By: Henry Lotin

“How to Fix Canada’s Broken Foreign Service,” published by Bruce Mabley in on April 25, 2016, critiques Canada’s Department of Foreign Affairs, recently renamed Global Affairs Canada. He described Canada’s foreign service as a victim of long-term budget cuts, ill equipped for the challenges of the modern world, and a shadow of the former Department of External Affairs of the “golden age.”

In that article, Mabley blames the Foreign Service’s management, especially those recruited from other federal government departments, for an “unqualified” and “poorly trained” work force, falling morale, and “intellectual drift.” He asserts that critical programmes within Global Affairs Canada were cut, while travel and hospitality funds were protected.

Mabley’s prescription is to shift authority from the Executive – ministers and their deputies, to Parliament to approve Ambassadorial appointments. Further, to share Executive authority for management appointment from outside Global Affairs Canada with the Foreign Services’ staff association (PAFSO) and their membership.

As a retired long-serving Foreign Service Officer myself, I recognize some of what Mabley describes as problems well known to observers and insiders. Internal management regulatory processes preoccupy managers, and can be a drag on Global Affairs Canada’s ability to respond to rapidly evolving global developments. Many insiders have complained of managers acquiescing to central agency activity measurement “fads,” which bleed time and resources from deliverables. The Foreign Service’s promotion system, seen as flawed for generations, and subject to numerous legal challenges, is now viewed by many inside and out as requiring an urgent fix.

Crucially, Mabley critiques political decisions, albeit many implicit, rooted in broader resource constraints. These political choices were meant to curb Canada’s engagement and the reach of the Department. Critics of many of the engagements, including political actors from both governing parties, have viewed them as “entanglements,” not in Canada’s direct self-interest and beyond the nation’s capacities to be effective. There were explicit political choices in the decisions made by Ministers, their staffs, and the PMO to engage in the minutia of programming. The practice of requiring Deputy or Ministerial approval for decisions previously made at lower levels is an example of how this was used to slow the pace of activity.

The challenge is that reducing our engagement in the world was not what most foreign service officers signed up for. Political masters were perceived as not appreciating the engagement, and the value-add of the Department in that engagement. This damaged morale and prompted many career officers to leave the Department.

I agree that many programme cuts were short-sighted, and also by and large view engagement as having material benefit to Canada. It pained me to see governments (not just the last one) withdraw from programmes and organizations, harming not only our self-interest, but the good work of our partners. Nonetheless, it is fundamental to our democratic system that Cabinet retains the power for these decision, and that public servants implement those decisions professionally.

Andrew Cohen’s “While Ottawa Slept: How we lost our place in the World” (McClelland and Stewart, 2003), spoke of the renaissance men (and they were all men) who projected their ideas and ideals on Canada and on a world in the years after WWII. The war left Canada with the fourth largest global military. Cohen described the changing world and how the Department changed too. Former great powers recovered, new ones emerged. The “golden era” officials were “in tune and responsive” to their political masters – a common cause existed between departmental officials and political masters, engaging Canada in new global fora and initiatives.

There were also leaders seeking less engagement for Canada and/or the Department. In 1960, Howard Green, Prime Minister Diefenbaker’s External Affairs Minister said “time had come to drop the idea that Canada’s role in World Affairs was to be an honest broker.” Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau said foreign policy was “too important to be left to professionals,” and “banished” the Department from Parliament Hill. Brian Mulroney shifted more decision making from the Minister to the PM.

Mabley, in his article, states that the Department’s “conformist, conservative culture .. {was} far from the glory days of the Pearson era.” In contrast to Mabley, I would assert that this is not a departmental failure. Rather, foreign service managers since the “glory days” were also “responsive” to their political leadership, as they were committed to do if they were to remain public servants in a leadership role.

Mabley proposes Ambassadors be nominated by officials and presented before the Joint Senate and House Committee on Foreign and Defence Policy for final approval. This reflects the U.S. practice. The U.S. Constitution provides that the president “shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors…” (U.S. Constitution Article II, section 2).

This is in direct contrast with Canadian practice. As J.E. Hodgetts said in “The Canadian Public Service (University of Toronto, 1973)”, the Canadian official is not a servant of parliament but of the Executive. Appointment is not a legislative decision; classification, pay scales, promotion, transfer, and reclassification are all for executive determination outside parliamentary purview. Political lobbying or using parliament as a court of appeal on these managerial decisions is expressly prohibited. Parliament has the right to “examine” qualifications and competence of Ambassadorial appointments, but not approve or recommend. Furthermore, there is no evidence that Parliament is interested in assuming approval authority. The Standing Committee has not exercised its existing prerogatives since examining the appointment of John McNee to the U.N. on June 7, 2006.

How does introduction of Parliamentary approval help ensure, as Mabley claims, new vigour and timely renewal of the Foreign Service? How would Parliament ensure the right people are in the right places?

The Foreign Service Staff Association, (PAFSO) press release of January 28, 2016, on the appointment of two non-Foreign Service Officers (David McNaughton as Canadian Ambassador to the U.S., and Marc-Andre Blanchard, as Ambassador to the U.N.), stated:

“Career diplomats are, without any doubt, the most qualified and experienced candidates for the job, having spent at least 20 years – and often much more – honing their craft. … These dedicated public servants are all well versed in Treasury Board guidelines for the sound management of human and financial resources, something which political nominees may not fully appreciate prior to their appointment. … Government … invested years of training to perfect its Foreign Service – which is constituted of non-partisan civil servants whose only desire is to represent Canada abroad and defend Canada’s national interests. Appointing non-diplomats often amounts to a waste of resources and devalues the dedication Foreign Service Officers demonstrate throughout their careers.”

Lateral entry and political appointments, should be the exception and not the rule. Too many lateral transfers and “political” appointments would, and as many assert do, undermine the rationale for having a Foreign Service officer corps in the first place.

However, Mabley paints with too broad a negative brush; calling into question the skills, professionalism, and accomplishments of a department so challenged. His critique of the “Mandarins” (senior officials) ignores the accountability of “public servants”. His prescriptions would further the politicization of the appointment process, and erode the principals of neutrality and the lines of accountability.

Noteworthy too, is the fact that increased frequency and seniority of incoming lateral transfers receives more attention than the many Foreign Service personnel who fill other Federal and Provincial Governments’ senior management ranks. Foreign Service Officers have served in the highest levels of the Privy Council Office, and the Federal economic, environment, social and security ministries.

Some of the best bosses I worked for and with were political appointees or management appointees recruited from outside the foreign service. They were some of the most skilled and imaginative. Clearly it is valuable for both the individual and the public service that more Foreign Service Officers gain experience in other Departments, so they can better compete for posts within Global Affairs Canada.

Mabley also critiques decisions “protecting” travel and hospitality while operating programme were cut. The reality is that decades of travel and hospitality cuts have left representatives unable to attend meetings or reciprocate foreign colleague hospitality, prompting some to cover official hospitality from their own pockets. So much of diplomacy is relationship building, travel and hospitality to build and maintain these relationships are not perks.

In summary, Global Affairs Canada has struggled to keep pace with rapid global change, performance expectations, and shifting and increasing risks, all within a tight budget. More harm than gain would arise from eroding Executive authority in Ambassadorial and/or managerial appointments by inserting Parliament into the approval process. Such appointments should be reviewed on a case-by-case basis on their own merits. Finally, the current government’s oft-stated objective of expanding Canada’s role in global fora, have prompted changes to the “bureaucratic culture.”

These changes are likely to soften critiques of the prerogatives of Executive authority within Global Affairs Canada.

Ultimately, it is directives from the Executive that must provide the renewal; through its policies, programmes, and funding allocations. Funds that allow the Department and its partners to fill the many vacancies, better train, promote and deploy its staff to perform the duties tasked are required. With the new government, there is a tsunami of learned advice about reform, engagements, and programming for Global Affairs Canada, as well as proactive Ministerial engagement. The proposed shift in the accountability of the public service, as suggested by Mabley, emerges from a misread of the challenges at Global Affairs Canada. Before embracing major changes in administration or accountabilities, care must be taken to make the correct diagnosis.

Henry Lotin is an economist and retired Canadian diplomat.

In defence of Canada’s Foreign Service