Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An End to the Elite Foreign Service?

My friend David Eaves recently wrote an interesting article predicting the obsolescence of Canada's foreign service.

David looks at the history of the service, charting it's birth, its initial elite nature (comprised of some of the best educated and best travelled white men in the country) and its current methods of recruitment - which seem seem dead set on encouraging more of the same.

I put it out to you, dear readers - and particularly to those of you who have worked in a capacity for the federal government - is the Foreign Service and DFAIT in particular comprised of a disproportionate number of snobs? Do these snobs serve a purpose - do they have special skill sets, character, or education that enable them to do their job representing all of us abroad better than a lowly bureaucrat from HRSDC or Immigration? Maybe you get by my tone that I have an opinion about this.

More importantly, if indeed the FS needs to remodel itself, how will this effect the carefully constructed elite community of foreign service officers that has existed for decades? Good or bad?


Godfrey von Nostitz-Tait said...

The Golden age of Canadian diplomacy, namely the Lester Pearson era is long gone. Both my father and uncle entered the service around this time amd bacl then Canada weilded considerable influence on the world stage. Standards for international involvement for Canada were very high. As Eaves pointed out this was also a time when other departments did not have much international involvement on their own. Times have changed, however, and both my father and uncle became disillusioned with the pettiness and sense of entitlment which became rife in the department towards the latter stages of their career. When I worked for the federal government a few years ago, I was also put off by the attitudes of the DFAIT crowd who were cliquish and high fluting during Happy Hour at bars frequented by bureaucrats. Change is needed to make DFAIT a less exclusive, silo'ed part of the public service - and to build more bridges between it and the the rest of the servic in the name of bureaucratic community. Good post, Kurt.

John Horn said...

Having been to some of the darker corners of the world and seen the way people react to Canadians, I've gotta say that the way Canadians think we are perceived by the world and how we actually are perceived are very, very different.

Sure, there was a time when Canada represented something noble abroad. Not anymore. Whether it's been in Spain (no, not a dark corner - except maybe this one dive bar somewhere in Barcelona) or Dubai or Kenya, people have a tough time differentiating between Canada and the United States. When I've said I'm "Canadian" to people only to watch them nod and say, "Yes, America. North America. American."

I blame the downfall of the Commonwealth, personally.

The Foreign Service is like any other Great Canadian Bureaucracy, though. It is full of old people. For example, CIDA didn't hire any new people this year. Why? Because they had so many good candidates left over from last year. Clearly, there's a bottleneck. But, you know what, in five years that's all going to change. Nearly 30% of the management in the Federal Public Service - that's right, management - will be eligible to retire by 2012.

And, sure, it'll be a big year for hiring, but will DFAIT or CIDA do the right thing and hire students from the Early Career Masters program at UBC? I truly hope so.

Wait...I meant to say "a cross-section of recruits who reflect the social and cultural diversity of Canada and the countries to which it sends advisors."

Yeah, that sounds better.


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Anonymous said...

A few points on this subject. First, rotationality is manditory for DFAIT employees. They hire people who have lived abroad for extended periods of time because such people have proven records of doing something of significance to the job. Second, DFAIT prefers to skip as much training as possible: so multilingual candidates with political/economic backgrounds allow them to save both time and money. Third, there current recruiting campaign differs in both methodology and intention from prior decades. DFAIT switched the portion of testing that measured knowledge of foreign affairs in favour of a 'decision-making capacity' test. Fourth, the foreign service selects 25 FSOs from nearly 6000 candidates - they can afford to be picky. Unfortunately, privelaged children usually travel, learn foreign languages, enjoy greater opportunities and think more of themselves than us working class kids. However, DFAIT's recruitment process is - and I speak from experience - meritocratic. So the answer to your main question is yes, DFAIT employees are specialists that represent Canada abroad better than low-level bureaucrats could or should. They have the character to tolerate substandard conditions abroad for extended periods of time, they speak multiple languages, are accustomed to foreign cultures and practices, are trained in political and economic affairs and have greater cognitive, linguistic and 'decision-making abilities' than other civil servants. To put it simply, to get an entry-level FSO position you must beat 6000 other people with the same goal. Those that do acquire these coveted positions should take pride in that accomplishment; but they should not let that pride be misappropriated by the prevailing elitism within the foreign service. This meritocratic approach is new, so its affects on the existing order and interests will depend entirely on those few candidates who are invited to Ottawa every year from here on out.
As a working-class kid currently undergoing this recruitment process, I can say with certainty that humility helped me pass the interview stage.