The “Future of Diplomacy” Report

Can Global Affairs Canada Transform Itself?

By: /
20 July, 2023
Mélanie Joly, Canada's Minister of Foreign Affairs on a visit to Kyiv in February 2023. Photo Credit: The Presidential Office of Ukraine.
Paul Meyer
By: Paul Meyer
Adjunct professor of international studies, Simon Fraser University

Governmental initiated studies of the Foreign Service are a rare commodity – the last major effort dates back to 1981 and Pamela McDougall’s examination of conditions in Canada’s Foreign Service. It was refreshing therefore to see the release in June of Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly’s discussion paper Future of Diplomacy: Transforming Global Affairs Canada. This was a clearly written, insightful and moderately self-critical account of the current state of the Foreign Service and the Global Affairs Department in general and the challenges it faces in an international environment marked by intensified inter-state conflict, damaging climate change and threatening technological developments.

With the goal of a revitalized Global Affairs Canada (GAC) the paper sets out four areas of priority focus: building policy expertise, increasing its presence abroad, investing in its people and developing the processes and tools that yield innovation and efficiency. For many current and former employees of the Department the acknowledgment of shortcomings (even failures) in these issue areas will come as no surprise and an unanswered question hanging over the whole report is why it has taken the Department so long to tackle these problems. But better late than never. 

Starting with its people a basic demographic issue facing GAC is that the great majority of its employees (74%) are non-rotational and based in Ottawa (or regional offices in Canada) and only 26% are rotational staff committed to serving abroad. Out of a total employee base of some 14,000 (8,300 Canada-based staff and 5,600 locally engaged staff) only 2,777 Canada based staff were posted abroad in 2022 and this figure includes not just GAC employees, but also those from other government departments and agencies. If one accepts that GAC’s chief comparative advantage and value added for the Government is its understanding of the wider world and its ability to advance Canadian national interests in that global context it is crucial that GAC has a sufficient presence abroad to achieve this. Functioning in the Ottawa-centric federal bureaucracy is unlikely to generate that credibility-enhancing “value-added” contribution if it is not informed by quality analysis flowing in from the field. In this sense improving the “people” aspect of the challenge also contributes to enhancing the “policy” and “presence” elements in the revitalization effort.

The paper indirectly recognizes that its own human resources policies and practices may have been detrimental to the vision of a “workforce that is diverse, highly skilled, bilingual, healthy and dedicated to excellence”. The paper states that “Global Affairs Canada needs to promote and reward creativity, achievement and initiative, and create a culture that encourages intelligent risk-taking”. Laudable goals, but institutional culture is difficult to transform and with the burden in recent years of an overly hierarchical and risk adverse system, bereft of significant foreign policy goals and initiatives, this will take both time, resources and support from the political level. For all the clichés about its people being the Department’s “principal asset” the term “empowerment” was conspicuously absent from the text despite the need for management to demonstrate this trust in its employees. Having a clear articulation of our foreign policy priorities (the last such statement dating back to 2005 and the dying days of Paul Martin’s government) would be a great complement to any reform effort at GAC, providing as it would a powerful motivation and sense of purpose for its personnel.  

The paper notes the tendency of foreign ministries to become reactive and risk averse and calls for GAC “to build new policy capacity to provide the government with longer-term strategic thinking”. This need is to be fulfilled via “an Open Policy Hub” which is to be responsible for “high-quality, evidence-based policy development and analysis as well as advance warning and foresight”. This new unit, presumably to be situated in the existing Strategic Planning branch, is to have an ambitious remit acting as “a networked, multidisciplinary centre integrating expertise from domestic and international stakeholders to inform analyses and test emerging trends”. The unit will engage in outreach to the Canadian academic community as well as drawing on non-governmental organizations and the private sector. This Hub, if realized per this design, would represent a major response to the problem noted by the paper that “For too long, Global Affairs Canada has kept its circle of trusted partners a small one; the department should become “open by default”.

Also noteworthy as part of the tasks of this novel Hub is the creation of a “challenge platform” described as “a mechanism for continuing feedback and consultations to foster constructive debate between employees and the wider policy community and help to identify blind spots in Canada’s foreign affairs, trade and development policy approaches”.  There is some echo here of the State Department’s “dissent channel” which provides an in-house vehicle for employees to express disagreement with policy positions adopted by the Department. 

Also innovative is a commitment to establish a “standing geopolitical response capacity” that would enable GAC “to respond more effectively to major protracted political and security crises without compromising regular business activities”. Once “road-tested” this geopolitical crisis task force capacity could be institutionalized as a permanent crisis-response centre. To those who have witnessed the extreme pressure on GAC staff in mustering the capacity to manage protracted crises such a dependable surge capacity would be a welcome if long overdue improvement in the department’s functionality.

Increasing Canada’s network of diplomatic missions (currently 178 in 110 countries) is one of the core aims of the paper. In the list of new missions to be established by the end of 2023 figures upgrading existing offices in Estonia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Rwanda to full embassies as well as establishing new missions in Armenia, Fiji and Milan (Consulate General). Some of the inherent difficulty in expanding Canada’s network can be gleaned by comparing this list with the goal articulated elsewhere in the paper to “strengthen presence in key G20 and other strategically important countries”. None of the countries where new embassies are to be established are in fact G20 states and the “strategically important” criterion is not always evident. Domestic considerations can also play an important role in decisions on mission creation (and termination) and are not always aligned with foreign policy priorities. Here as elsewhere the availability of resources, both financial and human, will be determinating. 

The discussion paper is rather coy about funding. Its Executive Summary concludes by stating: “Successful implementation will require reallocation of existing financial resources. It will also require new investments to enable Global Affairs Canada to adapt to the challenges of the coming decades”. The magnitude and relative weight of the two identified funding sources is not elaborated on, although the paper reproduces a chart contrasting Foreign Ministry spending per capita which has Canada at $223, compared with Germany’s $334 and the UK’s $297. Clearly, many of the substantial and even ambitious enhancements the paper presents will struggle to be realized without a major injection of funds. Madame Joly will need to put a persuasive case forward to her Cabinet colleagues, not least of whom will be her predecessor at GAC and now Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland.

A strong point of the paper is its stress on the implementation of the reform vision it sets out. A senior GAC executive, Assistant Deputy Minister Antoine Chevrier, has been appointed as “Chief Transformation Officer” with the task of preparing “a full implementation plan, including milestones and performance metrics, all by September 1, 2023”.  Monsieur Chevrier will have his work cut out for him but the Minister and her Deputy are right in maintaining momentum for this effort at reform if the discussion paper that launched it is ever to be more than a tantalizing vision of what GAC might be.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter