At the end of the last post (What I learned from my previous jobs – Part 8), I had handed in my pass at DFAIT and was moving to CIDA. September 1997. I was now a full indeterminate employee. Life was good.
o. Development Officer, Multilateral, CIDA — It wasn’t great for pay, however. I had been an IS-03 (information officer level 3) at DFAIT on a term, but I was now a PM-01 (programme administration/project management, level 1) at CIDA. The difference in pay was about $15K. Not an easy pill to swallow, but I got a spoonful of sugar in the form of partial salary protection (they moved me to the top of the PM-01 band so I only dropped $9-10K or so).
I was assigned to the UN division. As I mentioned previously, I had requested it, and they had never had anyone ever request multilateral before. I don’t think they knew exactly what to do with me when I arrived, because normally they had brought in new officers fresh off the street, not from other departments. I arrived, desk officer ready, and they knew I was capable of some things more than a new recruit but not quite what yet.
I made a very conscious decision that they would not know about my computer or logistics skills. I was afraid I could get pigeon-holed again, so I just never told them when I started. I never mentioned it, and if a project came up anywhere, I let them figure out how to handle it without my input. I was moving to be a “real desk officer”, not the guy who also handled all the admin logistics and computer problems.
In another part of my life, I’ve written about the culture change in going from DFAIT to CIDA, and while I won’t dwell on all of it, I do want to mention my first week.
At DFAIT, the greatest sin is not to share info you have that someone else might benefit from, or more pointedly, to leave someone off a distribution list that should have been on it. And it was part of the org structure — they had divisional mailboxes that you sent your emails too (tasking, reports, anything), not individuals. CIDA was more informal.
The first thing I was assigned to work on was a report from their Policy Branch on approaches to sustainable cities. It was a basic inventory of what other governments and multilateral organizations were doing, and it had some UN stuff in it, but was missing anything on the Commonwealth, other parts of the UN, or APEC. I wanted to be comprehensive, so I spent a bit of extra time on it, and by mid-way through the week, I had a fairly decent set of “blurbs” that could be added. In other words, the Policy Branch had sent it expecting comments, and I added about three pages of possible content to improve the scope.
I gave it to my bosses, and well, they were almost shocked. It wasn’t rocket science work, but it was also not the work of a PM-01. They were also tickled pink. Now for my shock…when I got it back, there were maybe four or five changes in the three pages. At DFAIT, it would have come back with red edits everywhere. Sure, I was a better writer because of my time there, but they wordsmith everything by habit, and usually for solid improvements to flow or nuance or content, or all three. My bosses mostly fixed things to simplify construction. Well, this was a lighter touch than I was used to, and I liked it!
Then I went to send it to the Policy Branch. No divisional mailboxes. I was sending it to individuals. It had come in addressed to the ADM, so I wanted to copy her office on the reply; when I went to click on her mailbox “Multilateral Vice-President – MVP”, the email system would whir for a second, and instead inserted her personal name. I checked with my boss, see what I was doing wrong, but no, it was right, we sent things to her personal inbox. Weird. All done, sent, moving on. No big deal.
Except that night, before I was ready to leave, the VP showed up at my cubicle door. She had seen my submission in her inbox, she had read it, and she was stopping by my desk to say thank you, she enjoyed it, and she even learned some stuff she hadn’t known the Commonwealth group was doing. Umm, okay. I had met her earlier in the week, just in passing, but she had remembered who I was and came by to give me praise?
After she left, I scuttled down the hall to my boss’ office and told him we really needed to talk about this praise thing. I was coming from DFAIT where good work disappeared into black holes, with almost no positive feedback ever, unless it was huge. They were going to need to “ease me” into this new environment! It was a great first week.
I confess openly I was in heaven. The UN was so large and so vast, I didn’t think I would ever tire of the work. APEC had been good, sure, but it had its limits and dysfunctions. Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation — four adjectives in search of a noun, according to the Australian Prime Minister. But while the UN also had the pinnacle of dysfunction, it was also the pinnacle of scope. They had EVERYTHING. And just for fun, there was the Commonwealth too in our division.
I stayed for five years. Seriously. And I can honestly say, it’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. It was the right fit, the right level of work, the right type of work, it was great. There are thousands of things I could talk about over those five years, partly as it turned me from a raw DFAIT ex-pat into a solid desk officer. It’s going to be hard to summarize those five years into a few anecdotes, but I’m going to talk about only six things.
i. First and foremost, I learned about the UN in all its glory and grime. I backed up a lot of the other officers on UNDP, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNIFEM, FAO, etc. Mostly funds and programs, but a couple of specialized agencies. We were dealing with it as major donors, not project officers, so we would give them large cheques each year as the Canadian contribution, and then deal with them on governance issues, strategic vision, etc. It was the perfect balance for me, although I didn’t know it at the time — high-level, governance and almost no down-in-the-weeds project issues.
ii. I also learned about the political side, so to speak. I went to New York as a Junior Advisor to the General Assembly in ’98, where I ended up negotiating resolutions as the sole Canadian rep at times. It was responsible work, solid experience, and a far cry from what some other new young officers got at CIDA. At DFAIT, the competition to be a JA was brutal and bloody; at CIDA, I got to be the one to go simply because I worked in the UN division and they didn’t ask anyone else. Three months in New York, staying at a hotel and working at the Mission which was three blocks from the UN. Separate from the experience of living in New York (which I probably didn’t embrace as much as some people), the first time I was in the Great Hall as the sole Canadian rep was humbling. You get over that feeling, but it was heady stuff. I have fantastic anecdotes about negotiating with the G77 or being tagged to handle a Human Rights file with the Sudan or even just figuring out how to work with a difficult boss who would steamroll people until they stood up to him. It was also easy to see what it was like to be a Foreign Service Officer, and confirming it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life. I was in the right place. I had been loaned back to DFAIT for the APEC summit the previous year, but as much as I had enjoyed working with some of the team again, that chapter was clearly closed in my mind. I liked it better, being at CIDA.
iii. I went on a year’s worth of french training. It was one of the worst experiences of my life. I was caught completely unprepared for the slower-paced training that also gave me constant negative feedback all day (as they constantly corrected my less-than-stellar performance at french and adult learning). While some of that was simply losing my identity as a worker-bee, it was likely more about grief. I started the training about 13 months after my dad died, and it had been a busy 13 months. Since I had no idea how grief worked, or even that I was still grieving, I was unprepared for the time to navel-gaze that French allowed me. I was somewhat isolated from some of my friends and family with the change in job and a needed distance from my mom (for both of us), but looking back, it is easy to see the signs that I was clinically depressed. The signs were there when it happened, I just didn’t know them or see them. There were days that I was too “sick” to get out of bed, but there was nothing physically wrong with me. I just hated French training, I thought, but more accurately, I was no longer “go go go” at work, and the grief hit me slowly for most of a year.
iv. I got to do some interdepartmental work again but from scratch. There was a big policy push on for collaborative work across departments, and my DG got reluctantly tagged to co-chair a working group on Global Challenges and Opportunities. I ended up serving as the Secretariat for it, and I had a blast. It was a great project on top of my regular work, and we did some good work. There was some logistics work involved, which was an easy thing for me, and my bosses were “surprised” I found the logistics so easy. I mentioned that I had done such things at DFAIT, just casually, and they were like “ohhhhhh”. I had been right not to tell them earlier or it would have become my life. Instead, I had had a three-year honeymoon of policy work. We did some work on how to include NGOs into international delegations, and it was solid work. I even impressed myself. Mostly the network was happy someone was taking the lead to produce SOMETHING.
v. I discovered I had a knack for thinking corporately. While others were running around doing their regular policy work, and hated anything corporate, to me it was fun. I liked thinking of how our stuff fit within a departmental report, or how we could structure our annual institutional reports about UN organizations. I liked management discussions, governance, strategic retreats, all of it. I did a lot of work for my boss, a PM-06 analyst who also had the corporate file, and my DGs over time.
A new DG had come in and her reputation was not good for “young officers” — too many had been treated like temps in her directorate, mostly making photocopies, and I was worried I would have to bail quickly. Until she found out that I had been a Junior Advisor for a UNGA — which she had been too, back in the day. After that, we were golden. She gave me great work, never dismissed me as the junior officer I was. I loved working with her, well, most of the time anyway.
vi. I got to go to New York, Rome, and Geneva. Yep, the hotbeds of development, that was me. 🙂 New York for UN stuff, Rome for the FAO, and Geneva for the International Trade Centre. I had a small contribution with ITC to manage and it gave me a window into trade and development that most people didn’t have. It didn’t hurt that I had four years of APEC behind me to be comfortable with trade and investment, international business, the WTO, and economic cooperation across countries. I wasn’t an expert, but it was the closest our branch had to one.
In the end, I went from a PM-01 to a PM-03, part of the career development program that I was part of…there were TONS of things I learned from that process, mostly examples of what not to do for HR, but that’s part of another story about mentoring, etc. I was offered an acting PM-06 job that I turned down as it wasn’t the direction I wanted to go; I was offered a permanent job in the DM’s office doing Cabinet Affairs and shocked myself when I turned it down; and I struggled to find a new job as part of the rotational work that was part and parcel of CIDA.
I knew what I wanted. Of all the geographic regions, I was most interested in the Caribbean. Not because it was a tourist destination, but I liked the nexus of development issues they dealt with as small island developing states. SIDS, as the UN called them, were small, vulnerable, constantly on the edge of development, constantly on the edge of environmental disaster. Just as some people are more drawn to work on issues like women in development, equity, protecting children or the elderly, minority groups, etc., I was attracted to SIDS rather than large countries in Africa or Asia. Within the Caribbean, I was most attracted to issues around economic development and trade. I had a small expertise in that area, something few people had at the time, particularly in a department known for social issues.
I was a PM-03 carrying a PM-05 workload, I had been offered other jobs in Cabinet Affairs and Partnership Branch, and I had great references. But going through the rotation process was beyond stressful. And demoralizing. I was being considered for all sorts of jobs, even entry-level jobs, and being found wanting because I didn’t know how to work the financial system for bilateral project management. I had an offer from another department too, and I was tempted to jump ship. Finally, the results came in. I was getting the Caribbean; I would manage the trade files. Exactly what I wanted. But I honestly didn’t feel good about the process. Where was the “career” part of our career development program? I *had* to do bilateral as part of my career program, I didn’t want to leave multi. I LOVED multi. But I was supposed to move, and my DG was pushing me out the door as anything else would limit my career. So I signed on the dotted line, accepted the move, and I was ready to go.
One last thing to do before I went. I was asked to review a TB submission that another Directorate was doing. Getting a copy of it was difficult, they didn’t play well with others because the DG didn’t want to play well with others. I finally got a copy — the day after it had been signed by the DM. I started to read it, and I freaked.
There were things in that memo that would have made a marketing team blush. The DG had claimed involvement in things that were part of the BRANCH workload, not his Directorate. But he made it look like he was doing them all — because it made his case all the stronger. He had cherry-picked words and vague structural descriptions and taken credit for the work of three other DGs. And that was in the first two pages of Background.
When it got into the finances, it went downright Machiavellian. Without being too specific, think of it as a Directorate that had the name “A, B, and C” and with three sub-programs called, you guessed it, “A”, “B”, and “C”. He wanted to make a change to the budget process for one of the sub-programs “A”. Pretty straight-forward. A had a budget of $100M, ABC had a combined budget of $300M. Except in the submission, he deliberately used misleading terms and mixed/matched those things. He wanted to change something within A as a percentage. So, going from 10% of A ($10M) to 25% ($25M). Easy peasy lemon squeezy.
Except when he wrote the submission, he never spelled it out that way. He said going from 10% of A (the small budget) to 25% of ABC (the larger budget). In other words, TBS thought they were approving from $10 to $25M, but with the deliberately misleading wording, he was actually going from $10M to up to $75M. It went through the line of approvals with him acting as ADM, someone else acting as DM, and someone acting as CFO. Nobody who knew the program well was in the line of approvals, it was portrayed as mildly administrative, and it all went through. Even with TBS.
With the stroke of a pen, he changed a major policy component of the program, deceived everyone involved, and flat out lied to TBS. Okay, maybe that’s a little exaggeration. But nobody caught it. Because if they had, they would have said no. This wasn’t small potatoes, this was taking $65M out of the pockets of Canadian industry and they would have needed to be consulted (with obvious opposition).
Don’t get me wrong, it was the right decision for development. There were no private interests here, no conflict, no fraud or embezzlement. It was just deliberate manipulation of the process through a deliberate lack of transparency. Masterful even.
And it made me sick to my stomach. I confess that I’m a throwback public servant. I believe in things like ethics and effective public admin. I believe in transparency, accountability, good corporate processes, checks and balances. The integrity of the process, the integrity of policy, the integrity of operations. When I was hired, I had to choose between the simple affirmation of my loyalty/commitment to the government or an actual oath before God and country. Everyone else did the affirmation; I chose the oath. Because it mattered to me.
To see someone deliberately manipulate the system, even for the right reasons, made me want to quit. If I hadn’t been leaving the branch, I have no idea what I would have done. This was as close to criminal mismanagement as I had ever seen in my career. And nobody cared. They all knew that this DG played fast and loose with the rules, but because he got results on the ground, nobody cared. Except me. A lowly PM-03. At the time, the only thing I could do was send a strongly worded, near-rant-like summary of the issues to my DG as a private email.
The other DG knew I was leaving and had offered me a job to stay, promising promotions etc. I had briefly considered it before I knew about this subterfuge with TBS, but I knew I needed to rotate and I had already had experience cleaning up some messes that he had created previously (again for the right reasons, but not with the right means). So I said no.
I saw him about three months later, and he mentioned he’d seen my analysis that I had sent by private email only to my own boss. Gulp. I had not held back in my characterization AT ALL. It was flame-worthy. He said, “I think you might have missed some of my Machiavellian qualities…but not many.” He was letting me know he knew, but as a lowly PM-03, he wasn’t going to squish me like a bug. I wasn’t worth his time. Warning noted. But not heeded. I didn’t work with him anymore.
I was in a completely other branch. And drowning.