Sunday, June 28, 2009

PointBlank: A Not-So-Inconvenient Renewal: What Happens When Managers Change the Way They Manage

If you have been following the work of fellow Canadian Public Service Rat Packer Etienne Laliberte's over the last couple of years, (as you should have) you should click here.

Actually, you should click here even if you haven't been.

Great work Etienne.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Update: I'm on the Road Again

Hey Everyone,

I am pretty busy this week talking to colleagues and friends in Edmonton.

That being said, I have a post drafted but it really isn't where I want it to be so I am going to hold off.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Weekly Column: An Interview With a Canada@150 Participant

A couple of weeks ago the Canada@150 project had its Ideas Fair.

Interestingly, our blog as well as Etienne Laliberté’s An Inconvient Renewal site were mentioned during one of the conferences, and links were included in the published materials (PDF and web). After a quick email to the Canada@150 team, the links to these pages went live on the Policy Research Initiative (PRI) official government website.

Despite Mike and I being screened out of the Canada@150 project (no bitterness here), we managed to wrangle ourselves [CPSR] an interview with an anonymous participant [AP].

Warning! This interview is chocked full of successy-goodness.

[CPSR]: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us about the Canada@150 project. Can you tell us a bit about it before we start?

[AP]: Sure, Canada@150 is the brainchild of the Privy Council Office (PCO) and the Policy Research Initiative (PRI). It consisted of a team of 150 young public servants selected from more than 1,700 applicants. We were tasked with identifying and evaluating the most important challenges that Canada will face in 2017, the 150th anniversary of Confederation.

We were instructed to go beyond current research and develop our own policy responses to the challenges we identified. We were also asked to consider the implications of our findings for the Public Service as a whole and to develop strategies for keeping pace with change and meeting emerging challenges.

[CPSR]: Looking back, what did you think about the project?

[AP]: Overall, it was a very positive experience. The project brought together 150 people from across the country and overseas, with varied backgrounds, educations and job experiences. The task was extremely broad by any measure: the context of the project, the geographical challenges, the use of a new collaborative web suite (Clearspace, not currently in use anywhere else to my knowledge). Despite the size and scope of the project, its novelty, and the unique backgrounds of the participants, I left feeling proud of what the group had accomplished. In the end, I think it was a success: a success that speaks to the qualities of the participants, the organizers, and the technologies.

[CPSR]: How much support did you have from your manager?

[AP]: My manager and director were extremely supportive of my involvement in the process. They even championed some of the initiatives that came out of the Canada@150, particularly in the adoption of collaborative platforms for policy development.

[CPSR]: How much freedom did participants have to manoeuvre during the project?

[AP]: The latitude we were given by the organizing secretariat was impressive but somewhat daunting. We were provided a solid introduction to futures and systems analysis, and then asked to undertake a broad environmental scan. PRI basically said, “go out and find out what we, as a country, are going to face.” Obviously we came up with hundreds of potential issues facing the country. But over the next six months, we continually refined our analysis and narrowed the issues to what we considered to be most pressing. Ultimately, I think we developed a solid list and some great recommendations from across the spectrum of policy instruments. I won’t go into any specifics because people should really read the reports when they are released.

[CPSR]: Do you know when those reports are going to be available? I was hoping they would be available at the Ideas Fair.

[AP]: From what we have been told, they should be released in September 2009 and, from what I can tell, many of the initial recommendations have been warmly received by senior management.

[CPSR]: Did you get to meet any of the big guns in Canadian civics?

[AP]: Absolutely. Among others, we heard from the Honourable John Manley, Kevin Lynch, Margaret Bloodworth (former National Security Advisor), author Adam Kahane (Solving Tough Problems: An Open Way of Talking Listening, and Creating New Realities), and Prof. Peter Bishop (Associate Professor of Strategic Foresight and Coordinator of the graduate program in Futures Studies at the University of Houston). It was great to hear them speak about the relevance of public service and problem-solving in general.

[CPSR]: You mentioned a collaborative tool earlier, would you mind speaking a bit more about it?

[AP]: With the advent of Government 2.0 there has been a significant amount of interest in the tools we used to complete the project. Senior management has becoming increasingly interested in Web 2.0 applications. I found that, despite modest prior experience, the collaborative applications were invaluable to the process. The learning curve, both in terms of research/document production and social cues, was very quick. For the most part, we transitioned from non-users to users within six weeks and were full-fledged practitioners at the end of three months. We quickly realized that editing someone else’s work is not a personal affront, but something that aims to improve the result.

In fact, I have become somewhat of a spokesman for the Web 2.0 tools with senior management in my own department. My first hand experience using them in the Canada@150 project gives my advice more weight and my ideas more traction. The project allowed participants to demonstrate, in a tangible way, that the tools aren’t just fancy communication vehicles or social toys – instead they were the tools that enabled us to be productive and allowed us to tap into one another’s expertise more easily.

[CPSR]: I know you are expecting a question like this from me, but can you tell us a bit about the conversation around public service renewal that was taking place among the participants?

[AP]: Hah, yeah sure. We discussed pretty much what you would expect: flexible working relationships, career development opportunities, and fostering collaborative work environments, technologies, and relationships. There was an entire group that focused on that issue, so look for more details it in the report.

[CSPR]: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?

[AP]: The Canada@150 experience was a once-in-a-lifetime experience – the opportunity far outweighed any personal cost in terms of time or added work. When the project first started, I met a lot of people who I would have considered colleagues in a professional sense. Those colleagues have since become good friends; friends who I am happy to raise a glass with and reflect on the project with. Honestly, sharing their insight and experience will prove invaluable as I move through my career in public service, and for that I thank them.

With respect to the project, my hope is that some of the recommendations and approaches will earn their place as mainstays within the public service because there is value in having them there.

[CPSR]: Thank you so much, and I am looking forward to seeing those final reports.

[AP]: My pleasure.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Special Edition: An Interview with a Not So New Hire

A while back we interviewed a new hire. That interview is still one of my favorite posts because I know a lot of public servants who can (and did) identify with the adversity the new hire faced during the onboarding process. Well we [CPSR] are back to conduct another interview, this time with a not so new hire [NSNH], who spoke about their own experiences with entering the public service, and some of the challenges they’ve faced with staying in it.

[CPSR]: Hello, and thanks for agreeing to share your story with us. Why don’t we start at the beginning, when did you start in Government?

[NSNH]: I started working for the Government when I was 18. I was working part-time answering calls five afternoons a week in a Deputy Minister’s Office (DMO) while I was a student and then worked full-time for the summer. Eventually there was a change in management and, despite my hard work, I was let go without a rational explanation.

[CPSR]: What happened next?

[NSNH]: Well, a few months went by before I was re-hired through the FSWEP program. My first day on the job, I was told that my work station wasn’t quite ready, which was understandable, but I found myself sitting in my bosses’ office for the first week. Like most new jobs, I was given a ton of reading material so I could bring myself up to speed and be ready to hit the ground running as soon as my workstation was up and running. Two-weeks later I finally got my new office.

[CPSR]: How was the office?

[NSNH]: Let’s just say it was less than optimal. I was stationed at the complete opposite end of the floor, very far from the rest of my group. In fact, my new office wasn’t actually my office at all. It belonged to someone else who was working part-time. Everyday I came into work and was met by pictures of someone else’s family. I was incredibly uncomfortable.

[CPSR]: How was the work?

[NSNH]: Well, I obviously ran out of reading material so [I] spoke with my manager. Instead of tasking me with something, she told me she was working on a work plan for me and that I would have a better idea of what my role would be when she would be done.

[CPSR]: How long did it take her to complete the work plan?

[NSNH]: I never saw it. I asked about it for months. In retrospect, the only thing I ‘accomplished’ during my FSWEP term was reorganizing the central filling cabinet. I felt completely insignificant. I’m still convinced that I could have just walked out and not come back and no one would have been the wiser. What was even worse was that whenever the higher-ups came by the office my management team was quick to point out to them the number of students they had hired; like they were more interested in filling a quota than giving us some tangible work experience. When it came time to renew my contract, I declined.

[CPSR]: What happened next?

[NSNH]: A year went by before I decided to give it another shot. I accepted a casual position as an administrative assistant for a director that I worked for in the past. The director offered to keep me on board via the FSWEP program during my last year of University.

[CPSR]: Sounds like you finally found someone willing to give you some support.

[NSNH]: Absolutely. I was really fortunate. That director was a great mentor. Unfortunately, the director ultimately accepted a job in another department. I was left without a manager for 4 months. It was incredibly stressful, especially because I was hoping to be bridged in after I completed my degree. Technically I was reporting to a director general, but that person ultimately had no idea who I was, [what] work I was supposed to be doing, or [took] the time to sit down to figure it all out.

[CPSR]: Sounds like a bit of a difficult situation. What was your strategy moving forward?

[NSNH]: Yeah, I didn’t know if anyone was going to hire me. I needed to make some connections and demonstrate my abilities. So I went around to several teams in my branch offering my help. Luckily, someone took me up on my offer, and eventually bridged me into a junior position. I worked in that branch for a full year as a permanent employee; it was fantastic and a great learning experience.

But looking back, I feel like people were reticent to take an interest in my career because I wasn’t a full-time permanent employee.

As the year went by, I began to feel like I had mastered my job so I started to look for other opportunities and additional responsibilities within my branch. Unfortunately, the only positions available were either very senior or very junior. It was impossible to move up. I found an opportunity in a different department that fit my interests and background so I took it.

[CPSR]: How was the new job?

[NSNH]: During my first week my manager informed me that she was taking a month long stress-leave and that I would be managing the unit while she was away. I would be responsible for liaising with regional offices in order to coordinate their input on a number of projects. I thought it odd to be flung into it, but was eager to take on the opportunity, hoping that I would be able to deliver.

[CPSR]: Did you deliver?

[NSNH]: Not exactly. About a month into it, I realized that something was very wrong. My relationship with the regional offices deteriorated quickly for a number of reasons that seemed beyond my control. Two months later my manager came back, but by then it was year-end and we got swamped with files from the regions to review. On top of that we got hit with a Cabinet shuffle and my program got transferred to an entirely different department. The global reporting relationship became unclear but my work just kept piling up. I easily had the work of 5 people sitting in front of me on a daily basis, making the deadlines unmanageable. When I first started there were 5 employees in my group. Within 6 months I was the only [one] left. Everyone left, like rats abandoning the sinking ship. I, like them, was quickly coming to the realization that it would be in my best interest to again start looking for another job.

[CPSR]: Did you find one?

[NSNH]: Yes, and in fact, this brings me to my current situation. Before I arrived here, I was considering two options. I was considering going to either Montreal or Ottawa. It was a really difficult decision but I ultimately decided to accept the position that offered me a spot in a developmental program because I thought it would provide me with some stability and structure over the long run – something that thus far my career in the public service was severely lacking.

[CPSR]: Is the development program giving you the structure you wanted?

[NSNH]: I don’t know. I was refused admittance to the program because I was on an acting assignment. If I wanted to join the program I would have to do so at my substantive position that is at a level that I haven’t been at for years. Couple this with the reclassification (as part of the EC conversion) and I will actually be losing two levels, and the opportunities and the pay associated with them. Moreover, the acting position I am in will eventually be staffed by someone in the development program; how’s that for cruel irony? Once again, I find myself facing circumstances that will most likely result in me having to look for another job.

[CPSR]: Is there anything you want to share with people reading this interview that might help them avoid some of the things you have had to go through?

[NSNH]: Absolutely. First, despite all my difficulties, I have worked very hard to get to where I am today. Sometimes when things are tough it is easy to forget how hard you’ve worked. Second, students need to be encouraged more when they are on coop, FSWEP or casual terms with the government. It is so easy for them to get discouraged or internalize a lazy work ethic when no one is paying attention to them, or when they are denied involvement in big files and interesting tasks. Third, if we as government are going to offer development programs we need to do a better job in communicating exactly what they entail. Finally, something needs to happen with our human resources practices. Hiring someone shouldn’t be seen as a burden. Staffing is often so complicated that many of us go the route of acting positions because they can happen more quickly. Yet in the long run they are not necessarily the best option for either the candidate or the hiring manager. Given the demographic pressures facing the public service, if we don’t get these things right, and someone else does … well, where do you think people are going to choose to work?

[CPSR]: Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, we appreciate it and wish you all the best moving forward.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Special Edition: I admit it, I care.

One of my recurring jokes with my peers is that I don't actually have a great deal of public service motivation (PSM): The desire to serve Canadians for the greater good.

I doubt I am alone in this, although I’d hazard a guess that the subject is somewhat taboo. After all, who wants to be considered a public servant lacking the motivation to serve the public?

But somehow, I don't think where you draw your motivation matters so much as the fact that you are actually motivated. The most important thing is finding and using that motivation to do your job effectively. This is actually a topic that Etienne has blogged about before.

Think about it.

Who would you rather have working next to you, for you, or managing you? Someone who is highly motivated by their desire to serve the public, but can't deliver results based on that desire? or someone who simply loves to solve problems, and goes about doing it based on its own merits (e.g. a passionate communicator who loves to deliver the message, or a financial officer who loves crunching numbers, etc)?

Don’t take this the wrong way. I am by no means trying to say that those motivated by their desire to serve are in some way inferior or poor performers. The point I am trying to make is that it cuts both ways, namely that high PSM is not necessarily a determinant of performance, poor or otherwise.

But, does the degree to which I draw my motivation from serving the public make my contribution any less real or valuable?

I think I know the answer.

I often joke with people and tell them tongue in cheekily that I just don't care about the bigger picture. I am intrinsically motivated and always have been. Given the role I play in the renewal discourse, that joke often provokes an interesting exchange.

Colloquially, I make the argument that it is highly unlikely that a Canadian would approach me in order to thank me for my work (let alone give me a hug). Public recognition isn’t necessarily a deterrent from being PSM, but it may have implications on how we draw our motivation. I often undersell my PSM because it isn’t the thing that comes to mind immediately when people ask me why I am a public servant, and I purposely dismiss it in conversation with others because I find that it gets them thinking about why they are doing what they do.

But the truth of the matter is that I care (there, I admit it).

I care about Canadians. I cry every time a fallen soldier comes home (now that is public service), I tear up when I hear the national anthem - hell my wife and I sing it to our kids as a lullaby. I care about the future of our government and I care about our citizens.

But when I am at work, I can’t draw the inspiration I need from those larger-than-life connections. I draw my inspiration from my friends, my colleagues, and from you. So when I say I care, in the context of my work the thing I care about most is the apparent lack of introspection on the part of the disengaged public servant.

When was the last time you asked yourself the tough question?

"Why am I here?" may not be a question you need to ask yourself every day, but you sure as hell better know the answer to it every minute of every day. Regardless of what it is, if it motivates you – if it drives you – it should be the on the tip of your tongue in everything you do. I want to you to tap into it, show it to and celebrate it with others, and make it contagious.

So, what motivates you? What better time to find out than National Public Service Week? After all, It starts with you!

PS - If you didn't read the post I put up on Saturday, you should, pretty cool stuff. Scroll down, or click here.

PPS - I photoshop'd the care bear myself =)

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Update: Still Scheming Virtuously (on the road to collaborative governance)

Well, you may have noticed that last week I was fairly excited when I got a call from Dr. Gilles Paquet, Professor Emeritus, and I man I haven't spoken with in over a year.

The last time I spoke with him was back in September of 2008, just after I sat with him on a panel discussion put on by HRSDC's Strategic Policy and Research Branch. The discussion focused on leadership in governance. You can actually still read my speaking notes if you are interested (they were inspired by this publication c/o Paquet).

You see, Gilles coined the term "Scheming Virtuously" and was the inspiration for Scheming Virtuously: A Handbook for Public Servants. He called me to let me know that he was releasing a new book: Scheming Virtuously: the road to collaborative government. Mike and I were to be sent advance copies. I just got them yesterday, and I can't wait to read it:

He thanked me for taking his discussion to heart and actually pursuing not only virtuous scheming in my own endeavours, but for developing and sharing the practical guide to enable others. Needless to say I was absolutely beaming in my office. Then he told me something that nearly made me fall out of my chair. I won't repeat it verbatim, but note the final paragraph of the foreword of Gilles Paquet's new book:

Awesome! Score one for the good guys! Being included in this book is very humbling, I feel truly honoured and would like to thank everyone who has been so supportive of us and this endeavour (all you virtuous schemers out there!).

Truth is we have been secretly working on Scheming Virtuously 2.0: An Updated Handbook for Public Servants (working title). We hope to be able to release it in the fall at the 1 year anniversary of the original. Gilles has graciously offered to publish in Optimum for us, which is very exciting (to put it mildly!).

All of that being said, we would like to make it available in both official languages, so if anyone (or group of people willing to work in concert) are willing and able to help translate it please leave us a comment to let us know; we'd really appreciate it.

Oh and don't forget, this week is National Public Service Week. In honour of that we are trying to release 3 columns this week:

Monday: "I admit it, I Care"
Wednesday: "An Interview with a Not So New Hire"
Friday: "An Interview with a Participant from Canada@150"

Until then, keep scheming virtuously!

Friday, June 12, 2009

Weekly Column: The Experience Trap

I, like many others - perhaps like many of you, have run into problems within the public service because of my "lack of experience".

I call it the Experience Trap. Have you ever run into it?

Someone looks you in the eye and says something like, "Nick, you need more experience doing this in order to get this position, be assigned this task, etc."

I have. In fact, nothing motivates me more to accomplish something than being told I can't, or that I need to do X and Y before I can do Z. In these situations, my response to the experience trap is always the same:

"If you don't give me a chance to try it and prove myself, how will I ever get the experience I need? Besides, if I only ever work on what I am doing now, how do I move to where I want to get? There is an opportunity here for both of us: me, to learn and apply new skills and you, to reap the benefits thereof. You either need to give me a shot to prove myself or I need to look for a manager that trusts me, one that is willing to stretch me with tasks that are a little beyond my initial capacity. Did you get to where you are by keeping your head down or by taking on new challenges?"

If they say "by keeping my head down and following orders" that should be your red flag right there, and if I were you, I would immediately start looking for a new manager.

If they say by facing and learning from new challenges, ask about how they got those chances.

Was it a good manager who saw something in them? If so ask your manager what it is that is preventing them from seeing those similar qualities in you.

Was it a risk they took on their own? If so, ask why they did it, and would they advise you to do the same? How did it impact their manager at the time? Wouldn't they rather be involved than sidestepped?

Either way, start that conversation and see it through. You might learn a lot about yourself, and maybe even enlighten your manager.

Holding people back by refusing them stretch assignments isn't new, nor is it something that is limited to new or young public servants. People of all ages, with varying degrees of tenure and experiences are denied chances to face new challenges due to the experience trap. Sometimes, disarming that trap may mean having some difficult conversations.

Have you run into the experience trap? How did you get out of it? Share your thoughts and experiences by leaving a comment - it might just help get someone else out of the trap.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Update: Out with the Old and in with the New

I honestly don't have the time to post enormous round ups anymore. Creating that content is very time consuming, and from what I can tell by looking at my traffic you guys/gals (understandably) aren't as keen on them as you are on the columns. So it is time to repackage them.

Summary: Big long round ups with an enormous amount of links that you may or may not visit - out.

Whats in?

What I plan on doing instead is giving you small but important chunks as they come to me / as I have time to blog them. I think this will be a lot easier for me to share with you.

(Full disclosure: I asked @TariqAlexander if he wanted to take over the round up function on this blog and he respectfully declined. But he did agree to help me build a fence, so I won't hold it against him.)

For those of you following me on twitter, you may notice that the content I am blogging in these smaller chunks is the same as what I am tweeting, and for that I apologize in advance. There is however a substantial audience for this blog that isn't on twitter (what are you waiting for!) so in order to share with everyone some duplication is unavoidable. That being said, these new blog posts will undoubtedly have more than 140 characters.

What do you think?

Oh, and I need a name to brand these types of posts. They aren't really round-ups, they aren't updates (those are more administrative things) and they definitely aren't weekly columns (I won't be asking Mike to edit them, so expect the occasional grammatical faux-pas).

While you ponder what we should call these new posts, why not check out Colin McKay talk about the Privacy Commissioner's Blog and Web 2.0.

My favorite quotation:

"[the trick is to] Find the mix between all the different online technologies to see how they establish a presence online, and how they reach the greatest audience, with the smallest effort in the most relevant way."


Friday, June 5, 2009

Weekly Column: The Role of Unions Reloaded

In the past, I wrote a column in which I explored the role of public service unions (if you go back and re-read that column, make sure you read the comments, and then read this response). In the face of some lingering uncertainty of their role, it seemed to me that the most effective way for me to receive communication from, learn about, and be able to influence decision-making in the union was to get involved. So I decided to set out to add "shop steward" to my CV.


The training was 2 and 1/2 days; paid in full by the union (which really means paid for by my own – and probably some of your - monthly dues). The sessions were geared towards teaching us how to be a shop steward and how to use/interpret the collective agreement (CA).

Quick Recommendation

I would recommend that all public servants take a course of this nature. Not so much to be a shop steward, but to help familiarize yourself with your CA. Should an issue arise, knowing your rights and recourse is important, especially in the absence of solid and enterprise-wide HR solutions, standards, and consistency. I can honestly say I learned more about my rights (esp. regarding leave and harassment) during my training with my union than I did during my departmental or public service-wide orientation session.

Shocked by the Tone

The session started well enough. The Labour Relations Officer (LRO) encouraged us to seek informal resolutions prior to involving the union. However, it quickly descended into the simplistic “management bad – union good” discussion. The adversarial tone of the entire experience was rather shocking and detracted from what was otherwise valuable information.

The conversation also quickly drifted away from the actual training, and towards more substantive questions: ‘how is the union dealing with this? How can we change that? What if we have an issue with this?’ and in every case the answer seemed to be to delegate those decisions to the union executive - that is what they are there for. While participation is supposed to be a founding principle of organized labour, the union’s approach, namely defer any and all matters to labour relations officers, just doesn’t sit well with someone like me.

Making an Exit

By the end of the 2 and ½ days, I could no longer tolerate the adversarial tone that framed the entire experience. In the end, I lost control and I left the room with this little diatribe:

I have some serious reservations about the unionization of knowledge workers in a knowledge economy. Generally speaking, given today’s demographic pressures, I think the relevance of unions will continue to decline.

New labour market entrants (e.g. youth) have no historical connection to organized labour. I have worked in unionized environments for about 10 of my 14 years in the labour force. Yet, I have no deep connection to the movement because I have never had to fight to establish any of my rights, nor have I ever had to resort to filing a grievance to uphold those rights. Work relationships should be managed actively, by all parties, in a manner that renders grievances moot in all but the most terrible of situations.

Furthermore, by 2017, 1 in 5 Canadians will be a visible minority, many of them recent arrivals to Canada, and 96% of them settling in large urban centres, and accounting for 100% of the labour force growth. Their views on unions are likely to be as diverse as their educational, cultural and geographical backgrounds.

Further still, Canada's Aboriginal population, a population with little affinity for the federal government, let alone its unions, is Canada’s fastest growing population segment and represents an enormous pool for potential labour.

Couple all of that with the fact that most public service unions are still communicating via bulletin boards by elevator bays or in lunch rooms, and I would hazard a guess about the pickle that public service unions will find themselves in if they don’t start to do what is required to make themselves continually relevant.

Oh, and in my three years in government I have only worked with a current collective agreement for 2 months, and it was legislated, not bargained.


Mike and I have discussed this issue multiple times and there are a whole host of issues here: legacy, untapped potential, communication, transparency, etc. What happens next? Well we can either sit back and watch, or stand up and get involved, and for once, I am not certain doing the latter will make a difference… there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of interest among my contemporaries (in mind and attitude, not age) coming-together around the issue, at least not yet.