Roger Lucy


We all know the promotion system is broke. For years efforts have been made to find a workable selection process based on the merit: all sorts of tinkering has gone on to find a way objectively to grade merit i.e. through appraisals, interviews, competencies, in-basket tests, etc. These do not even address the question of how one gets selected to an assignment that allows one to demonstrate ones merit. Maybe we should, instead, be looking at some of the selection, assignment and promotion models that have been used in the past - some quite successfully.

Slave or serfs as civil servants.
Background: Employing servile civil servants has been used with varying success by many societies, although in the long run it tends to be unsustainable. In Republican and early Imperial Rome governors and later emperors often drew their staff from the ranks of their household slaves and freedmen. As the demands of government expanded, this reliance on household personnel to run a world state proved inadequate, and increasingly public servants were recruited from the provincial gentry (still imbued with a sense of voluntary service), or seconded from the army. In early medieval Germany, a class of serf knights and administrators arose, the Ministrales. Over time, however, they merged into the lower ranks of the nobility and lost whatever dependant status they had had vis à vis their former masters.

In the Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates, soldiers and civil servants were bought in the slave markets of Central Asia or the Caucasus. Called Mamelukes, the strong and aggressive served as soldiers, those of a more scholarly bent, civil servants. The docility of the latter group could be enhanced by converting them to eunuchs, although the deficiencies of the health care system led to high attrition. Despite their servile status, they eventually seized power in Baghdad and Cairo (but continued to recruit as before). In the 14th century the Ottoman Turks refined this system with the Janissaries. The Ottomans minimized recruitment costs by levying a draft of carefully selected children, as a tax on their Christian subjects. The Janissaries, like Mamelukes, had both a military and civil service stream. Rigorously disciplined and trained and forbidden to marry (no spousal employment issues there) they had a very strong ésprit du corps - too strong - eventually they became a threat to the State and had to be bloodily repressed.

Advantages and Disadvantages: Using slaves allows the manager much greater discretion in the selection, deployment and disposal of staff. They are supposedly more loyal than free agents. However the costs of buying and training qualified slaves can be high, and free citizens often resent being administered by those of servile status. If you want to avoid corruption, the maintenance costs of slaves can be as high as free labour. Despite their reputation for greater loyalty, over time, servile staff often take over the system.

Applicability to the Canadian Foreign Service: Many of us believe this system is alive and well in former DFAIT. That said, the pool of qualified slaves to recruit is much smaller than it was in the Middle Ages. Moreover, the acquisition and retention of slaves to staff the Foreign Service could also be seen as a violation by Canada of many of its foreign and domestic Human Rights obligations.

Hereditary entitlement:
Background: In this system your functional rank reflects your social rank, indeed in some feudal monarchies, actual positions became hereditary. In the late Roman Empire, the offspring of those in high risk or unremunerative professions (soldiers, bakers, ship-owners) were required by law to follow in their father’s footsteps. One group particularly burdened by this were City Counsellors. Once a much sought after position, by the 4th century, serving on a city council had become a major burden. Tax collection was devolved on the municipalities, and (something many property owners might like to see reinstated) City Counsellors were held personally responsible for any shortfall in revenue.

Advantages and disadvantages: If ability consistently runs in a family, it can work well. However, this usually diminishes over the generations- the Emperor Honorius, who had a very gifted father and grandfather, was himself so detached from reality that, when tactfully advised that Rome had been sacked by the Goths,- “Sire, Roma is fallen”- thought the messenger was talking about his favourite pet chicken -“Nonsense I fed her just an hour ago!” On the other hand genius can be passed down too readily. When countries fall into the hands of genius psychopaths like Alexander the Great or Karl XII of Sweden, the consequences can be equally ruinous.

Applicability to the Canadian Foreign Service: While, admit it, we have a few of our own foreign service dynasties, such a system tends to operate from a very restricted recruitment pool and does not work well with a rotational system.

Background: Many organizations, too numerous too list, have fallen back on this system.

Advantages and disadvantages: Its easy to administer, and more or less appeal proof. It gives everyone who does not blot their copy book a fair chance of getting promoted, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation or ability. On the other hand, it allows little scope for high flyers - except in organizations with a high attrition rate (hence the Royal Navy toast to “fever and a bloody war”). In static organizations, like the Austro-Hungarian Army, it can lead to a terrible clogging of the arteries, with 50 year old lieutenants and 90 year old Field Marshals.

Applicability to the Canadian Foreign Service: In effect this is how things currently work within the FS category. Personnel calls it “drift”.

Background: In many societies, government and military posts and positions are in someone’s gift, and the hopeful aspirant must attract the favourable attention of those who have the power to dispense these posts or those who have influence over those who do. The Roman nobility made a minor literary art of writing letters of recommendation to enhance the career prospects of a client. For example, in a letter to a provincial governor, Pliny the Younger writes: “Your command of a large army gives you a plentiful source of benefits to confer, and secondly your tenure has been long enough for you to have provided for your own friends. Turn to mine - they are not many... and the one I have most in mind is Voconous Romanus”. In another exchange, the future historian/gossip columnist Suetonius declines a provincial assignment that Pliny had obtained for him. He asks Pliny if it could be given instead to his cousin Silvanus, Pliny replied that such a transfer would be both to Suetonius’ credit and to his own - there is no mention of whether Silvanus had any qualifications for the job. Suetonius eventually became the head of the Emperor’s Latin Correspondence Unit - until fired, after some scandal involving the Empress. He drew on his court experience and access to the archives to write history of the Twelve Caesars - it reads like a 1st Century version of Frank Magazine and is the main source for “I Claudius”.

Advantages and Disadvantages: Ideally those able to dispense patronage were attracted by the best and the brightest, but often they just wanted to do a favour for an old friend, or have a debt to pay.
Applicability to the Canadian Foreign Service: Essentially this is how the assignment and posting system now functions. The challenge is to find in whose “gift” a particular assignment lies. A uniquely Canadian variant (as practised by PM McKenzie King) could be to fill appointments using recommendations from the Spirit World. The Department could engage mediums and psychics to read the aura of candidates and pronounce on their suitability for higher positions. Promotion exercises would be held up at Kingsmere.

Intrigue and assassination.
Background: Some say the Byzantines have an undeservedly bad rap for this, but there was ample fire behind the smoke. For example, in 375, on the sudden death of Valentinian I, the Pannonians who had monopolized the senior ranks of his bureaucracy, were given a lateral transfer to the torture chambers, They were replaced by a Gallic clique which had formed around the new emperor’s tutor Ausonius - clearly a veteran survivor of some intense academic warfare. Promotion by usurpation was rationalized on the grounds that if you succeeded, then God must love you, if you didn’t, he clearly did not - or as the Elizabethan Sir John Harrington put it “Treason cannot prosper, what’s the reason? If it doth, none dare call it treason”. For those too squeamish for the dagger in the back routine, there is the route of undermining a rival organization, in hopes that it will reorganized out of existence and yours will take its place - with a concomitant increase in responsibilities and rank.

Advantages and Disadvantages: It can bring to the fore the most ambitious and those with good team-< building and horizontal management skills. On the other hand transition planning can be difficult, and the process of usurpation can lead to wild swings in policy.

Applicability to the Canadian Foreign Service: It works best in paranoid autocratic states, where a rival factions try persuade the ruler of their opponents’ disloyalty - enough said.

Background: In societies where literacy and organizational skills were more or less monopolized by the clergy, for example Europe during the dark ages, administrative functions, including the conduct of diplomacy, were often performed by the clergy. Some clerics flourish in such roles, witness Luitprand Bishop of Cremona, who brilliantly represented the Holy Roman Emperor in 10th century Byzantium. An alternative can be to out-source to the military - especially applicable in states which believed their sole raison d’être was to support the army - like 18th century Prussia, or late 3rd century Rome.

Advantages and disadvantages: The advantage was that both clerical and military organizations had a pool of trained and educated personnel. Often they also had strong administrative skills. However, as the case of the 12th martyr Thomas à Becket shows, such outsourcing can create conflicts of interest. This was particularly so in medieval Europe, where the clergy were ultimately answerable to an outside authority - the Papacy. Moreover clerical selection standards tend to tend to favour traits like piety, asceticism, and the exegesis of sacred texts, which, with the exception of the last, are not normally considered core foreign service competencies. Similarly the selection standards which make an effective combat general - courage, decisiveness, willingness to take risks, are rarely cherished in bureaucracies.

Applicability to the Canadian Foreign Service: While both groups have issues with aspects of Canadian foreign policy, the churches and the Armed Forces have their own recruitment and retention problems. Neither has the resources to take on the day to day management of Canadian foreign policy. A modern variant is to devolve policy-making to NGOs - this too can lead to serious conflicts of interest.

Contracting out
Background: In Republican and early Imperial Rome most government business such as public works, supply and services and tax collection was contracted out to corporations called Publicani. For example, a group might bid to collect taxes from a certain district or province. Those who promised to deliver the highest amount won the contract, they then had to collect whatever they had promised the State, plus recover their costs and commission from the tax payers. In most medieval and early modern European armies, officers had originally been, in effect, contractors. They undertook to raise and equip a body of troops at their own expense, in exchange for a fixed sum from the government. (Interestingly DND and other militaries are now looking at similar models, at least to provide some non-combat services).

Advantages and disadvantages: Administratively simple, and very flexible. However, it presents major accountability problems and is wide open to abuse - as developments in Iraq have shown. To avoid this, strict monitoring and audit mechanisms are needed, which rapidly eat up any savings.

Applicability to the Canadian Foreign Service: Given the numbers of contract employees doing the work FS should be doing, we are half way there. The next step is to arrange for a contractor to create and run an entire geographic division, or an embassy.

Choosing by Lot
Background: In ancient Athens, while all male citizens had the franchise, votes were not counted, instead, lots were drawn by lot from the voting urn, and the lucky winners became the next Strategos or Archon. The same worked for ostracisms. You wrote the name of your least favourite politician on a potsherd, and the unlucky one, whose name was drawn, got 10 years of exile (today they become ambassadors).

Advantages and disadvantages: Getting more votes increased your chances of your name being drawn, but a strong element of chance remained. Our present system is not much different. Given the tiny spread of points separating qualified candidates, falling above or below the cut-off lies with Dame Fortune. Applicability to the Canadian Foreign Service: A genuinely Canadian approach would be to use a Lotto system, akin to those run by the health care NGOs, such as the Heart and Stroke Lottery which sells fewer tickets than an ordinary provincial lottery, but at a higher cost for big prizes. Those who met the selection standard for the next level, would be invited to buy tickets. More tickets would improve your chances. All monies collected from unsuccessful candidates could go into retention bonuses for the unselected.

Promotion by purchase
Background: There are a number of way in which a purchase system can work. In late antiquity one usually joined the civil service by becoming an unpaid supernumerary at a government office. In due course, when a vacancy appeared, a supernumerary would be allowed to buy a permanent position. The purchase price was not so much graft as a type of annuity - instead of the interest on the capital used to buy the office you received a salary and other perquisites. The Byzantines took the process further, and the sale of titular offices became the equivalent of the Canada Savings Bond. For a certain sum you would buy a prestigious sounding title Vestarios, Silentarios, Protosebastos, and every year you would line up to receive from the Emperor a bag of gold and a couple of ells of silk. This was in effect the interest on the price paid for the title. You also got the right to wear some fancy robes, an invitation to all the ceremonies, but no boring duties. If you wanted a step up, it could be purchased. The system worked until the 11th century when, to curry favour, Emperor Constantine Monomachos started handing these titular offices out wholesale, but for free - that soon bankrupted the treasury! During Spain’s days of imperial glory, its far flung empire was administered by officials who had mostly bought their posts for which they then compensated themselves by collecting various fees charged for conducting their duties. Unfortunately most of our activities are not particularly remunerative, although perhaps the Passport Office, the Consular Bureau and the Export and Import Controls Bureau could look at this model.

The British Army had perhaps the most developed and effective version of the purchase system, one that allowed a smooth progression through the ranks, room for promoting the brave and ambitious, and a built in pension system. Officers joined by applying to the War Office for a Commission. Applicants were vetted for suitability (after 1849 there was an entrance exam.) If they passed they were allowed to buy into the first vacancy which occurred in their chosen regiment. A few commissions were available without purchase, for those promoted from the ranks and the top graduates from the Sandhurst Military College. The maximum cost of the first commission was fixed, but cost more for elite Regiments. There were fiddles, and choice commissions could go for far more than the official price. The Earl of Cardigan, of Charge of the Light Brigade fame, paid £25,000 for the colonelcy of the 15th Hussars. (Even today, its not unknown for the wealthy and influential Media Magnates to sponsor their way into an appointment as Colonel-in-Chief of a prestigious militia unit - or buy a seat in the British House of Lords.)

A promotion could be purchased when a vacancy occurred in a higher rank in a regiment. Every officer had a claim, according to their seniority, to purchase the next available higher rank as long as they were willing and able to pay the cost of the next step up and had not committed some flagrant breach of conduct. “Brevet”, (non-purchase) promotions could be won by those who had distinguished themselves in battle. Those who were truly ambitious could also work their way up through a series of exchanges. Foreign postings were not always popular, particularly in fashionable regiments. If a unit was being posted to India or the West Indies (where it might remain for years or decades) many officers would be willing to swap down rather than leave England. By such a series of judicious swaps, Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, achieved an accelerated promotion without any additional investment. On retirement, an officer could cash out his commission, getting the full purchase price of the steps he had bought. Market value reimbursement was also granted for brevet ranks if the officer had been in grade long enough. Thus the system not only permitted orderly promotion, but had a built-in superannuation. Advantages and disadvantages: Purchase (Simony, when practised by the clergy) has had a lot of negative press. This is partly because in some countries and eras it was not properly regulated, and various royal favourites and mistresses were able to monopolise the sale of offices. That said, it has a long history and properly applied, selection by purchase is probably as an effective and objective a selection tool as the present appraisal system or some of in-box/interview confections the PSC has foisted on us. Applicability to the Canadian Foreign Service: In these days of high student debt loads, and limited recruitment, we hardly want to require FSDPs to pay for the privilege of joining. However as a promotion vehicle it may just work. Assuming, in the course of any promotion exercize, that the number who qualify for the next rank up far exceed the number of vacancies, qualified candidates for promotion could be allowed to bid for these vacancies. The highest bids would win the promotions. So as not to give unfair advantage to those who had additional money to spare - say from inheritance or other extra curricular sources of income - one could only bid with monies in one’s superannuation account. To encourage those willing to serve at hardship posts, this account could be topped up with allowances gained from service abroad, or the fruit of investments made with these allowances. This would also serve to select for those willing to serve in hardship posts and capable of sound and frugal fiscal management. At the end of an FS career, their rank would be auctioned off in the next round of promotions, and that would become the basis for your superannuation - thereby helping to avert the pension crunch. As you can see from the above, History offers many precedents for alternate and innovative forms of selection and promotion. This survey is by no means exhaustive, and no doubt readers could offer other models we might effectively emulate, in the Work Force of the Future.

Roger Lucy

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