Over the last few weeks, I’ve been blogging about the merger of DFAIT and CIDA and some of the implementation issues that I think they’ll face. In the short-term, it’s probably mostly about basic implementation and structural questions. In the medium-term, there’s a larger question about “what does ‘development’ mean in a Canadian context”, how the new DFATD sets priorities, and even how to potentially modify legislation that appears to be narrowly focused on development but is really an almost-meaningless bit of rhetoric that combines apples, oranges and potentially a few truck parts, and calls it “poverty reduction”.
Yet, even as people focus on the short-term (CIDA: We got FACked!, FAC: DFATD, not DeFeATeD!) and medium-term (calling all pundits), it isn’t, in my opinion, anything close to the greatest threat facing the new DFATD in the long-term.
To borrow a cliché, CIDA and FAC are two unique cultures separated by a common language around Canada, government and internationalism.
Does FAC have culture?
I know, it comes as a shock to most people. But I mean small “c” culture, not Cultural Affairs-type culture, although many of them have that too. So, let’s look at that culture. And, reader beware, I might even say some nice things about them.
Foreign Service Officers (FSOs) are a pretty impressive workforce, at least on paper. Highly educated, a lot of lawyers and economists, many with strong international experience before they join, and language skills. With thousands applying every year, and ongoing recruitment almost every year for 100 lucky souls, FAC has a pretty good system and time-honed methodology for recruitment and interviewing. Sure, they tweak it a little bit here and there, sometimes looking for more lawyers here or fewer economists there, this or that language specialty, etc., but they know what they are getting.
That’s just to get in the door. Then they send them all on french training to get their CCC profile in their second language, although many get EEC or EEE. While the rest of the government gets by on English / French essential or BBB profiles, Foreign Affairs needs fully bilingual people to represent our country in our two official languages. The downside of course to full-time language training is two-fold. The obvious one is cost, and the main reason other departments don’t do it. The second, less obvious, downside is that full-time language training is not as much fun as one might think, and you spend up to a year talking about your job, your background and your opinions on anything and everything. Isolated. With other FSOs who look like you, talk like you, and on a bad day in the mirror, are, in fact, you. This may lead to one of two extreme results — you’re either so fed up with talking about yourself that you’re willing to do anything else, or you end up a raging narcissist who firmly believes in the divine right of Kings passing from King/Queen to PM to FSO. That’s not a side-effect for some, but part and parcel of being able to say to someone, “Canada believes…” and not feel the least bit ridiculous doing it.
Then they start actually working at HQ. Fort Pearson. Again, extremely isolated from the rest of Government. So who do they talk to? Diplomats from other countries during working hours, each other at lunchtime and in the halls, and if you’re a baby diplomat, a lot of young politicos on the Hill in your dating life. Many with the same credentials and background. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about blue blood backgrounds, although there are some of those, just that you get a very unique crop of people if everyone has a pretty strong resume just to start work.
But I know what you’re thinking — didn’t I say I was going to say something nice about FSOs? I am. Really. Right now. Between the selection process, early training, and early work experience, plus a very top-down hierarchical organization, you get a very polished product out of all of it. Highly educated people going in, fully bilingual people coming out with the knowledge of political relations, trade deals, negotiations, compromise, and building interpersonal (albeit sometimes superficial and transient) relationships with partners.
If you take a group of strongly skilled individuals, isolate them from the rest of Government, wave a flag in front of their nose, spend tons of money on training them, get them to the point where they feel comfortable speaking on “behalf” of a country without the pain of an election, and then make them define themselves in comparisons with other diplomats, you get a very strong corporate identity for the Foreign Service Officers who survive the first five-year assimilation process.
They become Canadian FSOs. They think corporately, they share information corporately. They respect hierarchy as the saviour from chaos or at least from looking inconsistent. They meet high-level foreign diplomats and talk about issues of substance, but they see themselves as part of the machinery that shapes, moulds, and delivers Canadian Foreign Policy. They are strong, they are proud, and they operate with a common group-think mentality. Or at least that is how it seems to a lot of outsiders — indistinguishable widgets. One country desk, one FSO, and if one falls, there’s another lining up to take their place.
Take for example a trip by an FSO. Sorry, I mean a mission. What is the first thing they do when the mission ends? They write a report. They’ll sanitize the crap out of it, make it almost bland by the time they’re done, but it will be tighter than most academic papers at even a graduate level. No mistakes in nuance. Nothing left to interpret unless it’s sensitive. They know the difference between enhance, strengthen and improve, and they care deeply which one they use to convey the perfect description. They live and die by the word, and it will be clear and informative. Then they send it. And they will copy a good chunk of the Department. Anyone who could possibly benefit from that report will get a copy. You do not hoard information from the Collective, unless it’s sensitive. Because heaven forbid that an FSO who works on the China desk didn’t get a copy of the latest APEC reporting email (I almost wrote TELEX there, dang I’m old) and so doesn’t know what China, Taipei and Hong Kong said at the meeting on trade promotion. In the past, it was also a given that you sent it to “divisions” (i.e. you would send it to the China division), not to named individuals. It was their position in the structure that made them be copied, not their personality. Plus, with highly rotational staff, someone else could be doing the job this week. So you copied the division.
If you work in another department, you could read that paragraph above, and think “So what? We copy everybody too.” Except you missed the nuance — they copied people not to cover their own ass, but to share info. It’s expected. You have to do it. Thou shalt not leave someone off the official distribution list. One of the first rules of Fort Pearson. But here’s the real kicker — people actually read the dang reports. And use the info from it. LOTS of people. It’s part of their job. They are super-desk-officers who crave intel from anyone, anytime, anywhere. They are sponges who absorb, never knowing when it might be useful. But they all do it. Both in sending and receiving. Maybe not automatically or by instinct in the first five years, but if you do your first posting, return to the hell that is headquarters, and stay on, you will be assimilated into that culture.
Of course, around town with other departments that do international affairs, most of them think FSOs are all a bunch of giant asses. Arrogant, substance-free, suits with no idea of how real policy or programming is done. Indistinguishable widgets who know nothing about the substance of the OGD’s files, but want to tell them how to do international relations. Of course, from the FSO perspective, most of the OGD’s are not people you want to take to dinner with foreign diplomats, nor trust with “representing Canada”. Heck, most of them aren’t even fluently bilingual let alone the fact that they’re willing to push narrow policy agendas over ensuring lasting bilateral relations.
But FSOs are, as a bunch, extremely impressive. I’m of the view that no matter where you work, what sector or industry, what type of work you do, etc., there is always deadwood somewhere around you. The girl who just phones it in and couldn’t care less, the guy who spends too much time socializing. Usually you can figure out in a few weeks or months at most who are the “strong” players and who are the “weak” members of the herd. When I worked at DFAIT, it took me almost two years to be able to tell “weak” FSOs from “strong” ones, but I would generally say it was more “average ones” from “really strong ones”. They’re professional, they clean up nice, they write and talk well, and they deal with weighty issues. And they represent THEIR COUNTRY! Heck, if they worked for DND, they’d be taking over countries and establishing colonies. Let’s be grateful they only fire words at other people.
CIDA embraces cultures
So imagine going from that environment — strongly hierarchical, strongly corporate, highly professional environment, where most wear suits every day — to CIDA. CIDA is not hierarchical, it is not corporate-minded in its operations, it is highly professional but in a very different way, and most people do not wear suits unless they’re an EX. Culture shock isn’t the word for it.
Let me tell you about how I went from DFAIT to CIDA in the first place. Despite having far more interest in municipal government than in international affairs, I left my academic studies as a law and MPA student to work for DFAIT. I started as a lowly graduate co-op student, then a contractor with larger and larger per diem rates, then a general desk officer, and then a term information officer. I did summits, logistics, wrote reports, attended bilateral meetings, wrote more reports, acted as liaison officer a few times, etc. Lots of junior FSO-type work, without the formal training. And generally got indoctrinated into the culture.
It really wasn’t a good fit for my blue-collar domestic administration leanings, but they are a pretty impressive bunch, so I wrote the exam and made it to the interview stage before bombing out. My bosses told me to reapply the next year, and so I did. Except they had changed the criteria somewhat and one of the academic groups I’d qualified in before wasn’t available that year. So I said that I had 3 years of experience working for the Department. In the wonkiness that is DFAIT HR, they decided that experience working for the Department doing junior FS work was not as relevant as having worked or studied abroad, and I got screened out. Apparently they even had to have a meeting to discuss candidates like me because a bunch of people on the board disagreed with the screening out — I met one of the Board members almost 10 years later, and he remembered my name enough to ask me if I had been that guy! At least I made an impression. 🙂 The next year they instituted a dual process — one for internal candidates and one for external candidates, but by then I had already made it through the process at CIDA. For me, it was another international department, a way to become indeterminate. I wasn’t a Birkenstock-wearing, dyed in the wool (literally), card-carrying development officer. In fact, I apparently shocked CIDA because I requested the Multilateral Branch as my first choice, UN Division if possible. Nobody had ever asked for a non-bilateral branch before.
So my first week at CIDA was that shock I mentioned. One of my first assignments was to comment on a paper from their policy branch. It had been drafted, talked about what was going on internationally on a narrow but emerging area, and they circulated it for comment. As I read it, I realized that they had almost nothing about what the UN had done on the file, nothing from G8, nothing from Commonwealth, APEC, etc. It really just summarized what a couple of key donors had done. It was good, but far from what DFAIT would have considered complete. So I did a bunch of research, even stayed late a couple of nights to drill down on some of the details, added about 6 pages of tight prose to a 10-page document, covered a bunch of multilateral institutions. I was green, so I missed a couple of big ones that I should have known about, but it was pretty good. So I showed it to my supervisor who basically admitted he hadn’t expected that much work so fast, and that level of substance. He read it, our DG read it, and they approved it. With no changes other than a minor edit or two. At DFAIT, it would have gone through at least three edits, and the first one would have been fairly substantial. Nope, I got “Good work. Send it.”
I realized as I was about to press send that it was on behalf of the branch, so I checked to be sure I was copying the VP (ADM level) of our Branch. Yep, there was her divisional acronym. Clicked on it, the computer whirred for a second, and it replaced the link with her name. Did it again, same result. Asked my boss who said, “Oh, right, good idea, let’s copy her. And yes, it goes to her by name, not division.” I gave them a draft of the email, with the distribution list — but only got a puzzled response. They really couldn’t figure out why I was asking who else to copy. The first rule of DFAIT — don’t leave anyone off. The first rule of CIDA — send first, copy later if you think of it. So I pressed send.
That night, as I was getting ready to go, the ADM stopped by my cubicle. It was before 5:00. She was leaving. I had met her earlier in the week, as part of the general meet and greet tour, but you do that just about anywhere. Remember, this is an ADM-level person in charge of $500M in programming per year. She stopped by my cubicle, having to go out of her way to get there, to tell me she appreciated the work I did on the input, and even mentioned a couple of key sections she liked (which showed that she’d read it). After she left, I went to see our DG and the deputy director and I told them they had to ease me into this culture thing at CIDA — positive feedback, relaxed approach to writing reports, fast approvals, flat hierarchies? That was NOT the government work I was used to! But I liked it!
So, let’s back up a bit and do the same analysis as for FAC. CIDA was not actively recruiting every year like DFAIT — CIDA’s workforce is relatively stable. It doesn’t turn over as DFAIT’s did, people tended to come and stay pretty much for life. There were no front-page articles in the Ottawa Citizen saying you could make more money as a roofer than an FSO or that it was more fun in academia. People often got hired through interactions already with the Department. Or straight from NPSIA. Some people hired back in the late 70s, early 80s did so by coming for an interview, and being told to “take any desk”. They hired people with development backgrounds, sure, but it wasn’t based on a tried and true methodology like DFAIT had been using. It was simpler and it worked just fine — like DFAIT’s recruitment base, if you want to work for the government and do development, there’s only one real place to go. So when there was an opening, CIDA had no trouble filling it with a bright shiny development wonk.
The other influx of people at CIDA was a strong cadre of former FSOs who were given a choice at one point — convert to being a political FSO or move to CIDA. Those who were unhappy in the DFAIT structure jumped to CIDA where promotions were more likely and less political. Not surprisingly, a lot of women jumped at the time. While it would be hard to say CIDA management has been gender-friendly writ large for its staff, it shines in comparison with DFAIT where representation in upper ranks used to be abysmal and if you got pregnant while on posting, you were sent back to Canada, never to return. Your posting was just “done”.
Training at CIDA is, umm, what’s the word…missing? Yeah, missing. As in mostly non-existent. Forget language training to full fluency, it’s not needed. If they need C-level french for programming, they use francophones. BBB is encouraged, but getting approved for it is far from automatic. You can, however, have as much training as you want in how to work the financial systems. That is the bread and butter of bilateral programming — disbursing funds. No money, no development. So you get MAs and PhDs approving contracts and contribution agreements, working computer systems to get project memos going and generally doing a lot of administration that most departments do on the “back-end” with non-subject-matter-experts. But if you want to do bilateral program design, which requires your development knowledge, you do program operations too. It goes with the job.
When do you start work? The first day. No shipping you off for months of training. Nope, you start pretty much immediately. But unlike FAC where you identify as a CANADIAN FSO, most people at CIDA have a different identity path. They see themselves as part of a global development network. They are aid workers, development officers, humanitarian assistance providers. That is their primary identity card. After that, it varies somewhat. I’ve joked that many of the CIDAites conveniently forget they work for the Government of Canada, but it isn’t untrue either. Many of them like to believe that they work for the largest NGO in Canada, just with better pay and benefits yet fewer chances to “see or do” real development on the ground. Just as some junior FSOs are rudely awakened to the reality that their life won’t be one long diplomatic reception but rather a series of interminable meetings and report writing interspersed with interesting events, many Development Officers (DOs) at CIDA start work there thinking they are going to be “doing” development without realizing that like most government Gs&Cs programs, they will be “funding” others to do the work, not doing it themselves.
The real work of CIDA though is in setting up those funding arrangements. Not the “funding” itself, those are just cheques, but in the development of projects, sequencing of work items, what any other department would call “program and project design”. Working with countries and NGO partners to come up with funding priorities and a “country strategy” that can guide the programming…in short, identifying needs and finding ways together to meet them. It isn’t the short-term and somewhat transient relations of DFAIT, but hopefully deep partnerships on concrete projects that will “do” something, make a change in someone’s life.
How does it work? Pretty dang well, but it’s hard to tell because unlike DFAIT, CIDA has almost no clue how to tell the right stories to toot their own horn. After all, they are part of a global network so the network takes credit, not an individual program or project. But CIDA doesn’t think “corporately” as DFAIT does. Instead, it tends to be flatter in behaviour, yet surprisingly siloed. They share information on best practices by sector — such as horizontal info sharing on education projects — but generally speaking, country programs work in isolation from other country programs. If someone goes on a trip, the only one who cares about the report on Bangladesh is the Bangladesh division. Nobody else is likely even to be copied, certainly not their Policy Branch. Unless there is a para on education projects, that might get forwarded to the education people. But while someone might think of themselves as part of the “Asia” group, there is no sense that they are all part of an Asia Branch strategy, working together on a common goal for Asia. The goals are alleviating poverty and facilitating development, not waving a flag. So, going back to the identity thing, they are not CANADIAN DOs, they are GLOBAL AID WORKERS who work for the Canadian government. Some feel patriotic about it, some don’t.
As an example of how things differ between departments, look at Junior Advisor positions at the UN for the yearly General Assembly. At DFAIT, it is an annual bloody battle to be chosen as one of the JAs going to New York for three months. It is DFAIT HR at its worst — old boys networks making calls, pressure from Ambassadors on the decision-makers, backstabbing amongst competitors. And it is not unwarranted bloodsport. There are few temporary duty assignments for political FSOs before their first posting; UNGA is one of them. So everyone wants it. And those who get it have a leg up in their first posting competition — after all, if you have a bunch of indistinguishable widgets, and one of them has good work experience that the others don’t, you might hire them for the best first postings. They come back with better experience than the person who took a tier 3 quality posting, so they get better jobs when they reintegrate. Which snowballs. End result? A disproportionate number of EXs at DFAIT who are former UNGA junior advisors.
Hop over to CIDA. The Agency STOPPED sending people to UNGA for awhile because (a) nobody was interested and (b) it was expensive. DFAIT asked for help a few years later, they reinstated the JA position for a CIDAite, and so the Multilateral Branch chose someone the first year. No real competition, there was only one person in the Branch interested. Year 2, it was me…there might have been other candidates, but I worked in the UN division, so I was an automatic lock (at DFAIT, being in the UN division actually hurt some people in some years competitions!). We ran it the next year as an open competition, mainly at my urging, and we had about 8 candidates apply. Other years it was one or two, some years it went to fifteen, some years it was someone who worked in the right division. No battles, no political process. Relatively open and transparent, and heavily reliant on people from previous years talking up the experience. Not something most people at CIDA would want to do — policy, multilateral, relations work. If it ain’t on the ground, they’re not interested.
Same story for Cabinet Affairs jobs. People at DFAIT have been known to be somewhat, umm, aggressive in seeking those positions; at CIDA, they ran the notices several times trying to solicit interest and finally had to advertise openly across Government. Not a priority for Development Officers.
For me, it was heaven. I love corporate stuff, I love policy work, I think more multilaterally than bilaterally, and I tend to think organizationally anyway. I had lots of opportunity to move up informally while waiting for my substantive level to catch up, and it was great. I even got to work in the DM’s office without a lot of competition to get there at the time. But it’s also really hard doing corporate work in an Agency that does not think corporately. On a good day, you’re pushing string; on a bad day, you’re wondering how the heck someone can work for a government department and think it is okay to go to Quebec City and protest their government’s international policies. On a bus paid for by their union. There is something called a “duty of loyalty” and it is attached to that paycheque they cashed. Not to mention they were partially protesting policies that their own coworkers at CIDA had been part of developing. At DFAIT, you’d be fired, on the spot. At CIDA, nobody batted an eye. Cuz their passion comes from their identity as global aid workers and it goes with the job.
But it doesn’t change the fact that the DOs are a highly professional group with a strong skillset and extensive knowledge in their area. Just not in the way DFAIT expects to see it or operates.
So, what now, Brown Cow?
You have FSOs who are really good at one particular form of strategic policy and generic priority-setting (high on corporate coordination, low on evidence-based analysis). And you have DOs who are really strong and knowledgable about program design and project operations (high on process and results monitoring, low on corporate coordination). For some departments, that would sound like a match made in heaven — a good handoff point. But the problem is they are experts in two different types of internationalism, have two completely different corporate identities and cultures, and require two completely different ways of working.
If DFATD goes for a full integration model, the crap is going to hit the fan as soon as the first competition comes along for an EX job. By standard practices, anyone at the EX minus 1 level would be eligible to compete. Let’s look though at the various components of an EX position:
- Size of workforce managed — neither group manages large groups of people, too many people reporting only to the Director, so mixed outcome;
- Complexity of file — relations are usually considered more complex than managing Gs&Cs, so DFAIT gets the edge;
- Size of budgets — CIDA has smaller operating budgets perhaps but the programming budget of some divisions dwarfs entire branches of DFAIT, so CIDA gets the edge;
- Visibility of files — Mixed, depends on country files, but DFAIT probably gets the edge since most Canadians can’t spell “development”;
You will have people with very different skillsets all competing for the same EX jobs. Worse still if it is a more senior EX job like an ADM-level position. Whichever way the competition is run, and what weighting is given, neither side is going to be happy.
At the working level, they do have two things in common though, and neither are good from an HR perspective. First, the working level for FSOs is FS2 and 3; for DOs, it is PM5 and 6. Which means if they don’t get an EX position, the likelihood is they could go their entire careers with only one promotion. Sure, they get lateral positions and postings, but no promotions. Second, both groups are represented by what are, for all intents and purposes, extremely dysfunctional unions (PAFSO and PSAC) who have a hard time articulating what the majority of their membership actually wants (both unions have a history of recommending against contracts that they claim are not what their members want, only to have those same members ratify them, plus many of the members view any union as suspicious as they don’t think “professionals” should have or need unions).
Potentially unhappy professional groups, with possibly little chance for promotion, and potentially poor labour representation. What could possibly go wrong?
Which in a nutshell is why I think the long-term challenges for DFATD are enormous. How do you get two such disparate cultures to work together? I live for structural issues, corporate problems, and HR challenges, and I confess, I haven’t got a freakin’ clue where to even start. All I can say is good luck.