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Transforming Global Affairs Canada… A First Anniversary Appraisal

The adage “timing is everything” may well apply to GAC’s transformation agenda. Its implementation coincides with a financial retrenchment across the Federal government

By: /
30 May, 2024
Canada's Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly at the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting in New Delhi last year. Image: Australian Government DFAT/Sarah Friend
Paul Meyer
By: Paul Meyer
Adjunct professor of international studies, Simon Fraser University

In June 2023 Canada’s Foreign Minister, Mélanie Joly issued a discussion paper entitled Future of Diplomacy: Transforming Global Affairs Canada. This rare effort at departmental self-examination was prompted by a deteriorating international environment marked by “great power competition and challenges to the rules-based international order.” This negative geopolitical context is leading many of Canada’s allies and partners to “reinvest” in their diplomatic capacities. The discussion paper further asserted that “Canada must do so now, or risk losing ground to partners and competitors alike.” 

Another factor that may have prompted the launch of this departmental assessment was the initiation by the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee of a similar study of Canada’s diplomatic capacity that was released in December 2023, and whose recommendations were broadly aligned with the reform aims set out in the discussion paper.

The June discussion paper provided a blue print for a “revitalized Global Affairs Canada” built around four priority areas: policy, presence, people, and processes. In the policy realm, the intent was to build policy capacity “in areas central to Canada’s future” covering a range of issues that transcend traditional diplomatic focus such as climate change, critical minerals, cyber and “whole-of-government” crisis management. 

Recognizing that Global Affairs Canada (GAC) has been something of a closed shop when it comes to policy innovation, the paper suggested that the department would become “open by default.” An expanded Strategic Planning bureau, would contain a new “Open Policy Hub” that would be “responsible for high quality, evidence-based policy development and analysis as well as advance warning and foresight.” The envisaged hub would also interact with an extensive network of academics, think tanks, NGOs, and civil society to achieve these ends and demonstrate that GAC was open to ideas generated outside its own bureaucracy.

In enlarging GAC’s current network of 178 missions in 110 countries, the plan also called for a strengthened presence “in key G20 and other strategically important countries and an enhanced foot print at the Permanent Mission to the UN in New York.” Relevant to this aim was the fact that most GAC Canada-based employees (over 80%) were residing in the National Capital Region with only 17% working abroad. The discussion paper also noted that the approximately 5600 locally-engaged staff working in overseas missions represented 81% of GAC personnel serving abroad with Canada Based Staff constituting only 19% of mission staff. Moreover, the roughly 2000 Foreign Service (rotational) staff which two decades ago constituted a majority of staff had been eclipsed by non-rotational employees who now make up 74% of GAC’s establishment.  

Although the discussion paper refrained from setting any set goal for the headquarters vs field ratio, the strengthened presence objective suggested a significant shift of resources to missions was envisaged. The “presence” question is closely tied to the “people” issue – the former is ultimately dependent on having sufficient, well-trained and supported personnel to post abroad. A near term requirement was to reinstate regular recruitment, with the discussion paper acknowledging that the hollowed-out foreign service cadre was largely due to “the virtual halting of entry level and other recruitment into foreign service positions for over a decade.” This failure to renew its ranks was also manifest in the fact that the average age of Foreign Service Officers was 47 years old.

Another specific aim was to increase foreign language capacity a crucial component for the effective functioning of missions abroad. A revealing report written by Ulric Shannon in September 2022 (a GAC officer on leave at the time) also enumerated areas where diplomatic expertise was being eclipsed by a generic “managerialism”. On the issue of foreign language capability (an obvious factor for an officer’s effectiveness abroad) Shannon referenced a 2017 study by the Auditor General which found that “Only 16% of diplomats in foreign language designated positions abroad actually met the proficiency requirements of the position.” While GAC has strived to improve on that figure, today only 23% of staff meet the language requirements of their position. The detrimental consequences of this gap are evident when compared to peer foreign services which manage a 50% compliance rate or higher.   

The paper also committed to improving the various processes that support GAC’s work, including modernizing IT and financial systems. The discussion paper concluded by specifying steps for the future implementation of the transformation initiative. These included the designation of a “Chief Transformation Officer” Assistant Deputy Minister Antoine Chevrier to oversee the follow-up. Monsieur Chevrier was tasked with the creation by September 1, 2023 of a “full implementation plan, including milestones and performance metrics.”

This plan covering a three-year period (2023-2026) was duly promulgated and broad areas for action identified. However, the metrics for these goals remain general. For example, with respect to foreign language capability the aim is described as increasing capacity in strategic foreign languages and to “ensure staff meet foreign language requirements prior to posting” rather than setting a percentage target to attain. Marking progress on achieving the specified objectives will be hard to measure, especially for external observers, but Mme Joly has pledged an annual report on progress in implementation will be forthcoming. Of course, the availability of funding will be a crucial factor for the fate of the transformation initiative. The discussion paper last June was rather vague about funding, simply noting that in addition to monies liberated through reallocation of existing resources, “new investments” in GAC would be required. 

The adage “timing is everything” may well apply to GAC’s transformation agenda. Its implementation coincides with a financial retrenchment across the Federal government to which GAC has also had to make a significant contribution. Indeed, the departmental budget is on a downward trajectory as outlined in the most recent Departmental Plan document. In fiscal year (FY) 2022-23, GAC’s budget was $9.188 billion; in FY 2023-2024: $7.576 billion; in FY 2024-2025: $7.587 billion; and in FY 2025-2026: $7.404 billion. It is noteworthy that many of the areas where funding is to be reduced concern themes that often are described as priorities, such as climate change, food security, refugee relief and the duty of care for GAC employees.

As a result of what will be a significantly reduced budget overall, the amount of funding GAC can rely on to fuel the implementation phase of its transformation plan seems rather modest. Budget 2024 provides $159.1 million over five years to support the plan. Specific allocations would include $61.4 million over five years to strengthen recruitment and training for the foreign service; $47.6 million over five years to provide competitive compensation for locally-engaged staff; $32.1 million over five years to strengthen information management and technology systems and $18 million over five years to bolster our Permanent Mission to the UN in New York. 

Transformation of course entails more than simply improved financial resources; it also includes changing the mindset of GAC’s personnel. The discussion paper acknowledged that “…it is easy for foreign, trade and development policy to become reactive and risk averse.” To combat such attitudes, the paper suggested a new institutional outlook which would “promote and reward creativity, achievement and initiative, and create a culture that encourages intelligent risk-taking.” 

After decades when such behaviour was not promoted or was even discouraged it will take time to foster a corporate culture in line with this aspiration. Tellingly, when asked about impediments to realizing the transformation vision, Antoine Chevrier emphasized that time was required to adjust the every day practice of the department, but also stressed that the sustainability of the reforms would be dependent on a transformed organizational culture at GAC. 

Finally, it is not clear if Mme Joly has managed to convince the centre of power as to the imperative to enhance Canada’s diplomatic capacity. The current government has engaged in two reviews of defence (in 2017 and 2024) producing major injections of funding as well as a review of our International Assistance Policy. There has been no such systematic review of our foreign policy and even the hazy concept of a Feminist Foreign Policy that the Government espouses has never been formally articulated. 

Mme Joly may have an uphill struggle in convincing her colleagues around the Cabinet table of the need to make a transformative investment in the country’s foreign ministry and service.  Stakeholders in GAC and those supportive of our diplomatic capacity will have to await the promised progress reports to judge how much of the Foreign Minister’s ambitious agenda will be realized.

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