Budget cuts at Global Affair

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The 2023 budget aims for public service travel cuts to compose a ‘portion’ of a 15 per cent reduction in professional services and travel

BY NEIL MOSS | April 12, 2023 HILL TIMES

As the federal government seeks to slash travel costs, there is hope that it will take a “common sense” approach to avoid harming the work of departments that rely on international engagement to conduct their day-to-day operations.

The March 28 budget pledged it would cut consulting, professional services, and travel by “roughly” 15 per cent, noting that the target of the reductions will “focus” on “professional services, particularly management consulting.” The cuts are expected to save $7.1-billion over five years.

Treasury Board Secretariat spokesperson Barb Couperus said reductions in travel will make up a “portion” of the 15 per cent cut.

“The details around how these reductions will be applied across departments are being developed and will be communicated to departments in the coming months,” Couperus said.

The Department of National Defence travels the most of any federal department. Its travel totalled around $190-million in the 2021-22 fiscal year (which includes hospitality and conference fees), up from around $85-million in the pandemic-affected fiscal year of 2020-21, but down from around $376-million in 2018-2019.

Global Affairs Canada is also among the departments with the largest travel expenditures, totalling more than $29-million in 2021-22—an increase from around $12-million in 2020-21, but down from $100-million in 2018-19. That $100-million figure was also boosted by Canada hosting the G7 summit in Charlevoix, Que., in June 2018, as well as increased engagement with the United States amid the rocky renegotiations of NAFTA.

Other departments with substantial travel expenditures include the Canada Border Services Agency, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Statistics Canada.The recent budget pledge is the second time in three years the government has indicated it will curtail trip expenditures. In the 2021 financial plan, the operating budgets of governmental departments and agencies were cut to save $1.1-billion over five years.

With technological improvements allowing for increased use of virtual platforms to engage internationally in lieu of travel, some caution against the federal government relying too much on Zoom diplomacy.

David Perry, president of the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, told The Hill Times that the pledge to cut public service travel is a concern for the rollout of Canada’s foreign policy.

“What you’ve seen in the last three years, there’s lots you can do with virtual meetings … to meet remotely, it doesn’t 100 per cent replace face-to-face interactions,” he said. “We’ve suffered through, I think, three years of having far too few face-to-face interactions with people.

Perry said there is an added concern if the travel reductions will be based on spending in recent years that was already truncated due to the pandemic.

“I do have a lot of concern because you are basically cutting from a base that was already, I think, insufficient in terms of how much the people that implement Canada’s international policy are able to actually go out and meet with real humans in real life,” he said.

Perry said that public service travel cuts will have an oversized effect on internationally engaged departments, as they are the ones with a disproportionate travel budget.

Professional Association of Foreign Service Officers (PAFSO) president Pamela Isfeld said she is puzzled about why travel reductions were attached to cuts on professional services.“Why are those lumped together? I don’t understand,” she said.

The union represents more than 2,000 foreign service officers.

“There are some people—maybe in departments … where they don’t get to travel so much—that travel is seen as a luxury, but it’s not a luxury if your job is to maintain a relationship with foreign partners or to represent Canada at international meetings and be the expert on international files,” Isfeld added.

“We just hope that common sense is applied in this and that there are good, solid distinctions in when something is discretionary versus when it is essential,” she said.

While there is an advantage to meeting in person, Isfeld said it is a “double-edged sword” as diplomats don’t want to be constantly on a plane, but noted in-person meetings will “always be necessary” even if virtual options allow “more flexibility.”

She said while the union is keeping its eye on the budget pledge, it isn’t yet overly concerned that it will have a direct material impact on operations.

Isfeld also said that PAFSO will keep a watchful eye that foreign service officers won’t be forced into taking a “convoluted route” with a multitude of layovers that turns a day trip into a multi-day trek so the government can save money.

Former Liberal staffer Elliot Hughes, who served as policy director to then-defence minister Harjit Sajjan (Vancouver South, B.C.), said now isn’t the time to reduce Canada’s global presence.

“I really do hope that the government takes a smart approach to this,” said Hughes, now a senior associate at Summa Strategies. “This is not the time for the government to be pulling back from its international engagements, whether that be on the diplomatic side or the defence side.”

“Post-COVID, people are meeting more and more in person and Canada needs to be at those discussions and those tables,” he said.

“Those are delicate issues [and] ones that are best communicated face-to-face. We certainly shouldn’t be relying on the ability to simply Zoom with other ministers around the world as a replacement to meeting them face-to-face—there’s nothing that can beat that,” he said. “We can’t find ourselves relying on the technology just because we used it for a couple of years during the pandemic.”

He said Canada has to make sure that it isn’t being left out of discussions due to relying on virtual means.

“I do hope that we don’t rest on our laurels and get used to the world from the pandemic and avoid going to the meetings and seeing people face-to-face, shaking those hands, being able to have those candid, necessary discussions in person. That’s irreplaceable,” he said, while noting there are options to ensure that undue expenditures are kept under control.

Former diplomat Colin Robertson, who served as Canada’s consul general in Los Angeles during a 33-year career in the foreign service, said travel cuts are a fact of life for Canadian diplomats.

“Travel cuts have always been a part of life of Global Affairs,” he said, noting that closer to the end of the fiscal year, there is always a tightening of the wallet.

Roberson said he doesn’t think the travel cuts would hamper the department’s work, remarking that he foresees the necessary travel still taking place.

“But we’re into a different paradigm,” he said, with the introduction of the various virtual platforms to conduct meetings.

“I do think travel is one area where reassessment has gone on as a result of technology and what we have learned from the pandemic,” he said.

But travel within a country will remain important for diplomats posted abroad, Robertson said, noting that the capacity to resolve an issue is “significantly higher” if a diplomat has met the person they are dealing with in real life.

“Those budgets have been pared back in recent years [so] that really the only person that travels is the head of mission,” he said.

The former diplomat said that despite the technology, there is “great value” for in-person meetings, as it is essential to grow a foreign service officer’s network.

“But if it’s somebody you know well, then you can often achieve the same purpose by telephone or through Zoom,” he said.