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A Fit-for-Purpose Canadian Foreign Service: Top Ten Recommendations

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Image credit: Adam Scotti, Prime Minister’s Office

COMMENTARY

by Randolph Mank
CGAI Fellow
July 2022

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A Fit-for-Purpose Canadian Foreign Service: Top Ten Recommendations

Following up on an instruction in her October 2021 mandate letter to strengthen Canadian diplomatic capacity, dynamic new Global Affairs Canada (GAC) Minister Mélanie Joly has initiated a review of the Canadian foreign service. Just prior to this, the Senate Foreign Affairs committee under the formidable leadership of veteran former diplomats Peter Boehm and Peter Harder had commenced a review as well. Many good ideas will no doubt emerge from these hopefully complementary processes.

Drawing on 35 years in both the foreign service and business overseas, I have my own Top 10 list of suggestions. Before sharing them, though, it’s worth considering several key lessons learned over the years.

First, if the foreign service is to be fit for purpose, our core foreign policy interests and objectives should be clearly defined and resourced from the outset. The general purpose of any foreign service is to achieve the country’s interests abroad, while delivering aid, consular, passport, visa, immigration, trade and other services. Like most countries, Canada’s enduring foreign policy goals are defined by history, geography, resources, economics and other immutable characteristics. In our case, they include maintaining beneficial relations with the U.S.; pursuing favourable multilateral, regional and bilateral trade and investment rules; promoting peace and resolving conflict; and being prepared for conflict as a last resort. As Canada’s feminist foreign policy does not capture these enduring interests, GAC’s current organization chart shows no obvious correlation with it. That reveals either a problem with the organization or with the policy, possibly a bit of both.

Second, regarding the aspirational aspects of our foreign policy, which do change more regularly than our core interests, Canada is relevant to the world only insofar as we bring something tangible, as opposed to rhetorical, to the global table. Exporting our resources and goods such as energy, food, minerals, technology and so on, while keeping our import markets open, as well as contributing both to development and defence, are all fundamental to our credibility as an ally and partner. Though underused, the foreign service can also serve as a helpful feedback loop bringing the world’s views back and strengthening us.

Third, since crises often affect how we pursue our foreign policy priorities and allocate our resources, the foreign service must be flexible enough to redeploy on short notice. While this lesson might appear to contradict the first, global crises are unfortunately a regular occurrence. Though the professional foreign service numbers only about 2,500, GAC actually has 13,000 staff and 175 missions in 120 countries. It clearly has the resources to shift around and address urgent needs, without the need for more. GAC’s ongoing work on Indo-Pacific and Arctic strategies has quite rightly been delayed while dealing with the Ukraine crisis, so clearly the need for flexibility is well understood.

And, finally, the process of actually writing up government reviews can outlive their relevance. While the government was working on the last foreign policy update between 2000-03, proposals to focus on border security and other practical matters in Canada-U.S. relations failed to gain traction until they suddenly became indispensable following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Three months later, a federal budget featuring $7.7 billion in security spending essentially delivered the substance of our foreign policy update. Unfortunately, the writing up of policy documents took until 2005, at which point they were shelved and quickly forgotten following a change of government. We should avoid a similar situation in this case.

With all that as context, here are my own Top 10 suggestions for strengthening the foreign service:

  1. Define our three to five overarching foreign policy interests and goals and stick to them. They are: maintaining beneficial relations with the U.S.; pursuing favourable multilateral, regional and bilateral trade and investment rules; promoting peace and resolving conflict; and being prepared for conflict as a last resort.
  2. Resist the urge to change foreign ministers so often. We’ve had five in six years. They need more time to master the issues and build global relationships.
  3. Ministerial mandate letters should be limited to two pages outlining our enduring interests and no more than three to five priorities related to them. Current mandate letters are six pages long for each of the three portfolio ministers (Global Affairs, Trade, Development) with a total of 68 bulleted priorities. (Tellingly, Ukraine is not mentioned.)
  4. Deputy ministers for GAC, Trade and Development should be appointed based on career experience in the portfolios, rather than the current rotation based on interchangeable senior managerial experience in the public service.
  5. Recognize the domestic constraints on foreign policy and connect global priorities clearly with the fiscal framework. Current mandate letters do not situate their long lists of priorities within budget constraints caused by debt and high inflation. The government needs to reduce costs.
  6. Re-brand the foreign service as the global advisers service, distinguish it from the global diplomatic service, which should remain a small subset at the heart of it, and expand it by ring-fencing staff working on global issues in other key departments (Defence, Public Safety, Immigration, Natural Resources, Agriculture, etc.), as well as locally engaged staff abroad under a differentiated classification. This new job category will reveal the enormous number of staff already involved in our global business and promote closer issue-based working relationships across departments.
  7. Deploy more staff to the field from this more inclusive global advisers service. The field should be defined not just as overseas missions, but also relevant provincial government agencies, companies scaling for export, regional innovation centres and other business support organizations, and universities – wherever experts can add value to global initiatives and help co-ordinate the various entities involved.
  8. Maintain and regenerate a well-trained global diplomatic service, with annual recruitment of diverse new graduates, along with skills training in foreign languages, diplomacy, negotiating, communications, trade and investment services and management. Political, trade, aid, consular and immigration members included in this group should spend at least half of their time abroad offering professional services, overseeing projects and serving as advocates for Canadian interests. Head-of-mission assignments should normally come from this group.
  9. Use technology to improve services to Canadians and foreign clients, with targets of three to five years for modernization of documents and processes. Duplicative immigration forms and processing times should be reduced by automatically using permanent resident application data for citizenship applications. For all forms, modern data processing technologies should replace human processing up to the final audit and approval stage. Processing times should target one to three months rather than multi-year ranges. Canada should also lead a global initiative to rationalize travel by making paper passports optional and replacing them with digital identities.
  10.  Reduce GAC internal administration overload and demands on foreign service staff. Departmental staff waste too much time on everything from outmoded travel and reimbursement procedures to cumbersome performance management processes.

In short, Canada’s foreign service has served the country well over the decades. With excellent people reviewing it now, we have a perfect opportunity to make sure it is designed and equipped to serve our interests well into the future.

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About the Author

Randolph Mank is a three-time Canadian ambassador in Asia and DG for the region, who served as director of policy during the last foreign policy review. In the private sector, he was VP, Asia, for BlackBerry, and president, Asia, for SICPA. He currently heads MankGlobal consulting, serves as a board director and is a Fellow of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute and the Balsillie School of International Affairs.

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Canadian Global Affairs Institute

The Canadian Global Affairs Institute focuses on the entire range of Canada’s international relations in all its forms including (in partnership with the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy), trade investment and international capacity building. Successor to the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute (CDFAI, which was established in 2001), the Institute works to inform Canadians about the importance of having a respected and influential voice in those parts of the globe where Canada has significant interests due to trade and investment, origins of Canada’s population, geographic security (and especially security of North America in conjunction with the United States), social development, or the peace and freedom of allied nations. The Institute aims to demonstrate to Canadians the importance of comprehensive foreign, defence and trade policies which both express our values and represent our interests.

The Institute was created to bridge the gap between what Canadians need to know about Canadian international activities and what they do know. Historically Canadians have tended to look abroad out of a search for markets because Canada depends heavily on foreign trade. In the modern post-Cold War world, however, global security and stability have become the bedrocks of global commerce and the free movement of people, goods and ideas across international boundaries. Canada has striven to open the world since the 1930s and was a driving factor behind the adoption of the main structures which underpin globalization such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and emerging free trade networks connecting dozens of international economies. The Canadian Global Affairs Institute recognizes Canada’s contribution to a globalized world and aims to inform Canadians about Canada’s role in that process and the connection between globalization and security.

In all its activities the Institute is a charitable, non-partisan, non-advocacy organization that provides a platform for a variety of viewpoints. It is supported financially by the contributions of individuals, foundations, and corporations. Conclusions or opinions expressed in Institute publications and programs are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Institute staff, fellows, directors, advisors or any individuals or organizations that provide financial support to, or collaborate with, the Institute.

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Showing 2 reactions

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  • Brian Hamilton
    commented 2022-08-02 13:13:54 -0400
    Excellent ideas from a high quality insider, make it service oriented rather than self-serving. I suggest they do a confidential survey of how GAC ‘service’ is perceived by those domestic and international elements it is mandated to serve or cooperate with. This should include all other federal departments, as the GAC had a reputation for intellectual and cultural superiority, including outright arrogance by some members. I know this from personal experience. Perhaps that has changed, but a confidential survey would confirm that.
  • Cgai Staff
    published this page in Commentary 2022-07-05 18:43:15 -0400
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