Sunday, June 23, 2024

Feds outline $159.1 million in funding for training, IT at GAC

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Global Affairs Canada’s chief transformation officer and a senator who recently conducted a study on the country’s foreign service say they’re pleased with the funding outlined for the department in the latest federal budget, set to support recruitment, training, compensation for staff and more.

The federal government’s 2024 budget outlined $159.1 million in funding over five years, beginning in 2024-25 to support a “transformation” at Global Affairs Canada. The document included $5.9 million in remaining amortization.

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Of the total funding, $61.4 million was proposed to “strengthen recruitment and training” for Canada’s foreign service; $47.6 million went to supporting competitive compensation for locally engaged staff at missions abroad; $32.1 million, with $5.9 million in remaining amortization, went to “strengthening” information management and technology systems and $18 million went to increasing Canada’s presence at the United Nations.

“In order to protect and promote Canada’s interests around the world, Canada must have a foreign service that is modern and fit for purpose in a changing world,” the budget stated. “Global Affairs Canada (GAC) is facing an increasingly complex global environment. To meet this moment, GAC has begun a multi-year organizational transformation to make sure it stays fit for purpose and can advance Canadian foreign policy priorities, and serve Canadians abroad.”

The majority of the funding is going toward recruitment and training of staff, which Antoine Chevrier, chief transformation officer at the department, said is key as the department hasn’t hired enough foreign service officers “for many years,” adding that recruitment processes have been launched or are “en route.”

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While he could not provide concrete numbers, Chevrier said the department has had “at least a 10 per cent gap” in its foreign officer pool group.

“We want the healthy pool of foreign service officer to make sure that we have the capacity to deploy them abroad,” he said. “Things happen in life, people go on maternity leave, people go on training.”

Sen. Peter Boehm
Sen. Peter Boehm. Photo by Senate of Canada

Chevrier said the department plans to improve recruitment by holding more regular competitions, including for entry-level and post-secondary applicants. He said the funds from the budget would likely be used to pay staff to hold competitions, to run databases and for salaries for new staff.

“The more we do it regularly, the smaller they can be and the more focused they can be, including in terms of targeting specific expertise. Could be specific linguistic expertise, specific thematic expertise (like climate, data or AI).”

Global Affairs Canada’s 2024–25 departmental plan outlined hundreds of millions of dollars in spending reductions over the next few years, meanwhile, as part of the government’s strategy to reduce spending.

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GAC is planning cuts of $118,718,936 in 2024-25, $179,214,936 in 2025-26 and $243,374,436 annually in 2026–27 and after.

It said the department will achieve the reductions by reducing professional services and travel and scaling back funding for programs like the the International Assistance Innovation Program and Peace and Stabilization Operations Program. It said it will also be “modestly reducing the department’s senior management cadre in the context of the department’s broader transformation efforts.”

In terms of training, Chevrier put an emphasis on foreign language training, as he said “if we want to hire across the country, not all colleagues who are qualified to join the department have the same level of skills in official languages.”

Sen. Peter Boehm, who recently conducted an examination of Canada’s foreign service, said he was pleased to see the budget funding, noting that it does square with his committee’s recommendations.

Parallel to many of the findings that Global Affairs outlined in its Future of Diplomacy paper in June, the Senate recommendations outlined in a 80-page document published late last year covered everything from enhancing public outreach to provide Canadians with a better understanding of what the foreign service does to providing staff with more mentorship and training opportunities, building a more diverse workforce, cutting down senior management and empowering mid-level management.

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“The challenge for the government and for the department will be to be consistent across the board and try to apply these new funds in a very meaningful operational way,” said Boehm. “My caveat is following through on it, and following through on it quickly and consistently.”

Boehm said the funding to strengthen recruitment and training was particularly important, given that the average of foreign service officers is about 47.

“That’s not good enough in terms of how you might want to see people develop their own careers,” he said. “It’s important to have that annual recruitment and, because nothing was really done for the past decade or slightly more, that means that that average age has crept up.”

Pamela Isfeld, president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers, said the budget was “a good start,” noting that this is the most significant amount of funding that’s been offered to improve operations at GAC in “quite a long time.”

Pam Isfeld
Pamela Isfeld, president of the Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers Photo by Tony Caldwell /POSTMEDIA

“The place needs organizational renewal,” Isfeld said. “It went through a long period where there wasn’t enough hiring and this will help them address some of that.”

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Next, Isfeld said she’d like to see the government invest in missions abroad, ensuring they’re fully staffed at various levels, from the training level to more senior levels.

“We still have missions where it’s one person, one political officer or one trade officer, and I don’t like that,” she said, adding that she’d like to see at least two people working in each mission.

Chevrier said the news from the budget builds on the “already-rolling” momentum on transformation efforts, with the department publishing a report on the “future of diplomacy” last June and a transformation implementation plan in September.

­”That just keeps the momentum going and enhances our transformation,” Chevrier said. “So we’re quite enthused about that. We’re very happy with the budget.”

In terms of the funding for compensation for locally engaged staff, which Chevrier said make up the largest group of GAC employees, it’s not just about salary but also benefits.

“This is a moving target and the needle is always moving country by country,” he said, noting that there have been several instances where staff have decided to work in other missions due to more competitive compensation.

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Boehm said that usually the government determines compensation by looking at comparative embassies and missions, like the U.S. and Australia, though it’s also important to provide some incentives. He said competitive staff depends on local market conditions.

Chevrier said it’s important the department work to improve its IT systems, noting the recent cyber attacks that have taken place at Global Affairs Canada.

In late February, the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada announced that it would investigate a data breach at GAC involving “a cyberattack on an internal network,” which compromised the personal information of users, including employees.

Chevrier noted that funding will also be beneficial to increase Canada’s presence at the United Nations, adding that there are “non-partners” who have “upped their game.”

In the 2023 budget, GAC received funding to work with partners to tackle drug trafficking, establish the NATO Climate Change and Security Centre of Excellence and provide support to Ukraine. The 2022 budget outlined funding for GAC for items such as renewing and expanding the G7 Rapid Response Mechanism and helping support efforts to address global health security priorities. The budgets over the past few years have also included funding to GAC for “non-discretionary cost increases” affecting missions abroad, like changes in exchange rates and inflation.

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