Rethinking Canada’s Foreign Ministry: Could Smaller be More Beautiful?

Much of my time during 30 years at DFAIT – in addition to performing many and varied day jobs – was spent doing whatever I could to encourage reform. Trying to change the system from within did not result in 20 years of boredom – far from it. And that protracted struggle may even have helped to get me elected to a record five terms on the Executive Committee of PAFSO, the diplomats’ professional association and bargaining unit.

On balance, however, except for vivid memories, some entertaining anecdotes  and a few useful lessons learned, I have little to show for my efforts at encouraging better public policy and administration.

Looking back, what had changed over three decades?

Not the number of levels in the organizational hierarchy, which remains the same at seven between desk officer and Deputy Minister.

Not the bureaucratic culture, which remains cloistered, conservative, almost inert.

By my reckoning, DFAIT now has fewer friends, less influence, and more diminished discretionary resources than… probably ever.

This amounts to just about the opposite of what has become of the Canadian military, whose star, relative to other federal government departments and agencies, has in recent years continued to rise.

So…Does the sidelining and marginalization of Canada’s foreign ministry really matter?

I would argue strongly in the affirmative, and make the case that launching a discussion and debate concerning the future of DFAIT is long overdue.  The effectiveness and welfare of that institution is today of vital relevance to all Canadians, not least because the sorts of issues which threaten the security and prosperity of all citizens. Climate change, environmental collapse, resource scarcity and conservation of the global commons can only be addressed through dialogue, negotiation, knowledge-based problem-solving and international action in concert.

Armed force has at most a limited role.

Implications? For DFAIT, the need to resolve global and transnational challenges will mean moving well beyond the familiar sort of  incrementalism and bureaucratic re-shuffling which has resulted from the latest round of cuts. Instead, the Department will have to embrace a radical reconsideration of how best to respond to a transformed operating environment at home and abroad by crafting a new vision, narrative and plan.

I would begin with the easy part, by re-naming DFAIT  the Department of International Affairs and Global Issues. But it’s what goes on inside that counts.  If the new department is to serve as a both a globalization entrepot and as a docking mechanism for the coordination and management of all aspects of Canada’s international relations, then there will be much to do by way of re-imagination and redesign.

For instance, there will no longer be time for wasting scarce resources playing catch-up, or for fighting to defend turf that should happily be surrendered to other organizations which possess more specialized expertise. Line departments have long been leading on a significant array of specific international files, such as pandemic disease, commodities and natural resources, as well as in various functional areas, such as financial and monetary matters or agriculture. The moment has arrived to terminate costly and counterproductive skirmishes over custody and leadership and to begin a phased and carefully planned withdrawal from day-to-day work on most particularistic issues.

If this formula is to produce results, the Department’s level of analytical engagement will at the same time need to be ratcheted up a couple of notches. In place of the existing acrimony and duplication, I would suggest a reconstitution of resources and redoubling of efforts at a generally higher level of analysis. This will mean identifying regional priorities and broad, thematic nodes where the foreign ministry brings comparative advantage and a unique perspective to the table, and letting the rest go.

Such a new department will need to focus on areas where it can both demonstrate domestic relevance and add real value to government operations. This will involve getting out of the weeds and committing to intellectual leadership and policy entrepreneurship in areas which are not someone else’s job.

To fashion for itself an integrating role not played by others, significantly greater emphasis will need to be placed upon:

  • The adoption of leading-edge diplomatic practices, including public and science diplomacy and the use of new and social media.
  • Strategic planning and the management of cross-cutting, multi-dimensional policy clusters such as governance, sustainability, the rule of law and the promotion of rights and democracy.
  • Shaping, coordinating and bringing coherence these issues, as well as bi- and multilateral relationships, across government.
  • Reaching out to Canadians and to new partners in civil society, and becoming more intimately engaged in development activities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
  • Rebuilding regional geographic and country expertise, which have suffered greatly as a result of serial re-organizations and cuts.

While none of this will be easy, the last point deserves special attention.  Success in this enterprise will more than anything else flow directly from the understanding of, and connection to place, which is the major benefit associated with staffing and operating diplomatic missions abroad. When it comes to delivering on critical responsibilities, such as the creation and maintenance of networks of contacts and the generation of foreign intelligence, this attribute represents the Department’s ace in the hole.

Those people, that knowledge, and the global network are assets which could be leveraged accordingly.

It is also worth recalling that no journalist, academic, business person, or NGO representative has the writ to assess and act on a changing world through the unique prism of Canadian interests, policies and values. That task – of guide, interpreter, analyst and storyteller – is for diplomats.

A Department of International Affairs and Global Issues would be ideally positioned to mediate the constantly shifting balance between values, or that which is seen as important (such as human rights, social justice or democratic development), and interests, or that which is sought (such as prosperity, security, or the rule of law). And values and interests are often closely related.  The way in which interests are pursued often reflects values, for instance in a preference for negotiations over conflict. Similarly, the extent to which values are considered in decision-making often reflects interests, for example in navigating the complex trade-offs between international environmental standards/stewardship and resource development/use – think oil sands – or commercial relations and human rights.

Both values and interests are expressed and reflected in policy, with officials providing the evaluation and informed advice and elected politicians making the decisions.

In terms of organizational culture, this sort of re-engineering would imply a model which is less hierarchic, risk averse and authoritarian; more supple, innovative and confident.

By pulling substantively out of areas that detract from its core international policy mission, or where the locus of operations and decision-making activity has already shifted, and by redeploying in support of demonstrable strengths, a reconstructed department could thrive.  Nowhere else in government do we find the mandate or the capacity to actively manage globalization, to articulate and promote the Canadian brand, or to elaborate grand strategy.

A more focussed, more agile, higher functioning foreign ministry could redeploy savings to priority functions and regions, and emerge – perhaps smaller at headquarters – but both better resourced and, yes, more beautiful.

That catalytic combination, I submit, represents a pretty good formula for restored domestic relevance, improved job satisfaction and greater effectiveness.