A Foreign Service officer (FS) is an employees of the Government of Canada who pass the foreign service exam and are hired by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade (DFAIT)and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
This is important because becoming an FS is no easy task. Every year hundreds of Canadians write the test and few are selected for interviews. Fewer still are hired into the department. This barrier to entry has created a sense of class around the FS designation. To be an FS meant you were the best, the brightest, the most able of public servants – not only a distinct class, but a class above.
But what if this is no longer true? Moreover, what if being a class apart is what’s killing the Foreign Service?
It is worth remembering the environment out of which the FS designation emerged (and for which it is designed for). When Canada’s nascent foreign service began to take shape in the 30’s the diplomatic world looked very different. It was dominated by Europeans and largely populated by quasi royalty – former aristocrats – who had all gone to the right schools, spoke the right languages and knew all the right protocols. Foreign policy was an elite policy area – not just because it was so important – but also because it was dominated by elites (in the class sense of the word). While the role of aristocrats in foreign policy has faded long ago, the legacy of their culture lingered. As a result, the Foreign Service had to ensure that the right people became foreign service officers, no ordinary country bumpkin would do, to have influence in the diplomatic world standards had to be kept.
The FS designation also emerged out of an early and mid 20th century era when public servants did not change ministries. In Ottawa you were a Finance Man, or a Treasury Board Man, or a Natural Resources Man (and yes, for much of that period you were probably a man) and it was uncommon to move from one department to another. In this world, a strong Foreign Service culture made sense since many of the other ministries had a strong sense of culture as well.
But today the world, Canadians and Ottawa, are different. Every ministry engages in foreign policy – be it healthcare issues, the environment, energy, transport, you name it. There is hardly an issue in Canada that does not have an important international dimension. Moreover, public servants now frequently move from ministry to ministry. Indeed, a successful career in the public service requires that you move around. A broad set of experience is deemed to be essential. Finally, the typical public servant has changed dramatically. Today, Canadians are much more internationalized. Many of us are born abroad, still more of us have family abroad, and with (relatively) cheap air travel many Canadians travel abroad. This is a far cry from even 30 years ago. But not only do Canadians travel more, they are better educated. There may have been a time when the average foreign service officer was significantly better educated than the average public servant – but this is simply no longer the case. Many public servants now have Master’s degrees. Indeed, for a while, you couldn’t get hired without one.
This is the world of the public service in the 21st century, and it presents three challenges for the foreign service.
The first, it has become less and less clear what makes a Foreign Service officer unique. An increasing number of public servants outside of DFAIT and CIDA are successfully engaging in international work: negotiating treaties, attending international conferences, and working directly with other governments. If this work can be done by non-FSs the question arises… what is the value add of the Foreign Service Officer? What unique skills and knowledge do they bring? Whenever I’m in Ottawa I hear colleagues, friends, and even strangers ask this question. This is not to say Foreign Service officers are not incredibly talented- but it is asking what, as a class or group, do they offer?
This first problem is compounded by a second that few within DFAIT and CIDA wish to talk about: elitism. FSs have always thought of themselves as not only different but also (if they are honest with themselves) better than other public servants. There was likely a time when this was true. FSs were better educated and more traveled than their peers. Today however, it is no longer the case. Many public servants are relatively well traveled and well educated. The gap simply no longer exists. The result is that, around Ottawa, FSs are perceived as elitist snobs, a perception that is crippling the department. Not only does the rest of Ottawa now question the department’s value add they also, quite understandably, despise being looked down upon. Everyday a thousand small decisions are made to seek ways to work around – rather than with – DFAIT and those decisions are adding up. Nobody wants to play with the foreign service.
Finally, FS designation itself is a direct problem because it us both keeping Ottawa out DFAIT down. Today, public servants move around Ottawa getting experience in different departments – this is how the game is now played. And yet DFAIT and CIDA sit outside the game – FSs don’t want to work in another department and they often resent non-FSs who come and work in theirs. Consequently, few good ideas developed outside the ministry find there way in. Moreover, because FSs have isolated themselves they have neither the network of interdepartmental colleagues nor the experience and knowledge of how Ottawa works that their public service colleagues possess. They are getting outplayed. Still more problematic, the answers to the highly subjective Situational Judgment component of the Foreign Service Test are determined by senior Foreign Service officers. This means that those who succeed in being hired as FSs are those who are most likely to think like the outgoing generation. This creates a conservative trend within the department that reinforces old ideas and the class like elitism.
If DFAIT wants a leading role in the development of government policy it has a number of obstacles it needs to overcome. The most challenging however is reforming the system that shapes the thinking and culture of its employees. One place to start may be acknowledging that the FS designation – while an enormous source of pride – is also a source of significant problems. Opening up the FS designation to other public servants (treating it more like that the ES designation) could be one approach. Alternatively, focusing the FS designation on crisis management in the field and making it a class for people who are going to work in embassies in hostile territory or politically compromising situations may make more sense. These are just suggestions – what is most important is that the yawning culture gap between DFAIT and the rest of Ottawa must be closed – because increasingly the rest of Ottawa is discovering it can live without DFAIT, but DFAIT cannot live without the rest of Ottawa.