Time for a ‘Grand Bargain’ in a Foreign Policy Review

Officials are grinding away at a foreign policy review in the Lester B. Pearson building in Ottawa, although the motives appear unclear and the parameters are not yet public. But the time is right, since the Harper Government’s majority in Parliament gives it considerable freedom of maneuver. Other factors weigh in the same direction. DFAIT has an ambitious and influential minister for the first time under Harper, and a lot of tidying up needs to be done on a problematic Harper-led foreign policy agenda whose strategic objectives have never been clear.

But the odds are against a major exercise, possibly even against a public one. The government is not inclined to public consultations and would see no advantage in waking an NGO community largely de-fanged over the past five years. At a time of continuing fiscal constraint, this is also no time for raising expectations. Instead of a big inter-departmental process with many ‘announceables’, what is more likely is a resource-driven study which modestly re-jigs some of Canada’s objectives. A public document, if it comes out at all, might look like something akin to Paul Martin’s ‘statement’ – involving a re-branding or mid-course re-positioning on a small number of issues. While a few critics have questioned the need for a review, we badly need something that might tell Canadians what an inward-looking and slightly schizophrenic government wants to achieve abroad and how it proposes to go about it.

One issue the government needs to tackle, either now or later, is the sad shape of Canada’s foreign policy institutions. DFAIT has been paralyzed for at least five years by budgetary reductions and strategic reviews, with at least one phase triggered by the current Foreign Minister when he was President of the Treasury Board. Programs have been slashed or eliminated, and thin budgets have reduced core capabilities. Although pockets of excellence remain, the Department suffers from emaciated policy capacity and a lack of focus on the sharp end. An endless approval process, micro-management at all levels, and the shackles of a thread-bare accountability agenda have placed process ahead of policy. DFAIT’s foreign service group, once a source of strength to any government, has been grossly mismanaged for a decade, and is now approaching dysfunctionality. DFAIT’s weaknesses may partially explain the government’s lack of foreign policy coherence.

The easy fix is to release a soothing document of platitudes. Public apathy in Canada on foreign policy issues may justify no more. But there is scope for constructive change, at no additional fiscal cost to the government, and possibly with some downstream political benefits to an ambitious foreign minister. Call it a ‘grand bargain’ in Canadian foreign policy, with the promise of re-shaped institutions for the next decade.

The grand bargain is based on an unspoken reality: even at a time of restraint, there is adequate money in the foreign policy pie for DFAIT, CIDA and a few other agencies—but not under the current configuration, when all of them are top-heavy and administratively onerous relative to output. What is needed is a new configuration with an emphasis on delivery where it counts.

Start with CIDA, where change is badly overdue. It’s now time for bold action, and the best option is to fold it entirely into DFAIT under a junior minister, preserving its title and core mandate, but with sharply streamlined systems and responsibilities. Its twin functions would be aid policy and program development, delivered on the DFAIT platform. Its foreign service staff, administrative functions and geographic branches would be integrated into DFAIT’s equivalents. Structural change would then pave the way for an examination of aid policy, to determine what the government wants to achieve abroad through both ODA-able and non-ODA-able channels in a coherent development assistance budget.

DFAIT is a more complicated story. But it needs to begin with a slash-and-burn approach to a worn-out administrative structure, freeing it of antiquated Treasury Board strictures. Substantial savings could be effected with simplifications of administrative procedures and different business models of delivering programs. If given the opportunity—and that’s a big “if”—it could lead government efforts to get Canadian governmental institutions out of the past century.

The focus of change should be on DFAIT’s core mandate: operations abroad and foreign policy advice at home. If having well-trained and experienced professionals advising on foreign policy and pursuing Canadian interests isn’t the point of what DFAIT does, what is it? The results over time should be sharper delivery of programs abroad, a greater Canadian weight in managing global events, and better capabilities for handling crises and meeting the challenges of change around the world.

The government may or may not want DFAIT to succeed; the jury is still out on that central question. But its Minister should. And assuming that desire, DFAIT needs to reverse its stumbling of the past few years and more. It needs a more outward and outgoing foreign service, with more contact with Canadians, more interchange with other departments, increased secondments to the central agencies, and more people deployed in international agencies and organizations. It has to be the working link between Canada and the international community. But none of this works without people. Those people need to be supported by better, simpler human resource practices, additional language and other types of training, and much nimbler administrative structures. All of this can and should be done at no additional burden to the Canadian taxpayer.

Tackling these institutional issues does not amount to a foreign policy review. Outside of Ottawa, a ‘grand bargain’ will neither be particularly ‘grand’ nor even a bargain. But if the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister want serious foreign policy choices, and if we wish to have a seat at the table, make our presence felt and advance national interests, we need sound institutional foundations. Right now our institutions are creaking under the weight of expectations that can’t be met. A majority government can make some of the tough decisions needed to reverse the trend.

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