Sam asks for specific suggestions to help our underdone relationship with Indonesia. I've got nothing against a high-profile 'major leadership gesture', but many years ago a wise observer told me that the most useful relationship with Indonesia would comprise a spiderweb of ties that connected us in various places and at various levels. When one bit came unraveled (as it surely will) the others might hold the relationship well enough to re-weave the broken threads over time.

Thus we want ideas for lots of low-profile things as well. Here is one. The Government Partnerships Fund began in 2005, with impetus from the tsunami funds. The idea was to 'twin' Australian and Indonesian government departments, swapping personnel both ways.

I saw two examples close-up: the Reserve Bank with Bank Indonesia and The Australian Treasury with the Indonesian Ministry of Finance. The swaps were both very successful, but quite different. The RBA arranged three-month working secondments ('too long for a holiday: you'll just have to sit down and work alongside us') and technically-oriented visits to Jakarta. Treasury sent a couple of mid-level career bureaucrats to work for an extended period in the MoF, plus around ten bright new graduate recruits.

AusAID has a fixation with governance and effectiveness, so needed to evaluate all this and decide whether taxpayer dollars had been well spent. Not surprisingly, it was pretty hard to show that it had dramatically transformed the bureaucracies in either country. Perhaps the evaluators might have adopted the time-honoured aid evaluation technique of noting good progress in a broad area, then implying that the greater part of this improvement directly reflects your own efforts.

The various reports also noted that GPF was 'not core business' for the Australian departments involved. The personnel involved had more important items on their work programs, and it was not clearly career-enhancing.

Meanwhile, AusAID's usual heavy-handed governance kept tight control over the funds, so longer-term planning (actually creating positions in the organisational structure and recruiting people to do this work) was not possible. Nor was it possible to show that GPF had enhanced gender equality. It may not have done much directly to alleviate poverty either.

This project got underway because Prime Minister Howard told department heads that he wanted it done: 'make it so!' It seems to have lost momentum, and it needs a high-level (not high profile) kick-along.

How do we judge whether it is 'effective'? We can't, really. We can be pretty sure that some of it is a waste of time and money. It might be like advertising, where half is wasted, but we don't know which half. A program like this needs persistence and constant adaptation. But if you want to weave the spiderweb of ties, this is the sort of thing you need to do. It needs to be made 'core business' and sustained over a long period. Is it worthwhile? Ask the Treasury youngsters, whose lives were changed by a year in Jakarta.

Photo by Flickr user Eric @ Flickr.