It’s fair to say that Sebastian Kurz knows a thing or two about making an early public impact. The youngest cabinet member in the history of the Austrian republic, he was just 27 when he became Austria’s foreign minister in 2013. And, more recently, he made international headlines as the host of the talks that led to the nuclear accord with Iran. So, what’s his secret?
“Regardless of your age it is always a demanding task to push through changes,” he says. “The better the ideas are prepared and the more support they have, the easier it is to implement them. However, sometimes one has to accept a step-by-step approach in order to achieve one’s goals. This requires patience and determination to carry forward the reform process.”
Prior to taking up his role in Austria’s foreign ministry, Kurz served as the country’s state secretary for integration – a position he took up with some gusto. Although Europe continues to struggle with challenges around immigration and refugees, Kurz was determined to create a system of deep integration for his country’s new arrivals. For example, he introduced a policy which required their children to speak German before entering school, as well as establishing free language classes for Muslim religious leaders and launched a forum for dialogue with Islam.
Such pre-conditions, he believes, are fundamental for successful integration processes. “We must help refugees to help themselves regarding language, education, insertion into the labour market and the economy, housing, health and, in general, a respectful living together,” he explains. “Recognised refugees should be enabled to make best use of their professional qualifications which they bring with them, in order to make them participate early in the economy of our country. To warrant a fast entry into the labour market, the recognition of qualifications plays a central role in addition to the knowledge of the German language.”
From his position in the foreign ministry, he has been participating in the ongoing debates across Europe about how to best address the systemic issues arising from the refugee crisis. He is clear that national governments cannot solve the problem alone – it has to be cross-Europe.
“We definitely need a European solution for the current refugee crisis, as well as support for the Western-Balkans transit countries, which are mainly part of the Eastern Mediterranean –route,” he says. “As the days get colder, refugees are suffering more on their way to Europe, therefore we need to effectively protect our EU-external borders and establish safe zones so that help can be provided in the crisis region.”
As befits an institution long used to being at the heart of international relations – the 1961 Vienna Convention became the bedrock of modern international diplomacy – Kurz’ foreign ministry is in the midst of a transformation programme that aims to safeguard its position, and performance well into the future.
“For two years we have been in the Ministry for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs,” he explains. “We have maintained what has proved to be effective while introducing several innovations, such as strengthening the service character of the ministry and boosting its use of modern tools of communication. Most recently we have also implemented a far-reaching structural reform within the organisation. In this reform process we have put particular emphasis on thoroughly preparing and consulting innovations internally. Changes will be more readily accepted and supported if the staff members are included early on in the process.”
He goes on to say that the bureaucratic inertia that sometimes confronts big change programmes – in both the public and private sectors – has thankfully been missing this time around. “I have personally experienced in the ministry a high degree of flexibility and great readiness to accept change,” he says. “This might be partly due to the fact that diplomats are used to changing their jobs, residences and workplaces every four years. It is a pleasure to see how people of different age and different skills and experiences successfully work together in our team.”
Kurz believes that this level of flexibility is essential if governments are able to be effectively address the challenges posted by contemporary crises and events. “The biggest and more demanding challenges are migration and digitalisation,” he says. “As a government and public sector in general we have to become more flexible, recognising trends early on part with traditional conceptions and outdated systems.”
For Kurz, it comes down to a more nuanced level of communication and connection – only then will the desired public impact of policies be achieved. “As our societies become more and more diverse, our world becomes more and more connected, contested and complex, changes will occur more often and quicker,” he concludes. “We have to be prepared for these developments and work harder to improve the communication between politics and society at large.”
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