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Resuscitating the Canadian Foreign Service

Resuscitating the Canadian Foreign Service
Over-recruitment at the junior levels will be one way to get GAC back on track. In this photo, the Honourable Marie-Claude Bibeau, Minister of International Development and la Francophonie, chats with International Development and Global Studies students during an informal discussion at the University of Ottawa campus on 10 February 2017.Gazette

After years of neglect and mismanagement, the Canadian foreign service is now in serious trouble. The story of how it got this way is a long one, with a litany of poor management, appalling decisions by senior public servants, and assumptions by a succession of governments that Canada’s international relations could be run on the cheap. A few well-polished articles have appeared on this theme. Polite letters have been written to the Prime Minister (as yet unanswered).

Because current signs point to continuing decline, it’s time for a wake-up call. If the Trudeau government has aspirations in international affairs, it will need a foreign service. Right now, it can’t expect much from Global Affairs Canada (GAC) given the quagmire into which two decades of gross incompetence and neglect have driven it.

What’s wrong? Let’s start with a bloated senior management complement where under 25 percent of top personnel have foreign policy experience. Next, the working levels, where capability gaps in virtually every area of foreign relations and dozens of vacancies have been addressed through contracting short-term, inexperienced officers. GAC’s freeze on recruitment promises even greater capability gaps in the future.

Almost all of GAC’s real metrics are wrong, from a bloated human resource branch incapable of performing its basic functions, to an obsession with process over substance that has reduced agility and productivity. A dramatically reduced Canadian presence abroad over the past decade has led to a foreign service with breadth but no depth, and with little capacity to meet new challenges. In the meantime, international affairs branches in other government departments conduct their own foreign policies, with more resources and better expertise on issues, at the price of government coherence.

It’s little wonder that Foreign Minister Freeland is rumoured to be having problems getting creative, far-reaching advice out of GAC. But what is surprising is the absence of decisive ministerial intervention. The principles for running a foreign service “pool” personnel system are easy to recite: over-recruit at the junior levels; ensure training and career management plans (including languages and skills); arrange regular assignments in Canada and abroad; hold promotion exercises to mark career advancement; offer secondments and assignments at various levels, including to international organizations; and place promising officers in challenging positions of increasing authority. It’s a system that unobtrusively produces expertise in languages, regions, and issue areas at all levels, with flexibility and surge capacity when crises hit. It’s simple, and it can work.

None of this is now happening in GAC. Recruitment has stalled, training has atrophied, and the assignment and promotion systems have been botched. Meanwhile, GAC is bringing in inexperienced public service executives to occupy positions of authority well beyond their competence. The key principle of foreign service “rotationality” is now in the process of being snuffed out of the GAC vocabulary.

The question now isn’t whether GAC is broken. (Ask ministers who can’t get policy options or outsiders who can’t get answers on programs and policies.) The real question is what the government needs to do — now — to get the Canadian foreign service back on track. It should be a basic priority, because, simply put, no long-term foreign policy objective — including its Security Council campaign — will succeed without a competent foreign service.

Good foreign services the world over rest on similar architectural platforms: expertise in international relations; specialized knowledge of key areas of foreign policy, including trade policy, international law, security policy, consular relations and development assistance policy; and linguistic skills and cultural adaptability. Long-term career management nurtures the right mix of expertise, and senior managers deploy the right people with the right expertise to the right places. The mystery of the past twenty years is how, with such obvious problems, a succession of otherwise competent deputy ministers has fumbled this situation so egregiously.

What needs to be done? Resuscitating the foreign service involves four steps:

First, bring in an outside team, with the right mix of foreign service experts, to direct a reform effort, reporting to the foreign minister. GAC’s senior management is simply unable to do the job, and anything short of a team under ministerial direction will hit too much resistance and delay.

Second, put the “foreign” back into foreign service by developing an architecture abroad that creates the expertise and background essential for conducting foreign policy. Confirm a foreign service structure appropriate to Canadian needs — in terms of missions abroad, officer numbers, subject expertise, and linguistic profiles — at appropriate levels. Beef up junior officer opportunities to enhance career progression and re-build depth and analytical capacity. Keep it simple by taking the long-overdue step of re-ordering GAC’s personnel into two broad foreign service categories: rotational and non-rotational.

Third, re-construct a slimmer, simplified, problem-solving, goal-oriented human resource branch to initiate annual recruitment, re-build the Canadian Foreign Service Institute as a training centre, and develop simplified systems for assignments and promotions. Use this rejuvenation opportunity to integrate into GAC many contract, casual, and term employees who have proven their worth over the past bleak years of unrecognized service.

Fourth, bring the Clerk, the Treasury Board, and the Department of Finance on board, with reassurances that reform, done right, can be resource-neutral, financed largely by de-cluttering senior management, eliminating burdensome administrative procedures, cutting useless, duplicative initiatives done better by others, and focusing on foreign policy results, not on the paperwork and process issues now sapping the department’s energies.

What are the time-lines? Prudent resuscitation will take time, but young talent is available and ready for the Canadian foreign service of tomorrow. A team reporting to ministers could prepare a plan within months, for implementation within a year. The bigger problem is delay. If the current pattern of pointless discussion, disarray, and mismanagement continues, GAC will soon spiral past the point of recovery.

This is an issue that only ministers can address. The question now is whether they have the will to act.

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