Seven ways Global Affairs Canada can step up its game

Canada is to regain its stature on the world stage after a decade of inactivity,
the performance of our foreign ministry will need to be improved. 

By: /
2 March, 2016
Canada's Foreign Minister Stephane Dion speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill, February 4, 2016. REUTERS/Chris Wattie
By: Daryl Copeland

Former diplomat; research fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute

This piece was first published by Embassy News.

During its first few months in office the Trudeau government has shown itself admirably adept at harvesting a wide variety of low hanging fruit, both political and public administrative.  

Some gestures have been symbolic, others more substantive. In the wake of a lengthy parade of largely indifferent foreign ministers, the PM chose to appoint former party leader Stephane Dion, a thoughtful and experienced academic who reads his briefs and writes his own speeches. Diplomats have been unmuzzled, and are once again afforded the trust required to engage in unscripted conversations. The curiously retrograde “Sovereign’s Wall” in the lobby of the Pearson Building has been decommissioned, with the oversized portrait of the Queen removed and the magnificent Pellan canvasses restored.

Perhaps most tellingly, the clunky, short-lived Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development has been re-christened Global Affairs Canada (GAC).

What to make of this whirlwind of activity?

The new government certainly embarked from a strikingly diminished base. After a decade of diplomatic inactivity, with the foreign ministry largely sidelined and marginalized by efforts to promote Canada as a “warrior nation,” almost any action was bound to seem significant. Yet changing the amalgamated department’s name – not unlike attending summits, offering a comforting range of international assurances, hosting the UN Secretary General, and endlessly repeating the mantra that “Canada’s back” – was definitely the easy part. Now that the early gains have been registered, the real work must begin.

If Canada is to regain its stature as an innovative, engaged and valuable player on the world stage, and in so doing burnish its tarnished brand, the performance of the foreign ministry will have to improve. Drastically.

To that end, and in keeping with the name change, I would propose the implementation of a comprehensive suite of seven deep and in some cases difficult reforms. These include:

1. Articulation of a new mandate and mission.

The locus of departmental activity could usefully be elevated by several levels of analysis to create a central agency for the management of globalization. This would generate economies, and mean concentrating on cross-cutting issues and whole-of-government international policy development and integration, which is no one else’s job. That sort of remit would allow the ministry to get out of the weeds, end costly turf wars with line departments, and concentrate on knowledge-based problem-solving and the delivery of high value-added programmes and projects.

2. Identification of strategic priorities and interests.

Since the last over-arching international policy review in 2005, the landscape has become almost unrecognizable. The implications for Canada of power shift and the rise of the BRICS, the explosive growth of social and digital media, and the emergence of Big Data have not been thought through. Add to that questions about our military involvement in Iraq and the challenge of managing a growing number transnational, S&T-based threats, ranging from climate change to pandemic disease, and it becomes evident that a full and fresh assessment is overdue.  

3. Leadership transfusion.

The Harper government placed a premium on controlling public communications and stifling dissent. In the ideologically charged atmosphere which prevailed, senior managers were rewarded for keeping the lid on. Pushing back, defending public service values and speaking truth to power were discouraged. With the sea change in political tone and direction, members of GAC’s leadership cadre should be screened to ensure that they have the competencies and convictions essential to support the current government’s progressive, participatory and inclusive vision.

4. Cultural transformation.

Foreign ministries most everywhere are renown for their authoritarian social relations, conservatism and change resistance. After almost 10 years of battening down the hatches in the face of the Tory onslaught,  greater openness and transparency will not come easily. Some of the clever courtiers who thrived on managing upwards will likely find it difficult to make the transition from risk aversion to risk management, and from following orders to rewarding experimentation and learning from failure. Nonetheless, the days of ambitious careerists getting ahead at the expense of those they supervise, while specializing in making the boss look good, must end.

5. Organizational flattening.  

In an era of lateral partnerships, connectivity and networks, GAC’s hallmarks remain its rigid hierarchy, insularity and jealously guarded fiefdoms. In 2016 the department has as many layers between desk officers and the minister’s office – at minimum seven – as it did when I joined the foreign service in 1981. This costly and inefficient model slows bureaucratic process and disempowers those at the working level who are closest to the issues and actually know the files. Foreign ministries will never become Silicone Valley style idea incubators, but absent movement away from the cathedral in the direction of the bazaar, progress in building a more modern workplace will be impossible.

6. Enlightened diplomatic practice.  

In conflict zones and elsewhere there will always be a place for traditional diplomacy, with designated envoys confidentially transacting the business of governments among themselves. However in the 21st century, as advocacy and lobbying have become increasingly determinant in securing desired outcomes, it is public diplomacy, abetted by the revolution in information and communication technologies, that has become mainstream. Science diplomacy, a specialized sub-set of public diplomacy especially attuned to grand challenges such as management of the global commons and the control of weapons of mass destruction, is particularly relevant. Canada was once a leader in these areas, but now trails the pack. That can’t continue.

7. Flexible overseas representation. 

The connection to and knowledge of place are vital in diplomacy; rebalancing and re-investment are needed. But the days of cookie cutter chancelleries and fixed models governing the establishment and operation of missions abroad are long gone. Contemporary circumstances demand the design of smarter, lighter and sometimes more fleeting diplomatic footprints. World cities and major capitals may warrant high visibility and a distinctive physical presence, but in other cases portability, adaptability and the avoidance of lingering legal and administrative overheads will be crucial. Manuals and regulations need to make space for virtuality, creativity and imagination.  

While the deterioration of Canada’s global image and reputation was undoubtedly accelerated by the Harper government’s inept handling of international relations, the hard reality is that this country’s influence in the world has been in relative yet inexorable decline since at least the late 1940s. In the hyper-competitive, globalizing and increasingly heteropolar environment which prevails today, Canada’s vulnerabilities must be managed, its comparative advantages leveraged, and its soft power maximized. Each of those imperatives is predicated upon the existence of a lithe, agile and high-functioning foreign ministry. Bureaucratic self service, sclerotic systems and ossified structures won’t do.

A former senior official remarked to me recently that if employees are to undertake the heavy lifting necessary to deliver on the government’s activist agenda, they will have relearn how to use muscles that have been atrophying for years.


Time to get GAC into the gym.

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