There’s an old saying in the government: “There’s a book inside all retired senior officials and Ambassadors.” With some modesty, I might have a few chapters and articles, and occasionally one percolates to the surface and is published.
The invitation I received to testify recently before the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade caused me to dust off a few notes and polish them up for public consumption. The Senate Committee is reviewing the Canadian foreign service and how to make it better fit for purpose.
After 35 years in both the foreign service and overseas business, I do have a Top 10 list of suggestions for making the service even better. First, I’d like to share some guiding principles.
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If the foreign service is to be fit for purpose, its core foreign policy interests and objectives should be clearly defined from the outset. Second, Canada is relevant to the world only insofar as we bring something tangible, as opposed to rhetorical, to the global table. As former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney once said, we have to decide if we want to have opinions or influence. We’re an energy and agriculture superpower and should be using that power abroad. Third, since crises happen often and public policy needs change quickly, the foreign service must be flexible enough to redeploy on short notice. And fourth, the process of actually writing up government reviews can outlive their relevance.
There’s also a quip in the public sector that more people write plans and communiqués than read them. We should avoid a similar situation in this case.
With those principles in mind, here are my “Top 10” specific suggestions for strengthening the foreign service:
- Define our overarching foreign policy interests, stick to them, and ensure the whole organization is clear about 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; aiding the poor; and being prepared for conflict as a last resort.
- Resist the urge to change Global Affairs ministers so often. We’ve had five in six years. They need more time to understand and manage the issues and build global relationships. All of us in the workforce know that it takes a few months to get oriented to a new job. It’s also fair to say that the first time a Minister tackles a problem, s/he often takes a similar approach the last Minister took. The second time, there’s room and confidence for some innovation.
- Ministerial mandate letters should be limited to two pages and 3 to 5 priorities. Currently, they are six pages long, with a total of 68 bulleted priorities for the three portfolio ministers. Both Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan required one-page memos. Their files were more complex than ours.
- Deputy ministers for Global Affairs Canada (GAC), Trade and Development should be appointed based on career experience in the portfolios rather than just senior management experience in the public service. The issues that a deputy at Communications handles are far different than those at Trade or Global Affairs, and expertise will lead to a smooth or even competent transition.
- Recognize the domestic constraints on foreign policy and connect global priorities clearly with the fiscal framework. The government needs to reduce costs. We can surely use technology and partnerships with like-minded foreign services to achieve economies and perhaps share facilities and staff.
- Re-brand the foreign service as the much more inclusive global advisers service, and distinguish it from the global diplomatic service which should remain a small subset at its heart. Absurdly, there are 13,000 staff at GAC alone, but only 2,500 are called foreign service officers. There are also hundreds of unrecognized experts working on international issues in Immigration, Agriculture, Transport, Natural Resources and so on. A new unified global advisors service would include them all, as well as locally-engaged staff abroad.
- Deploy more staff to the field from this 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. Postings can be on the other side of the world, across Canada, or down the street in Ottawa.
- Maintain and regenerate a well-trained global diplomatic service, with annual recruitment of diverse new graduates, along with life-long skills training. They should spend at least half of their time abroad. Head of mission assignments should normally come from this group. There have been golden eras in the history of the diplomatic corps and public service which we must try to duplicate regularly and often.
- Use technology to improve services to Canadians and foreign clients. Using more automation, processing times for permanent residency, citizenship and other applications should target one-to-three months rather than the current abysmal multi-year ranges. Canada should also lead a global initiative to rationalize travel by making paper passports optional and replacing them with digital identities. Optional biometrics (facial recognition, fingerprints, retinal scans) can speed up global travel and save money. At home, one combined driver’s license and health card would save millions.
- Reduce GAC internal administration and policy overload. Morale is low. Departmental staff waste too much time on everything from outmoded travel and reimbursement procedures to cumbersome performance management processes to confusion that results, at least in part, from not adopting the nine other reforms I’ve just outlined.
All of us have a stake in improving the foreign service. We can harness our legitimate self-interest and sell more of our goods and services abroad while helping the disadvantaged. We can obtain a better return on our tax dollars, and young people can aspire to a more meaningful and respected career in government.
Randolph Mank is a former three-time Canadian ambassador in Asia and Director General 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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