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Oct 2014 | Lead and Follow


This opinion piece suggests three areas where the public service in Canada must lead in order to stay relevant and attractive as a career choice and place to work. Management of three key areas common to all workplaces – talent, training, and transfers – would go a long way to unlocking the full potential of the public sector’s most valuable resource:  its people. Before diving into these three areas for adaption and acceleration of public service management, it is important to surface that this short piece is based on three working assumptions.  


First, a professional and non-partisan public sector is a vital national institution and is integral to our democracy and society.  A well-functioning bureaucracy is also a key component of advanced economies.  Put another way, excessive bureaucracy, corruption, and red tape will hold a country back.  The World Economic Forum provides metrics for these factors in the annual Global Competitiveness Report where Canada scores well, but not “top of class”, on variables controlled by governments.
Second, the public service is not the private sector, but it can learn from the private sector.   Critical differences certainly exist.  While private sector managers are directly responsible to their Board and shareholders, the public service is managed by the elected government.  Power is far more diffuse in the public sector.   Defining desired outcomes and implementing them is more difficult than in the private sector.  Still, management excellence – in particular in managing human resources – and efficiently using budget allocations are overlapping areas for conversation between the public and private sectors.
Third and finally, the Canadian public service, like most other institutions, faces a time of monumental change and, due to its closed culture and monopoly on core services (in other words – lack of competition), is not changing fast enough. 
Digitization of information, the connection of multiple data sets to enhance knowledge and user feedback, and the economic rise of emerging markets are but three factors shaping the global competition for talent and innovation. Public service innovation is vital to keeping Canada among the world’s most attractive societies and economies.  Additional drivers of change – such as an ageing population and an increasingly tech savvy public – were well documented in the federal document Blueprint 2020.
The key question then becomes how will the public service ensure it is ready to lead and adapt to these changing circumstances, and create an organizational culture that sustains these changes?  

I. Talent

The place to start is talent. The right people in the right place, doing a job they know how to do and enjoy, are essential to the success of complex organizations. A focus on recruiting, developing, and engaging talent is also necessary to organizational change.
How a firm hires an employee and establishes the expectations for their work is important.  Employees need to be not only skilled, but also adaptable.  They need to be able to communicate and work in teams, but also to be flexible enough to adapt to new circumstances and to learn on an ongoing basis.  Continual improvement and constant skills upgrading is imperative.  
The job categories in the public service deserve a careful review and a reduction in their number and complexity.  There may even be an argument for doing away with job classifications and simply keeping salary levels, hiring according to general job titles.  As someone who started in the federal government as an ES-04 (now the Economic and Social Sciences stream), I could identify no less than three other “job categories” that did similar work, but have different pay scales.  
Some specialization is of course vital in all large organizations. But in many cases employees become wedded to micro-tasks, reinforced by their classification levels, and which may not allow them to see value in the work of others.  This can lead to resistance to change, to update skills, and to end certain tasks. 
For most occupational categories the hiring criteria should demonstrate clearly that employees must have skills that will apply to a broad range of issues throughout their career, rather than focusing on just one topic.   Making the need for constant skill development part of the initial contract is important so that expectations are set up front.  
Talent also needs the right structure and workplace culture to thrive.  De-layering the public service and increasing the span of control under executives could allow the public service to respond more urgently to priorities and empower front-line civil servants.   The Global Managing Director of McKinsey & Company, Dominic Barton, who is Canadian, has spoken on the importance of reducing hierarchy and encouraging entrepreneurship in the public service.  Having input in decision making is a top engagement driver identified by employees. De-layering will help.
With increased scope of action also comes increased responsibility.  Managing talent that is destructive to the organization – harmful, negligent or just plain old demoralizing to a team – is another management priority for the public service.  Performance reviews for all employees are an established practice in the private sector.  360 reviews of management are also common, to ensure managers are effectively working with their teams and not simply “managing up”.  
Performance reviews for all employees must become standard.  Recognition of excellence, and clear consequences for sub-standard performance, should be set out in advance and understood.   Documented and consistent poor performance should result in dismissal.  A broader rethink of employment contracts and other considerations, including for non-unionized executive employees, is required.  Putting in place meaningful, thoughtful and actionable performance reviews must be accelerated.
For its part, the private sector could learn from the public sector’s strong culture of respect and diversity.  Indeed, the public service is a model for the private sector in hiring, retaining and promoting a more diverse workforce. There is an expectation of female leadership that has become embedded in the culture of the public service. HR policies have supported this change, which took many years to accomplish.
The private sector is making great strides in improving female representation at all corporate levels, but there is much more work to be done.  For example, to ensure that the informal culture of the business is not prejudiced against women (or any parent) that takes time off for child birth and child care.  Reporting on diversity targets regularly, as firms in Silicon Valley and others are starting to do, is a positive innovation already well-established in the Canadian public sector.

II. Training

Training in the public sector can be excellent – just think of the military.  All levels of the military are provided with training including simulations, in-class discussions and exercises to improve team work and communication.  As a result, Canadian soldiers have among the best reputation in the world. We need to extend excellence in basic training, on-going training and leadership training to other parts of the public sector. 
First, training needs to become relevant to the tasks at hand and less theoretical.  Concrete training in stakeholder engagement, communicating with the public and better understanding the roles of Ministers and their offices are some examples.   Continuous learning, enabled by departments developing their own case studies for policy, program and management learning, would be valuable. 
Training also needs to be reinforced (some might say constantly nudged) and supplemented by technology such as pop-up reminders.  For example, taking an information management (IM) once every few years is insufficient; regular training updates and reminders would reinforce the importance of IM to record keeping and institutional memory. 
Second, old ways of doing things are not going to cut it for the current generation of public servants.  Binders of rules and regulations handed to executives at mandatory training courses must be transformed into opportunities for discussion and simulations of challenging situations.  Industry Canada’s “mini MBA” for employees is an example of a functionally relevant training course with interesting material.  Work at the Université d'Ottawa and the Ivey School of Business to develop case studies for public service education, among others, are another good resource.  
More formal mentoring and reverse mentoring between generations in the public service is also to be encouraged and rewarded.  So too should mentoring be encouraged between federal public servants and provincial and territorial government officials, as well as municipal officials, in order to build personal networks that will come in to play in dealing with complex problems. 
Third – high potential leaders need to be invested in.  In the private sector, leaders are provided with broad experiences, stretch assignments, executive coaching and even additional formal education.   Some of this occurs in the public sector as well, and should be measured and assessed to ensure it produces value.  Private sector leaders would also point to the intangible benefits of improving communication and people-skills which are harder to measure but which employee surveys tell us are vital.  
Fourth – events that build corporate culture and shared objectives, such as staff retreats and senior management strategy sessions, are emphasized in the private sector.  These kinds of team-building and core strategy discussions are important and worth budgeting for in the public sector.
Like the military, the private sector sees training as mission critical.  Training is not seen as a perk.  It is urgent for the same relevance and focus in training to be applied to the broader public service.  

III. Transfers

There are two ways of looking at the management imperative of what I call transfers, or the “mobility” of employees.
The first is internal transfers.  The private sector reassigns and reallocates its valuable talent constantly to ensure key priorities are delivered.  Employees understand that they may move around, and management knows they cannot keep a team intact as new customers or services are developed and put into the field.  This is not easy, but re-allocating resources to priority activities is a key practice in leading firms.
The federal, and many provincial governments, do a good job of exposing talented and ambitious people to various opportunities within government, and the opportunity to move to priority areas.  Managers should be recognized for enabling corporate goals by reallocating valuable employees to priority assignments.   But the public sector has to get even better about tapping into employee talent, through more short-term assignments or perhaps even freeing them up for a half a day a week to work with a project team of their choice.  As well, HR practices need to move more quickly to deploy the right people to areas of demand, in particular across departments.  
When the public service does not respond to work over-load by bringing on new team members to priority areas, employee burn out is often the result.  This shouldn’t be happening. 
The second perspective is the use of external transfers to develop new skills and gain new perspectives to strengthen the organization.  As Nick Lovegrove and Matthew Thomas have outlined in a series of pieces on “tri-sector leadership” in the Harvard Business Review, mobility among the private, not-for-profit, and public sectors can improve results (as measured by each sector’s respective metrics: profit; efficiency; speed of delivery; meeting challenges). Mobility of leaders is also required given that some of the world's most pressing problems – think climate change, parasitic diseases, and ocean pollution – won’t be solved by government, business, or non-profits alone. These challenges require cooperation from all three sectors, and leaders who can work among and across the three sectors.
The federal public service does little to encourage mobility outside the bureaucracy.  The good news is that formal provisions for leave are top notch in many employee contracts, including leave without pay options and inter-change.  The challenge may be in getting approval for leave.  Much will depend on the concrete case presented. Managers need to recognize the skill-development value in external service and reward employees that return with new skills and networks via promotion or non-monetary forms of recognition. 
Employees need to take charge of their careers, including exploring mobility options. They should be able to identify the skills gaps that may be keeping them back from promotion, be willing to move cities if required, and take the risk that their job may not be waiting for them when they return.  Unions could play a more prominent role in promoting life-long learning and career development of their members, as is the case in Scandinavia.
Areas of focus for external transfers and inter-changes could be in human resources, policy development functions, as well as at the executive level. Pension portability would also help encourage mobility.  Public servants shouldn’t be tied to their job, for which they may have lost passion, because they cannot move their accumulated pension savings.
A friend of mine in the private sector called external transfers simply ‘finding a new job’!  Indeed – the thought that you could take a leave from your company and come back may not be common in the private sector, but is approached far more pragmatically: a manager might say “we’ll hire you if you come back to us with something we need.” Ultimately, a more porous and open public sector would result in a stronger institution.

IV. Moving the Public Service Forward

There has been a loss in relevance and attraction of the public service over time.  The ability to make a difference to the lives of Canadians is a key attraction for employees.  A political culture that instructs the bureaucracy to avoid risks and emphasizes control – a factor which Donald Savoie has documented over successive governments – sets the tone for management and all employees.
Beyond the political factors out of the hands of bureaucrats, mission critical actions for the public service include better talent management, more relevant and interesting training and encouraging mobility both inside and outside the public service.  To achieve this vision, more open, non-partisan dialogue on the human resource challenges in the public sector is required. 
As Aon Hewitt has discovered in its work on employee engagement, some of the top attraction drivers for employees to their place of work include learning and development opportunities.  Pay and career advancement are also critical, as is challenging work.
Access to challenging work should not be a problem, if departments are hiring the right people and moving them to priority files.  If parts of a department are consistently over-worked because of making up for poor performance in other parts of the team, that needs to be addressed.   Human resource sections of departments need to move at the speed of demand and “people needs”, not simply at the pace of process.
Public service remains a noble calling.   However, systemic changes in the way jobs are described and a reduction in layers of bureaucracy are necessary to attract top talent.  In addition, a stronger focus on how that talent is managed, developed, and nurtured is needed to retain the best.  How the public sector hires, trains, and deploys its talented people must thus be the top priority for public sector leaders at all levels. 
AILISH CAMPBELL is Vice President, International and Fiscal Policy, at the Canadian Council of Chief Executives.  Previously, she was a Director General at Industry Canada and has served at the Privy Council Office and the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade. She is on leave from the federal public service.  The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.   Twitter:  @Ailish_Campbell.