Memorandum for the Minister for Foreign Affairs: Welcome to GAC! (Structural Challenges Ahead)

Memorandum for the Minister for Foreign Affairs: Welcome to GAC! (Structural Challenges Ahead)


This memorandum addresses key structural challenges within Global Affairs Canada (GAC).  You will have spoken to some of your predecessors about these issues.  None of them in the past five years tackled GAC’s problems seriously.  All of them, as a result, found their work hobbled by GAC’s inability to perform to higher expectations.


In a phrase, Global Affairs Canada is broken.  Its a top-heavy, expensive, slow-moving, barely manageable beast  with low productivity and mediocre output.  There is a long, sad history here.  The Harper years damaged the federal public service to an extent unappreciated by most Canadians.  Some government decisions, including the integration of CIDA into GAC, have been poorly implemented.  Other problems in GAC are the result of the incompetence and negligence of senior public service managers.

The woeful structure and condition of the department are now urgent questions.  We were once shielded from our deficiencies by our privileged place in the world.  We are now entering an international fight for our security, prosperity and values.  Incompetence is not only embarrassing but potentially catastrophic.   These problems, successfully hidden for years, are now in the public domain.  Other countries, like the US, will be re-building diplomatic capabilities for the 21st century.  We have to do likewise.    

Among the gravest problem in GAC is a bloated senior management complement, which has become a barrier to achievement, not an enabler. 

Some will contend that GAC has risen to the challenge on numerous occasions.   There have indeed been many achievements in the past two decades.  GAC’s trade policy branch has done exceptional work for years under onerous pressures, especially during the disruptive Trump presidency.  The consular branch has performed to well-deserved laurels during the COVID19 crisis, winning the gratitude of numerous Canadians.  

Unfortunately, the wall plaque awards and ceremonial photos are a Potemkin façade, hiding and delaying the evitable confrontation with reality.  Your predecessors will confirm that GAC does not play well with others and has a poor reputation with interlocutors in the Canadian public. Its performance has been somewhere between “fail” and “needs considerable improvement.”  Change is required.  Now.

Among the gravest problem in GAC is a bloated senior management complement, which has become a barrier to achievement, not an enabler.  (What other department has 20 deputy and assistant deputy ministers, plus some ninety directors-general, in addition to executive-level heads of some 170 missions abroad?)  They distort GAC’s personnel budget while offering uneven value-added.  In a supposed “Foreign Ministry,” a stunning proportion of GAC’s senior managers have no international experience and little knowledge about international affairs.  They stand between you and the people who really know their jobs.

A second problem, at the “the working level” of key parts of GAC, is the foreign service.  You will be impressed by their dedication and work ethic, as well as the skills they bring to their jobs.  Yet, they are justifiably frustrated and demoralized.  The recruitment situation is a continuing disgrace.  Training has essentially disappeared, except for an uneven performance on foreign language training.  Few promotion boards offer only a deceptive glimmer of promotion possibilities.  Career aspirations are fading, as the Prime Minister relies increasingly on political appointments to fill critical  jobs abroad. The 20th-century foreign service is dead, for reasons good and bad.  Thinking about the diplomacy of today and tomorrow is non-existent.   

Marc Garneau, Canada’s new Minister of Foreign Affairs

Implications and Recommendations: 

You will be presented with the usual trite excuses.  You will be reminded that deputies run the public service. Don’t accept the answers.  This isn’t a money issue, and don’t ask the Treasury Board and Finance for help.  To address this problem, you need a team  reporting directly to your office, with an ambitious game plan and a short time-line.

Ask your team to get the facts.  How many desk positions are filled by short-term hires and casuals?  How many senior officers have little or no experience in international policy?  What’s the ratio of support people at HQ to each diplomat on the sharp end in the real world?  What’s the attrition rate, and what did good people say as they walked out the doors (if asked)?  

Then develop your plan  based on the diplomacy we need today and tomorrow.  It must be built on knowledge and skills  and framed by a departmental career structure.  It also has to be cognizant of the demands of modern society and anchored in a realistic appraisal of the diplomacy of today.  Other countries are engaged in this.  Why not GAC?  

Then start by clawing back GAC’s senior management, restoring clear lines of accountability and decision-making, while cleaning up its HR disaster.  And prepare to respond to the many demands that the government will place on GAC in the coming months  as the US moves quickly to restore its place in the world.  

GAC should be challenged to play its legitimate, leading foreign policy role  under your guidance.  You will need to place relentless pressure on GAC’s policy capacity, thereby finding out who can produce.  At a demanding time in international affairs, there is no shortage of topics and opportunities.  Call for policy papers on issues of your choosing – Russia, China, the Middle East – with tight deadlines  for delivery.  Then assess the results with brutal frankness. 

The recruitment situation is a continuing disgrace.

When GAC succeeds, defend the troops.  Capability and competence must be rewarded in logical ways.  Accept that some PMO decisions (like Bob Rae’s appointment to the UN Mission in New York) are laudable and positive.  But use your links to the PMO to warn against amateurism and cronyism, as well as viewing foreign policy through the lens of domestic politics.  It’s now time for serious foreign policy thinking.   

Bringing discipline to the Pearson Building will not be easy.  Endless meetings aren’t an answer;  they are a symptom of the disease.  And insist that solutions to GAC’s problems have to be based on agility, simplicity, leanness in administrative procedures and clear lines of decision-making.  

If mediocrity is acceptable, ignore this memorandum.  If you want to regain lost ground for Canada and prepare for the international challenges of this century,  focus at least some of your attention on giving Canada the diplomatic clout it needs.  Fix this problem, and it becomes your own reward. 

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