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lucas robinson

Some of Canada's diplomats are on strike at the moment. They are basically asking for more equitable pay. They deserve to get what they are after, but not without a few strings attached.

Of course, the Canadian public are largely ambivalent about their quest, primarily because diplomats are generally a quiet bunch. But there is a second reason, one that is, in the long term, much more important: Canadian taxpayers have no reason to believe that their diplomats are performing an important function anymore.

That's because they do not effectively communicate with the Canadian public.

The University of Ottawa scholar Roland Paris wrote a study about this recently, pointing out that Canadian diplomatic engagement on social media channels lags far behind their counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom.

The problem goes deeper still.

Young Canadian diplomats – that is, anyone under thirty-five – have come of age under a governance system that does not value the art of effective public communication, and would be forgiven for thinking that this is normal. It's not.

In fact, Canadian diplomats have a proud history of standing up for what is right. Think Ken Taylor and John Sheardown, George Ignatieff, and Humphrey Hume Wrong. As John Holmes writes in The Better Part of Valour, diplomats have an obligation to "spread knowledge and create a climate of opinion which sustains wise policy with approval and, when required, sacrifice." Yes, much needs to be done discreetly in this industry, but not everything does.

There is a tendency in the Canadian media to argue that this problem starts and ends with the Prime Minister's Office. Indeed, former-Conservative MP Brent Rathgeber pointed to the overly involved nature of PMO in Canadian politics; other examples have been well documented.

But should all the blame be placed at the doorstep of PMO?

Canadians have a right to demand more from their civil servants, too. The Communications Policy of the Government of Canada stresses the civil service's obligation to openness and transparency. As the policy itself notes, "Information is necessary for Canadians … to participate actively and meaningfully in the democratic process." At the risk of sounding like a university political science lecturer (I am one, so I guess it comes naturally), this is a founding principle of democracy.

All too often over the last 10 years, civil servants have failed to live up to this responsibility. The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade and the Canadian International Development Agency – now "merged" to be DFATD (the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development) – have been no exception in this regard, despite the fact that the benefits of increased transparency are clear both in terms of development results abroad and public trust at home.

An opportunity emerges out of the CIDA and DFAIT merger, to make the whole machine greater than the sum of its parts.

At the very least, DFATD as an institution, and those individuals representing Canada abroad in particular, must start welcoming media engagement. CIDA's image in Ottawa was one of secrecy and bureaucracy. Reporters in Ottawa (and beyond) would regularly tell me about the difficulties of getting any response from CIDA when they called. This left the agency highly exposed when reports were released on aid effectiveness, corruption, and development results. A corporate priority within DFATD needs to be placed on opening up Canadian programs to showcase the fruits of Canada's efforts (contrary to popular perception, there are many such successes).

More dramatically, DFATD can start to develop more creative solutions to a new set of global challenges. Egypt, Syria, Libya, Mali, the European Union trade deal, mining in Latin America and Africa – all of these issues demand an approach to communications not well-practiced in the three wings of DFATD.

Parts of the machine are rising to the challenge, including the clever "Direct Diplomacy" initiative, which has led to some innovative efforts focused on the Middle East, and things like "Connect2Canada" out of Washington (launched almost a decade ago). But the norm remains a toolkit that is ill-packed for today's development and diplomatic activities.

Diplomats should welcome the construction of a new institution with a new business model that's designed to manage the challenges of the twenty-first century.

The good news for taxpayers is that a shift in how Canada does business abroad combined with a salary increase for striking diplomats does not need to cost more. This must be the flip side of the diplomats' negotiating position if they want more support from the Canadian public. Experience in the UK suggests that DFATD could dramatically reduce the size of its headquarters, so long as this is matched with aggressively delegating decision-making and responsibility (clearly such cuts will not work without delegating decisions and responsibility).

It is on this latter point that the Harper government is making some particularly poor choices. As they continue to centralize decision-making around what gets communicated to Canadians, Canada's role in the world is becoming ever weaker. Ambassadors with 25 years of service are checking with Ottawa before speaking to local radio stations, or just not speaking with them at all.

Here, we should expect stronger leadership from senior civil servants who must surely be aware of just how much Canada has to lose.

Lucas Robinson is an independent consultant and university lecturer living in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a former senior advisor with CIDA. He tweets at @Lucas381.