How to fix Canada’s broken Foreign Service

From a convoluted, promotion-based system to a lack of internationally-minded talent and suffering morale, Canada’s diplomatic corps desperately needs an overhaul. 

By: /
April 25, 2016
Canada's Foreign Minister Stephane Dion, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and foreign ministers from Britain, Japan, France, Germany, and Italy at a G7 meetings in Hiroshima, Japan April 11, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

 Over the past three decades, I have witnessed the steady decline of the Canadian Foreign Service, both at home and abroad. From the dearth of quality managers and intellectual drift to the growing proliferation of unqualified personnel inadequately skilled or trained for international work, this decline is palpable, as evidenced by the falling morale of FS officers.

Short-sighted senior managers have too often cut programmes like Young Professionals International, one of the few that raised departmental visibility and created a unique constituency in the Canadian public. Programmes like this were cut by senior officials seeking to protect their own travel and hospitality budgets while sacrificing the long term benefits to the department. The Conservatives very certainly cut away key parts of our foreign policy capacity but it was the Foreign Service mandarins, many of whom had no history or relationship to the Foreign Service or its international vocation, who decided on what to cut.

The results have been catastrophic at a time when Canada’s role in the world is arguably more important than at any time in recent memory. It has also reduced the capacity to develop important constituencies in Ottawa and around the country in support of international tasks and objectives.

The last eight years of Conservative Party government rule have had a deleterious effect on Canadian foreign policy and how it is perceived abroad by our allies and others. It has also had a very negative impact on the Canadian Foreign Service, which is uniquely charged with carrying out Canadian diplomacy abroad. However, if the Conservative Party deepened the malaise and crippled both the morale and efficiency of the current Foreign Service, it did not begin the downward spiral. This began long before the arrival of the Conservatives.

In order to reverse course, a number of measures need to be taken by the new Liberal government to inject new vigour into the diplomatic corps and ensure its timely renewal. It is unlikely that our Foreign Service personnel will be able to adequately prepare themselves for the formidable tasks envisaged by the new Liberal government, such as a run for a United Nations Security Council seat, without a thoughtful reform of the Canadian Foreign Service.

But where to begin? One could start by democratizing the process of foreign policy development and increasing public oversight, especially that exercised by elected officials. Ambassadors and Consuls General should be nominated by Global Affairs Canada officials and then presented before the Joint Senate and House Committee on Foreign and Defence Policy for final approval. 

These hearings, during which nominees can field relevant questions about their future postings and countries of accreditation, should be televised to the Canadian public in order to increase the visibility of foreign policy issues. As we stand today, diplomatic appointments lack the overarching mechanisms to ensure the right people are put in the right places.

The Canadian Foreign Service is often managed like a stultified, overly stratified organization of scribes.

The reintroduction of the merit principle and rationalizing the promotion system within the limits of inclusiveness and demography, for instance, would extend the Liberal government’s promise of fact-based decision making. Everybody likes to be appreciated for their work and accomplishments, and Foreign Service officers are no exception. However, this is not the case presently due to a deliberately obtuse performance evaluation and promotion system resembling more an informal system of IOUs and influence peddling than a legitimate advancement of talent. A rational and workable alternative needs to be developed to raise morale and the quality of middle and senior Foreign Service managers.

The present system is dead in the water. It has been poisoned by lateral transfers into the Department, which have undermined the basic rationale for having a Foreign Service officer corps in the first place. Lateral transfers should be halted until such time as a coherent policy can be worked out in conjunction with FS union PAFSO and approved by the membership in a free and open vote. Not everyone in the Canadian government employ is suited for international work. Lateral entry should be the exception and not the rule, buttressed by a fair and cogent strategic hiring and training process.

The Canadian Foreign Service is often managed like a stultified, overly stratified organization of scribes. The senior and middle management is poorly staffed with untrained executives who do not understand how diplomacy works either at home or abroad. They have produced a conformist, conservative culture, which is far from the glory days of the Pearson era. Foreign Service training is labourious and lacks innovation. Ways need to be found to reduce archaic hierarchical management processes and make the department much more horizontal and knowledge based. Most executives across the Canadian government do not possess the specific skills necessary to carry out international diplomatic work abroad. Relying on antiquated management education and training of the 1990s will not solve this problem.

Nor will the current recruitment process. The Foreign Service requires imaginative and free thinking individuals who possess a unique set of skills. Current recruitment tends toward political expediency and not seeking out those with a passion for working and living in far flung places.

Recruiting ‘Yes’ men and women, a common practice in an increasingly politicized environment, does not serve the common good or ministers themselves, who need timely and accurate information upon which to base important decisions. When good officers are hired, their retention is far from assured given the other problems with morale, promotions, lack of postings abroad and lacklustre management. Little has changed over the years and spouses continue to be treated like second class citizens by their government and by the missions where they serve. This lack of attention has a disastrous impact on retention of some of the best officers who want a career and a family.

Clearly, the issues are many. The Liberal government offers the promise of better days for Canadian foreign policy. Without Foreign Service reform, this promise will remain just words. Ministerial fiat can only do so much before it too falls victim to a lack of sustainable, innovative reform. The malaise needs to be addressed in a timely fashion. Actions are needed to match words, and the sooner the better.