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Putting the Foreign Service Back on Track

Putting the Foreign Service Back on Track
Canada’s embassy in Beijing: Global Affairs Canada needs fewer managers in Ottawa and more staff abroad.Photo by Benjamin Vander Steen, Victoria, B.C.

This blog is a condensed version of my 11 April 2018 presentation to the Professional Committee of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO), the Canadian Foreign Service Union, in Ottawa. It argues for a new foreign ministry model for Global Affairs Canada.

When first invited to do this presentation, I thought of starting with an historic artifact, a memorandum written 35 years ago, entitled “the crisis of quality.” It contended that the then Department of External Affairs was “in the midst of a protracted crisis of quality,” in which daily work “falls far short of expectations and capabilities.” The paper offered, in 12 pages, a diagnosis of the problem and a series of proposed remedies. The paper was received with such hostility from on high that it was ripped from departmental files. And nothing was done about its recommendations.

But I decided to open with a timelier piece, written a week before by Andrew Cohen, entitled “Why does Canada just accept incompetence?” It’s a critique of all levels of government in Canada, arguing that “we cannot seem to get things right these days,” and we accept the results “with polite resignation.” Cohen is right. The Canadian public is badly served at a time when the world needs solutions to long-term problems. Adding Global Affairs Canada (GAC) to this picture, my argument would be simple. Thirty-five years ago, the “crisis of quality” memo argued that the foreign ministry model was dying, with problems that needed tackling. Today, that traditional model of diplomacy is completely broken, with no Canadian alternative in sight. Instead, we’re applying band-aids and duct tape, trying to sell the results as real solutions. We have a new “crisis of quality,” nowhere near resolution. If you don’t believe me, ask Konrad Yakabuski, and don’t cringe at his assessment.

GAC is now a department with several problems. It’s a place where ministers, largely dissatisfied with reports and advice, are asking themselves, “Is this as good as it gets?” The public and the media are baffled by gaffes like the India trip or mangled policy issues like peacekeeping. The NGO community is wondering if change is coming and why it is taking so long. Two key departments of government — Finance and Treasury Board — are asking questions about money and management that GAC can’t seem to answer. A talented cadre of officers in GAC are frustrated that they can’t do their jobs in an antiquated structure that is risk-averse, wary of new thinking, and not knowing much about foreign policy. And GAC still doesn’t play well with others at a time when they need the interdepartmental community, the NGO world, and academe as partners in foreign policy formulation. Each of these problems has a long history with opaque responsibilities.

This record alone should force new thinking about a foreign ministry model that can offer the government agility and creativity in a tougher world that demands a leaner structure, while still addressing Canadian needs and working well with others.

So what’s the new foreign ministry model? The “crisis of quality” paper had key ideas. First, encourage a spirit of professionalism that rewards initiative, professional competence, and expertise as the essential underpinnings of GAC’s work. Second, rebuild GAC’s human resources around two broad personnel pools, rotational and non-rotational, with far less public service rigidity and a much lighter management load. Instead of a mindless concentration on process and procedures, focus on annual recruitment, career management, and getting officers in and out of GAC assignments on a regular basis. Third, beef up geographic, functional, and program divisions as core focal points of expertise, advocacy, and policy, as well as points of contact with other government departments, the public, academe, and the media. If GAC doesn’t have expertise here, it doesn’t have anything. Fourth, add units to support the work of foreign, trade, and development policy, like a Research Division and an IT unit dedicated to retaining corporate memory.

Let’s add a few other things. Start with the maxim that GAC’s principal focus should be its core policy objectives. It doesn’t need to do everything itself, and shouldn’t be re-inventing the wheel by creating programs. Add in a much smaller senior management cadre, attuned to the principles of delegation of responsibility and encouragement of initiative. Ensure that Canadian missions abroad have the right balance of staff and programs to advance Canadian interests effectively in an era of greater time-sensitivity.

Thirty-five years ago, the “crisis of quality” memo went nowhere. Today, change is achievable and necessary, in a few stages. First, GAC needs buy-in by ministers to a new model that should underpin the successful pursuit of foreign policy objectives. Second, GAC needs the agreement of Finance and Treasury Board by offering reform from within, not by begging for more money. Third, a decision-making mechanism, reporting both to deputies and ministers, needs to be created to manage a short, sharp process of change. Fourth, we need metrics to gauge success. Let’s start with a new model broadly fleshed out within four months and implemented in six to twelve months (with grandfathering for some structures on which immediate change would be unwise). Reduce the senior management cadre at headquarters by 50%, combined with increasing positions abroad by 10%. And ask the tough questions: What are our people abroad doing? Are these the right things to do? Are there tools available to do it better?

The goal of any reform effort isn’t to prove that a foreign ministry is needed. In a world full of problems, every serious country has one. The choice is between a minimalist ministry that is essentially a travel agent, real estate manager, and briefing shop or one focussed on policy impact and delivery skills in addressing global problems and advancing Canadian interests. This is tough but achievable. And it’s now essential. Let’s move to a new model for a new age, but inspired perhaps by a memorandum from 35 years ago.

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