Step by Step, All at Once: Rebuilding the Canadian Foreign Service

Step by Step, All at Once: Rebuilding the Canadian Foreign Service

By Daniel Livermore

All over Ottawa, officials and ex-officials are talking about re-building. And the conversations aren’t only about Canada`s crumbling infrastructure. They’re about repairing public institutions shredded during the Harper years. Some of these conversations are about Foreign Affairs Canada (to use a short form), a special target of the Harper government and a victim of everything: decimated information and cultural programs, draconian down-sizing, the fire-sale of historic and important diplomatic properties, a variety of disastrous political appointments, and the list goes on.

Although the new government needs a foreign ministry, the precise architecture of the re-building job in Foreign Affairs is not a foregone conclusion. Canada relies on advocacy and service delivery abroad, but there are lots of models on how these jobs can be done. Officials within Ottawa’s Lester B. Pearson Building are clamouring for change and anxious to lead the re-building effort. What they await is a clear signal from the centre of the new government as to the role the Department is expected to play. If it can meet new expectations, it has a future. If it can’t, there’s a legitimate case for the government to move on to other options.

A foreign service atrophied in the Harper years has a small set of assets to deploy to the new governments agenda

The central problem for Foreign Affairs Canada is meeting government expectations in its current state of disrepair, with huge capability gaps at almost every level. These gaps weren’t solely the result of the last government. Even before the Harper years, Foreign Affairs had lost its ability to play the Ottawa inside game. Accused of lacking creativity, innovation and thoughtfulness, it didn’t work well with others, and lost track of relationships with the Canadian public, the provinces and non-governmental organizations. It developed a reputation as aloof, unimaginative and slow, while growing in size and mandate to the point of unmanageability. Amidst these problems, its management of its own personnel has been bungled in ways tantamount to gross negligence.

Most senior managers in Foreign Affairs have little foreign service experience, and many have never served abroad. Junior officers with little policy experience are often supervised by senior officers who have never thought seriously about foreign policy and the wider governmental agenda. A foreign service atrophied in the Harper years has a small set of assets to deploy to the new governments agenda. In a situation that will require relentless determination to reverse, there should be three basic priorities.

The first and most basic need, although a long and tough slog, is rebuilding its personnel. There is significant work at every level. An annual recruitment cycle needs to bring in large numbers of new officers. Simultaneously, remedial work needs to be done with the hundreds of capable part-time, term, contract and other temporary workers recruited to fill the gaps over the years. Training needs a dramatic shot in the arm, and secondments to partner departments should become central to career progression. Order needs to be brought to the different occupational groups within Foreign Affairs, ideally within the Foreign Service group, which is already the broad umbrella uniting people who do many different jobs. The promotion logjam, now broken, needs continued, annual work. Above all, Foreign Affairs needs a smaller, responsive, innovative personnel function in place of onerous human resource models which are failing virtually across government.

The second challenge is focusing its resources on the sharp end. Foreign ministries the world over share one important asset. And it’s in the title: it’s the ‘foreign’ part! In the past two decades, governments have chopped Canadian representation abroad, created a large number of one-person posts in much of the world, and placed service delivery in the hands of non-Canadians. The result is a dysfunctional foreign service simply too thin on the ground to do its job and meet any reasonable expectations. Foreign Affairs has to demonstrate that new investments in personnel abroad and linguistic training pay dividends. The costs can partly be addressed by tackling a top-heavy, process-obsessed Department and taking advantage of synergies created with the CIDA merger. The long-term performance of Foreign Affairs can’t be improved without a stronger, credible international presence.

These two priorities are long-term efforts requiring determination and tough decisions for years. The third but most immediate and important challenge for Foreign Affairs is a bit of a Catch-22. The past decade has eroded its ability to play a leadership position in government. But if given the opportunity by a new government committed to an active international role, it has to demonstrate immediately that it can lead the international sector of the Canadian Government and offer top-quality policy advice and operational agility in Ottawa from now on.

The Department should be up to the challenge. It still has an impressive array of talent, if properly organized and mobilized. It can also draw on wider networks. It would benefit by having a larger, reinvigorated Policy Planning Staff, which could help pull together and promote policy ideas and initiatives from across its many branches and bureaux. It should also make a point of harnessing the energies of talented younger officers in handling new demands for work with other Departments, consultations with stakeholders, and liaison with experts both at home and abroad. In this process of renewal, Foreign Affairs would also benefit from the knowledge and experience of interested veterans and outside experts who are ready to lend a helping hand.

The case for rebuilding Foreign Affairs Canada rests on a simple proposition. It has to be innovative, agile and responsive to the realities of power in Ottawa, with a sophisticated appreciation of what the new government needs to carry out its mandate. In a new political environment, with many competing priorities across government, the Canadian foreign service is in a challenging position. It has to make the case for its long-term future by producing results now.

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