant to my organisation and probably are to yours.

For our own part, in Wilton Park we are doing our best to increase the dissemination of our knowledge, for instance, through our website. We’re also going to be introducing a new publication which will bring together all our reports and papers, to be launched by the Stationary Office in April, entitled Current issues in International Diplomacy and Foreign Policy.

Last but not least, we are going to do our best to manage knowledge better by holding a conference with the Mediterranean Academy of Diplomatic Studies in Malta in November on the social impact of free trade in the Euro-Med area.

To conclude, I would suggest that the key to knowledge is giving greater priority to making the time to learn from others, not least at meetings like this. We should learn from Henry Kissinger’s shrewd observation: “There can’t be a crisis next week, my schedule is already full.”

icon for right PDF

You may also be interested in

Foreign-Ministries.jpg

Foreign Ministries: Managing Diplomatic Networks and Optimizing Value

This is a collection of papers presented at the 2006 Conference on Foreign Ministries hosted by DiploFoundation in May 2006, in Geneva. The overarching theme is the adaptation and reform that these ministries have undertaken, in the shape of country experiences and the transformation implemented in specific areas such as the application of information technology for outreach to domestic publics, adaptation in consular services and outsourcing options. Some of the challenging issues addressed cover relations between civil servants and politicians, the role of sub-state entities in diplomacy, an...

Foreign.png

Consular Services Annual Report 2008/09

Policy_papers_briefs_04_KR_0-200x283-1.png

Promotion Methods in Foreign Ministries (Briefing Paper #4)

Ambassador Rana looks at promotion methods in foreign ministries around the world.

jan.png

The New Public Diplomacy: Soft Power in International Relations

page_1-2-1.jpg

Reflections on multistakeholder diplomacy

Through analysis of the procedural and institutional arrangements in the functioning of international bodies, Valentin Katrandjiev, seeks to measure the extent to which diplomats accept nonofficial networks and entities as equal partners in the diplomatic negotiation process. Katrandjiev analyses the trend that on the domestic front, societies demand greater public accountability of governments in the process of national foreign policy making. He attempts to do so through the organisational units in MFAs responsible for relationships with domestic stakeholders.

Foreign-Ministries-and-the-Information-Revolution.jpg

Foreign Ministries and the Information Revolution: Going Virtual?

The ongoing information revolution is perceived as a profound organizational challenge for foreign ministries. Yet there is only scant empirical evidence on the nature of the change dynamics. Anchored in new institutionalist approaches in political science, this book reconceptualizes diplomacy as an institution of the modern state order and identifies its key organizing principles maintained by the global group of foreign ministries. With this conceptualization as a point of departure, the book provides a comparative analysis of information technology effects in the foreign ministries of Canad...

MOD_DIP.png

The role of the legal adviser in modern diplomatic services

The role of the legal adviser in modern diplomatic services. This paper discusses the role of the legal adviser in modern diplomacy services and the efforts that must go into preserving all possibilities, meagre as they may be, to raise his voice and keep making efforts which eventually could lead in the right direction.

41VgorjHN0S._SX325_BO1204203200_.jpg

Inside Diplomacy

This is a book on diplomacy in general and the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) in particular. It is also a gem, and a large gem. It breathes life, wisdom, and good humour, and is full of rich detail. I found it thoroughly absorbing. Students of diplomacy at all stages of their careers will find it immensely useful, while those in a position to influence the future shape of the IFS will discover a whole raft of constructive suggestions for reform fearlessly advanced.

book-asian.jpg

Asian Diplomacy: The Foreign Ministries of China, India, Japan, Singapore and Thailand

Based on eight years of research and interviews with over 160 professional diplomats and others, this book offers a range of information on the structures, operation and the working style of the foreign ministries of five key countries in Asia: China, India, Japan, Singapore and Thailand. The rise of Asia adds salience to this book, since it has become more important than ever before to understand the dynamics of the foreign policy process in these countries.

Foreign-Ministries-in-the-European-Union.jpg

Foreign Ministries in the European Union

A Digital DFAT: Joining the 21st Century

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) needs to keep pace with technological advancements that could increase efficiency, improve internal and external communication, and facilitate information exchange and gathering. Without e-diplomacy DFAT will be cut off from important audiences and find it increasingly hard to communicate its messages and coordinate Australian foreign policy across government.

clingendael-2018.png

Visa Denial Diplomacy

jk.png

Knowledge management in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Malta

In this paper, Maltese diplomat Gaetan Naudi explains how the Maltese MFA embraced the changes introduced by the informatics era. He looks at such changes from a business management perspective, to show how ICTs were introduced to such a fairly large organisation, the concerns raised by the changes, and the progress on computerised knowledge management. He concludes that despite the positive changes introduced thanks to ICTs, this would not have been possible without human involvement.

s-l500.jpg

True Brits: Inside the Foreign Office

mw117083.jpg

Report of the Review Committee on Overseas Representation

kishan_2004.png

Performance Management in Foreign Ministries: Corporate Techniques in the Diplomatic Service

41wz-0hXeqL._SX218_BO1204203200_QL40_ML2_.jpg

The Foreign Office

41SNNJYWE7L._SY291_BO1204203200_QL40_ML2_.jpg

The British Diplomatic Service 1815-1914

31RR0SAhJuL._SX331_BO1204203200_.jpg

Diplomacy and Developing Nations: Post-Cold War foreign policy-making structures and processes

coverimage.jpg

Public Diplomacy Between Home and Abroad: Norway and Canada

book-bilateral.jpg

Bilateral Diplomacy

Bilateral Diplomacy is the first of the DiploHandbooks, a new series on practical diplomacy. The book breaks new ground in the role ascribed to bilateral diplomacy, and its importance in international affairs today. It also covers the de facto “empowerment” of the embassy that flows from its new responsibility for relationship management.

kd.png

Foreign ministries and the management of the past

In his paper, Keith Hamilton looks at Foreign Ministries’ treatment of historical diplomacy, and specifically, the publication of diplomatic documents. Through his historical analyses, the author examines the various aims of these documents, such as, to shed light on past developments and help in current and future negotiations; to influence parliamentarians and a wider public; and to further international relations’ studies.

2076877.jpg

Wilton Park: sui generis knowledge organisation

In his paper, Colin Jennings describes the way Wilton Park – an executive agency of the British FCO – operates. He highlights some of the key reasons for its success, and identifies some specific outcomes of the conferences organised by Wilton Park. The author also offers a few reflection on knowledge management based on his many years of experience.

978-94-015-0937-4.jpg

The Diplomatic Kidnappings: A Revolutionary Tactic of Urban Terrorism

amb.png

I’ll be with you in a Minute Mr. Ambassador: The Education of a canadian Diplomat in Washington

1516809348515.jpg

Connectivity and networks rule: Virtuality, public diplomacy and the foreign ministry

Active-Diplomacy-for-a-Changing-World-The-UKs-International-Priorities.png

Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: The UK’s International Priorities

md.png

The Internet and diplomats of the 20th century

The Internet and diplomats of the twenty century: how new information technologies affect the ordinary work of diplomats.

book-persuasion.jpg

Persuasion, the Essence of Diplomacy

This journey through persuasion in diplomacy was initiated by Professor Kappeler’s long experience in both practicing diplomacy and in training diplomats.

4145XFCVKML._SY291_BO1204203200_QL40_ML2_.jpg

The Times Survey of Foreign Ministries of the World

Foreign-Ministries-Change-and-adaptation.jpg

Foreign Ministries: Change and adaptation

page_1-3.jpg

Diplomatic culture and its domestic context

Is there a specific, distinctive diplomatic culture? Given the fact that the conduct of diplomacy is regulated by international law and by custom, and since the structures through which states conduct their external relations, both bilateral and multilateral, are standardized, it is fair to say that both the institutions and the process form a pattern of their own, unique to this profession. The professional diplomatist actors on the international stage, and their institutions, display certain shared characteristics.

Modernising-Dutch-Diplomacy.png

Modernising Dutch Diplomacy

811L1p1222L.jpg

The New Mandarins: How British foreign policy works

book-twitter.jpg

Twitter for Diplomats

Twitter for Diplomats is not a manual, or a list of what to do or not to do. It is rather a collection of information, anecdotes, and experiences. It recounts a few episodes involving foreign ministers and ambassadors, as well as their ways of interacting with the tool and exploring its great potential. It wants to inspire ambassadors and diplomats to open and nurture their accounts – and it wants to inspire all of us to use Twitter to also listen and open our minds.

index.jpg

Room For Diplomacy: Britain’s Diplomatic Buildings Overseas 1800-2000

Mark Bertram joined the Ministry of Public Buildings and Works after reading architecture at Cambridge and remained in the civil service as architect, project manager, administrator, estate manager and – in his own words – ‘quasi diplomat’ for the next thirty years. He was the ministry’s regional architect in Hong Kong in the 1970s, moved to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office when it secured control of its own buildings abroad (the ‘diplomatic estate’) in 1983, and was soon head of the estate department. On surrendering that role in 1997, he became a professional adviser to the ...

51bo0C34SoL._SX373_BO1204203200_.jpg

The Nineteenth Century Foreign Office

finance.png

Finance, Trade and Politics in British Foreign Policy, 1815-1914

coverimage.jpg

Singapore’s Diplomacy: Vulnerability into Strength

Singapore is a practitioner of focused, innovative diplomacy, constantly in search of the political space for itself that would overcome its sense of vulnerability resulting from its geopolitical location.

notes.png

The Permanent Under-Secretary of State: A brief history of the office and its holders

As the title of this booklet indicates, it is only a brief history of this increasingly influential office in the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Nevertheless, as one would expect from its provenance, it is completely authoritative, fluently written, draws on previously under-exploited archives, and includes many nineteenth century photographs never previously published.

Will Shashi Tharoor’s Recommendations Reform the MEA for the Better?

Foreign Ministries in Developing Countries and Emerging Markets

jk.png

Knowledge management and diplomatic training – new approaches for training institutions

Dietrich Kappeler analyses the new approaches for training institutions in knowledge management and diplomatic training, departing from the premise that a distinction is important between personal characteristics and qualities of the diplomat on one hand, and the knowledge and skills he needs to do his job on the other.

52827_book_item_52827.jpg

International Diplomacy Volume I: Diplomatic Institutions

510GD2UiZL._SX356_BO1204203200_.jpg

Inside the U.S. Embassy: How the Foreign Service Works for America