As with all posts on this site, my views are my own and obviously not that of my pay cheque provider. Not that anyone complained, or that I’m being overly “critical” of decisions, as the reality of most decisions made by governments when it comes to structural changes is that most are simply that — choices. They are not “good” or “bad”, they simply have pros and cons. And just as with a hiring decision where one’s strength in being decisive can also be a weakness by being inflexible or quick to judge, the Deputy Ministers and Associates working on what the new merger will look like have a bunch of decisions to make, and most of the options have strengths that may turn out to be weaknesses or weaknesses that may turn out to be strengths. Since many of you asked, and don’t have much experience thinking “structurally” or “corporately”, here is my guess of some of the things occupying their attention this week.
I may depress a lot of people with identifying this first, but it would be the most emotionless automaton working at that level who wouldn’t be affected by the chaos that just invaded their orbit. Last week, they knew who they were, they knew what their files were, and they knew what most of the big risks and outliers were. The announcement of a merger changed a lot of that for the senior executives of both departments.
Remember the anxiety you felt at the working level with announcements of Strategic Review, Deficit Reduction Action Plans and Work Force Adjustment? Like the illusion of control of your work-life just evaporated with a large-scale corporate exercise? The senior executives treated those issues as relatively routine challenges, knowable problems. Not fun, but manageable. But a merger? This week, some of them are likely wondering what the heck just happened and what it means just as much as you are. A senior ADM in another department who once experienced this type of fun described it to me as “executive freefall”. The day before, the world was flat. The day after, they’re not even sure if they’re standing on rock or quicksand. A lot of stuff they used to have control over just got bumped up a level and now pretty much only the DMs are in decision-making mode. Sure, the ADMs are advising, and any DM worth their salt will talk a good game about consultations and shared decision-making, but ultimately recommendations will be made to Ministers and PCO by the DMs. And particularly by the DM of Foreign Affairs as the most senior. First among equals, so to speak.
Yet, while probably no one is crying tears for senior management right now, know this too — while their feet are dangling over empty space, they also have a job to do…they have to sell it to the masses as an opportunity, regardless if they think it is chaos or a perfect storm or a cluster snafu or the best thing since sliced bread. They will be professional, they will show their corporate leadership, and they will do their job. But it also sucks for them too, even when they agree. Because they just became much smaller fish relative to a much larger pond and they don’t know where the predators or safe shoals are located.
The big question for them this week is, “Did the announcement mean…”? Yep, the announcement was long on implications and short on details. It gave hints about the Ministerial structure but not the exact long-term relationship. One minister? Three Ministers? Three ministers with one BIG minister and two small Ministers? Ultimately, it comes down to two models.
Ignoring the Foreign Affairs/International Trade conundrum for a moment, option 1 has CIDA keeping a separate Minister, with a separate DM, etc. This doesn’t necessarily look a whole lot different from the current structure. Other departments have similar structures, and merely share some corporate services. Integration is, well, to put it bluntly, done more in theory at the macro levels than in practice at the micro levels. That does not sound like what was announced, but it could be what results in the long-term.
Option 2 is more challenging — if CIDA doesn’t keep a separate Minister, or has their Minister reduced to equivalent of Secretary of State (something that has not worked well in the past for DFAIT — other countries view it like a Deputy Minister rather than Cabinet rank, and they don’t get as big an office), then it goes to a giant question of integration of functions.
What integration might look like
As with the first question, there are multiple models of integration — administrative, functional or full. This quite frankly is probably one of the strongest indications of whether the DMs think this will work for the long-term because the degree of integration makes it harder to separate things later if someone changes their mind.
The minimal form of integration is going to merge common services, an administrative merger. Public affairs i.e. “communications” are an obvious group to merge. There will still be people responsible for “development” announcements, but it will be one DG or ADM in charge of it all. HR, IT, etc are obvious points for merger. And TBS will be expecting savings through “economies of scale”, either real or imagined. It will not be simply that everyone will now be one big happy family. The only question will be if they put everyone together first and then rationalize or rationalize first and then merge the units. And within those corporate services — comms, HR, IT — different units will be affected differently. Planning groups will likely get hit harder than direct service people — direct service people tend to be based on the size of the group they serve, and if those numbers don’t change, then the number of people needed to serve them don’t change by much. The huge outlier in this merger is Finance. At old DFAIT/FAC, there was a CFO who primarily dealt with operating expenditures. Foreign Affairs has a lot of operating money, not much in the way of programming dollars. The CFO at CIDA, by contrast, has operating money as well as a huge giant programming budget. And they have two different operating environments — one is in a “proper line department”, the other a special operating agency with extra spending flexibility. The machinery to manage O&M at FAC is vastly different from the gigantic machinery required to run Gs&Cs at CIDA. While any good ADM can figure out how to manage a merger of HR, IT and Comms (okay, so IT is a little trickier with all the integrated systems, but still…), it will take a lot of VERY careful planning to figure out the management of financial systems and processes (note, I mean the way they manage money and the control frameworks in place, not the electronic systems). Other areas like Audit, Evaluation, and Performance Measurement are all groups that would be easily “merged” but probably really just housed together.
A functional merger would likely build off of the administrative option and potentially keep partnership branch, geographics, and multilateral as one big happy “branch” within the new DFATD. It wouldn’t be neat and tidy, but it would be a good temporary solution. The difference would be that the “policy” elements of those branches would be severely curtailed and they would be more focused on program design. Put as simply as possible, it could mean that the “sector” priorities and country strategies would be set by geographic areas filled with FA/T/D policy wonks but the actual project work would be done by the Development Branch. It would be a bit flexible on who would “approve” projects — both groups would probably have to sign off. For Partnership Branch, they’re a complete outlier. DFAIT has no significant natural counterpart except the trade commissioner types (sure, FAC had an NGO group, but limited in scope and aim) — they’d probably either get eliminated almost completely (i.e. rolled under geographics and reduced to a comms-like stakeholder relationship role) or continue exactly as they have so far. Not much middle ground. Multilateral, by contrast, has a huge middle ground. The health programming would likely remain part of the Development Branch since they have so much project funding, and humanitarian is just too big and too project oriented to drop into a Foreign Affairs policy shop. But the UN and IFIs (WB, IMF, RDBs) all have natural counterparts whose divisional roles wouldn’t be compromised by also having to do annual funding programs. I don’t see much of a functional “policy / program design” division of duties for them, so I’d be hard pressed to see them not being merged into a typical Foreign Affairs multilateral structure. I’m a huge multilateralist, and have worked in both groups in previous incarnations of their roles…I think they should remain separate, but I can’t come up with much of an argument that would likely resonate with senior executives.
Lastly, I’m hard pressed to figure out what to do with Policy Branch in this type of functional merger. Those that are specialists like the ones attached to Geographics would be clearly best-positioned in a Development Branch. But the broader policy wonks? They would have to go, I think, to the broader economic and policy groups in the old Foreign Affairs’ structure. Human rights, for example, has divisions at both departments. And even though they generally have two different levels of expertise and analysis (FA = treaties, broad diplomatic governance engagement domestically and multilaterally; CIDA = governance, capacity building, NGO engagement on the ground), the overlap is too large not to merge and avoid duplication/redundancies.
The full merger is a challenge of epic proportions. It basically takes the Texas Rangers approach to law enforcement (one riot, one ranger) and does the same with programming — one region, one directorate. All the policy and program managers from CIDA and DFAIT get merged together — ST functionally and LT physically. The process to do that is astronomically complex and yet strategically easy for Deputy Ministers making the decision. It’s painful administratively, bureaucratically, personally, emotionally, intellectually, etc. but the org chart looks much much neater. And if you’re a DM with a strong mandate to integrate and a velcro org chart in front of you, this is the model that gets you where you need to go. If your sphincter just tightened, there’s a reason for that, regardless of which department you work in. Everybody fully integrated, working side by side, common directors and managers.
An administrative merger is, relative to the other options, easy. Three months for Comms, IT and HR to have a working plan and be ready for implementation. Ambitious, but straightforward.
A functional merger is more complex, but six months is doable. Physical colocation of some units would take longer, but the operations could work. If I was a betting man, I’d bet they slice and dice the Policy and Multilateral Branches and leave a lot of the rest in its own Development Branch. It’s a good first step and gets them operational faster. Not perfect, but workable.
By contrast, a full merger is a whole other operation. Six months would give you a working plan, but probably two years before it is fully operational. And relative chaos throughout that time frame.
If I ran the zoo
If I ran the zoo, I’d probably recommend full merger as it seems to be what the powers-that-be are saying they want, but with full expectation that functional merger is the likely outcome. A separate “development branch” is a good selling point with domestic audiences, with of course the devil being in the details of operations.
The really interesting thing though is that while all of this “structural” stuff is going to be occupying the DMs’ attention this week, it is only their third biggest challenge. They won’t be able to as quickly address the obvious policy integration problem (which I would rank #2) but they know that one is there and will meet it relatively head-on. Their biggest problem though, in my view, is corporate culture at CIDA and DFAIT, and making it work at HQ in DFATD. Perhaps topics for other posts though…