Friday, May 22, 2020

Thoughts on the Public Sector amid the Pandemic


by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney


First let me preface my thoughts with a well worn -- and probably utterly useless if pressed -- disclaimer: what follows is series of interconnected thoughts on political theory, policy ideas, public institutions, and the public sector writ large. It's a sector I've worked in and written about for nigh on 15 years now, so while my reflections are familiar, the are not intimate. They are based on what I'm observing out there and not what I'm working on in here. I'll try to be succinct.


On Political Theory

I find it incredibly interesting that -- as former Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick remarked in the Hill Times -- (paraphrasing) Canadians have instinctively turned to the public sector for help. Undoubtedly, the role that government(s) play in shaping societies is becoming increasingly more apparent as the Prime Minister, Premiers, and Public Health Officials announce new measures and provide updates to citizens and civil servants successfully deliver on those measures at breakneck speed. Whatever the history books have to say about the public sector's response to the pandemic will undoubtedly come to shape societal views on the role of the sector in society for the foreseeable future.

The role of the media is also far more prominent as the demand for information increases, so too does news consumption, and the importance of reliable, evidence based reporting. Literacy is even more important as the battle between reliable information and misinformation unfolds across a myriad of platforms, legitimate or otherwise, that are either hand curated or algorithmically served to users. Make no mention of people in key leadership positions -- ranging from big 'P' political to small 'c' community -- spreading misinformation (by design or by neglect) and putting others at risk. As your average upper-middle class, university educated human being, I am consuming everything from thoughtful public affairs programming (i.e. TVO's The Agenda w/Steve Paikin) to random reddit threads highlighting the absolute breakdown of social fabrics and basic human niceties. That said, I take some solace in the fact that the latter of which doesn't seem to be as bad in Canada as it is elsewhere.

I'm also interested in the relationship between Canadian's sense of civic duty and the pandemic. Voluntary stay at home orders seemed to been taken seriously and we've avoided having to invoke mandatory lockdowns. I'm wondering how much of this is rooted in la politesse Canadienne and our relationship with our healthcare system. It stands in sharp contrast to much of what's being reported on from our neighbors to the south.

There's a lot being written about mission-orientation, how mission-driven governments have fared better in the COVID-19 crisis, how the pandemic creates an opportunity to develop a new, public-interest-based approach to innovation, and ultimately, how we should recognize the state’s power to create value. A successful mission-oriented strategy is one that mobilizes all sectors of society (i.e. public, private, not-for-profit, academic, etc.); it requires that governments play a strong shaping and convening role, that the media act as an independent check and balance on progress, and that citizens accept the fulfillment of the mission as a part of their civic duty.

There is equally increasing attention being paid to modern monetary theory (MMT). Some have argued that the Coronavirus has destroyed the myth of the deficit, others that MMT is the only appropriate response to the pandemic, and still others that we ought not be worried about public spending to stabilize the global economy. There are also a couple of policy ideas that are gaining attention (discussed below) that are very much linked to the MMT school of thought even if discussions about them don't invoke the nomenclature.

In short, the Overton window seems to be opening more widely and the range of what is being discussed as viable policy options is broader. Many are citing Rahm Emanuel's old adage, "Never let a good crisis go to waste," but are cutting the quotation short, leaving out the equally important second half: "It's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before." Surely there will be consequences to missing the opportunity.


On Policy Ideas

The pandemic has had an incredible impact on global economies and (for some) completely obliterated their work-life balance. As our economies re-open, some are arguing for a shorter, 4-day work week, including the Prime Minister of New Zealand (who is currently the country’s most popular leader in 100 years thanks to her pandemic response).

With countries creating a myriad of new economic supports, some countries (e.g. Scotland, Spain, Finland) are looking at Universal Basic Income (UBI) as a potential solution. In the United States, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has given former presidential candidate Andrew Yang $5M to build his case for UBI, which is starting to look like a viable policy option. Here in Canada, David Dodge (former Governor of the Bank of Canada) remarked in a recent Public Policy Forum podcast that this is the closest Canada has every been to having UBI. Former Senator, Hugh Segal (a long time UBI advocate) made a compelling case for the underlying economics (and simplification of our social safety net) in a recent Recovery Project webcast, and the Macleans editorial board just asked whether or not UBI will be this country's pandemic legacy. It's also worth noting that a few weeks ago, the Prime Minister rejected the idea for now, but that doesn't mean it isn't being discussed.

In the midst of stabilization attempts, Governments are also concurrently planning their stimulus/recovery measures. Recognizing this, many are calling for Green Stimulus. The UN chief asked governments not to use public funds to save polluting industries, the International Energy Agency has said that the crisis will wipe out demand for fossil fuels, and more recently here at home, a new advocacy group (with some notable names) is pushing for a green recovery plan (joining the likes of organizations such as Smart Prosperity and Pembina). We know the pandemic has had an impact on global emissions but that much more needs to be done if we are to meet our climate objectives. Using stimulus money to advance climate (and other societal) goals (i.e. diversity and inclusion) seems to make sense. In fact a recent study indicates that it would be the most cost-effective way both to revive virus-hit economies and strike a decisive blow against climate change. Perhaps it could even put to bed the false dichotomy of economy vs environment.


On Public Institutions

Often when I speak to folks about innovation in the public sector I start by asking them to engage in a thought experiment. For a minute imagine that you can throw away all of the existing structures of government, name your five biggest policy priorities, and explain to me how to most effectively tackle them. Chances are it looks different then the current institutional array. That said, it likely includes government institutions, many of which likely look a lot like those institutions we currently have. However, what folks usually describe is something broader and less restrictive. More often, it sounds a lot like mission orientation, mentioned above, without necessarily invoking the term. The truth is that there is an incredible amount of value in the current institutional array, and we should be skeptical of anyone who argues we should tear it all down and start from scratch. Everything isn't broken, we don't need to change everything. Let's take what works and build around it. One needs to look no further than the how the pandemic has impacted the United States to see the cumulative impacts of winding down various state run programs, departments, and agencies. Again, our conceptualization of what public institutions can and can't do could shift dramatically against the backdrop of the pandemic and the actions taken (or not taken) by governments around the world.


On Technology within the Civil Service

Civil servants at all levels, regardless of their opinion, now have to deal with working from home. Resisting telework and/or flexible work arrangements is now impossible. In retrospect many of the arguments against it seem silly in retrospect seem silly. Or do they? While the usual suspects were quick to issue their "I told you so(s)" and "the genie's out of the bottle(s)", there's still a lot to be done. To invoke a quotation favoured by the technologists, future is here, it just is unequally distributed. Not everyone has access to hardware they need to connect to government networks securely, not everyone can be on the VPN (which never expected to carry a full workforce for an entire 9-5 workday). Hardware is in demand and networks are actively managed, certain tracks of work are being prioritized, others de-prioritized. We may have been thrust into the deep end of flexible work, but not everyone knows how to swim, and there simply isn't enough room in the pool for all of us to be in there at once, less few of us drown (to continue the metaphor at risk of straining it). While the experts in digital and/or open government and/or public engagement have historically focused their attention on the tools of the trade (social media, data, dialogue, etc.) what we are in most need of is more of what I will call 'meat and potatoes' IT infrastructure. Whether or not your department's IT department blocks social media or your Minister is on Twitter is moot when you don't have the tools you need to get on the network in the first place. The importance of 'hard digital infrastructure' cannot be understated, its a core business enabler.

The successful deployment of the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit could not have been possible without digital technology. The deployment of the benefit has proved that governments can deliver IT projects effectively and efficiently -- and quite frankly, calls into question why years later public servants are still dealing with pay issues arising from the Phoenix Pay System (but let's park that). By all accounts, the project has been an incredible success and is helping millions of Canadians access benefits almost immediately, without issue. That said, the underlying technology or the digital skills needed to develop, deploy, and maintain it, are only as valuable as the analogue, old school, policy chops, needed to design and implement the policy measure. Analogue threads the needle, digital delivers the goods; we should be talking more about the policy choices we are making and less about the digital infrastructure we use to make good on them.


On the Culture of the Civil Service

Much like the status of individual civil servants IT infrastructure, results may vary. If your team culture sucked before the pandemic, it likely sucks now. Good teams, and good teams with experience working flexible work arrangements have a distinct advantage. My team was just getting its feet wet with flexible work arrangements and we fared pretty good, but there was definitely an adjustment period, and we are constantly working to improve the experience for everyone. Job mobility is also incredibly difficult right now -- unless you are in a rotational program or moving to Pandemic related files -- and on-boarding on new teams virtually is the new normal. In short, we are in this for the long haul. Personally, I'm mentally preparing myself to work from home for the next year. As a manager I'm quite comfortable managing people remotely. As a people person, I must confess that I miss daily face-to-face interactions my team members tremendously.


On Linking it All Together

How governments respond over the next year will be more important than ever. They could embrace MMT and leverage the value public institutions to create country (or global) missions that fundamentally reshape the fabric of societies. They could take advantage of a wider Overton window, enact green stimulus measures to mobilize all sectors of society, and introduce conditionality on government support that helps ensure non-government actors continue to work towards that mission. They could introduce measures that incorporate changes to how we work and how we are compensated for that work with a view to creating a more diverse and inclusive society. They could appeal to our renewed sense of civic duty, and build that mission safely from our homes, strengthening the current institutional array where is makes sense and creating new supports where they are most needed. Or, they could just let the opportunity pass them by. 

Ultimately, the choice can be simplified: will governments work to get 'back to normal' despite the pandemic exposing the holes in our social fabric, or will they try to mend them, and build something better?


Friday, April 17, 2020

Book Review: The Value of Everything by Mariana Mazzucato

A few weeks ago I received an email from Stewart Fast. Stewart is a fellow public servant and wanted to share his review Mariana Mazzucato's The Value of Everything.

He can be found on Twitter @S_Fast_ and on LinkedIn, his review is below (Thanks Stewart!)


The Review

Mariana Mazzucato’s “The Value of Everything” provides a compelling critique of economic assumptions of value-creating activities, innovation policy and the role of the public sector. At this moment of extraordinary government investment and intervention in the Canadian economy to withstand the COVID-19 pandemic, Mazzucato’s arguments for more recognition of the role that government plays in not only regulating markets, but in creating them are timely.

The book’s main argument is that many activities regarded as value-creating are in fact value-extracting with some nefarious consequences for societies. In a highly accessible fashion, Mazzucato documents a change in economic norms to narrowly regard value as anything that can be priced. As a result, many activities (e.g., financial services, specialty drug sales, Uber) that would be seen by classical economists as creating no new wealth and engaging in unproductive rent-seeking behaviour are instead immensely profitable activities aided by government policy. She uses this distinction to good effect throughout the book showing perverse examples such as huge increases in the price of drugs not invented by the companies that are enjoying the profits.

Mazzucato dedicates a sizeable portion of the book to “financialization”, or the spread of financial practices and attitudes into the “real” economy. She notes that until the 1960’s national accounts considered financial activity as outside of the production sphere and adding no value to GDP. In current assessments banks make a positive contribution to GDP calculated in part by the difference between lending and borrowing rates. While recognizing that financial services are important to the functioning of the economy, Mazzucato questions whether the intermediary function of financial institutions can truly be thought of as creating value.  After all, the mortgage backed security market that led to the 2008 financial crisis was generating substantial interest payments and thus was tracking as GDP growth before being ultimately revealed as deeply problematic.

As a public servant working in research funding and science / innovation policy, I found Mazzucato’s extended assessment of financialization particularly provocative as it relates to corporate investment behaviour. She critiques the practice of maximizing shareholder value of publicly traded companies through share buy-backs which have the effect of increasing earnings per share. Earnings per share has become a measure of corporate success but chasing earnings per share in this fashion may be occuring at the expense of investment in plant and equipment and R&D. She cites evidence that investment rates for publicly traded companies under pressure to maximize earnings per share are substantially less than privately owned companies.

The challenge of how to increase business investment (expenditures) in research and development (BERD) has long been a priority for Canadian science and innovation policy-makers. The Superclusters initiative and a wide range of R&D support programs all aim to address this, yet Canada continues to rank lower than the OECD average in BERD. The Council of Canadian Academies 2018 report on the state of R&D in Canada comprehensively documents low BERD and suggests part of the reason is a high proportion of low-tech sectors in Canada. Mazzucato’s observations point to another possible factor at play. Perhaps Canadian industry is maximizing shareholder value through short-term financial strategies rather than long term investment in R&D.

The final chapters of the book advocate for a reorientation of the current innovation narrative to recognize, celebrate and advance the role the public sector plays in risk-taking and developing new technologies. This message will be familiar to readers of her 2013 book “The Enterpreneurial Statereviewed previously. Mazzucato returns to those arguments stressing that it was government, not private-sector, investment that led to key technologies including GPS and touch-screens at the foundation of whole new sectors. She advocates for the state to reap some return from successful investments and for state investment in infrastructure, R&D and in risky technologies especially in times of austerity.

My only real criticism with Mazzucato’s book is that it is light on analysis of her proposed solutions. We are told for example that policy-makers should broker deals that generate symbiotic private-public partnerships through state investment banks focussed on long-term finance to support risky endeavours, or that the price of drugs should be made to reflect the overall input from state supported research and not force the taxpayer to pay twice. Yet, there are real-life instances of government action for both of these examples. What can we learn from those efforts?


In “The Value of Everything”, Mariana Mazzucato has once again thrown down a challenge for readers to see government in a different light. While some may quibble with her assumptions, the overall call to look deeply at what value means in our economy is compelling. In this time of unprecedented public investment to face the challenge of COVID-19, the importance of government as a lender of last resort, a funder of life-saving discoveries and an economic stimulator is clear. Even skeptics may begin to look more seriously at Mazzucato’s invitation to recognize, celebrate and advance government as a risk-taking innovative co-creator of markets.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Turning Good Personal Habits into Strong Management Practice


by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

We all know that there seems to be a lack of support for employees transitioning to the executive cadre, but there is a similar lack of support given to employees making the transition into management roles. As a manager I'm responsible for a team of seven, myself included. In all honesty, learning how to manage other people effectively has definitely meant some muddling through. Lucky for me, my team has been pretty forgiving over the past couple of years as I learned the ropes. Lucky for them, I am someone who comes to the job with the mindset of being people inclined. I'm interested in management culture, I wrote a playbook on how to be more innovative, and my expectations of my team's approach and performance can be gleaned therefrom.

There's still much for me to learn about managing other people effectively. That said, there's a couple of things know to be true, for example, managing a team is a constant renegotiation of the terms to which everyone has either explicitly, implicitly, or complicity, agreed to come together under. That a team's culture, it's modus operandi, is constantly in flux. That it obviously changes when people join or leave but that it also changes to accommodate even small variances in how or to whom work is assigned to, what stories are told, and what stories people tell themselves. Misconceptions and a lack of clarity can be culture killers, I err heavily on the side of transparency and inclusion, tempered with honesty and a willingness to share my own feelings of (at different times) powerlessness, frustration, disagreement, but also empowerment, pride, and jubilation. I've been criticized for being too open and honest with my team, but I disagree with the criticisms based on the strength of those relationships. Being both physically and emotionally available to my team consistently throughout the work week (and at times beyond it) for both their professional and personal well-being is by far the most exhausting, challenging, and rewarding part of my job. We spend too much time together to be anything short of family, so we need to be functional. That doesn't mean that we always agree, or that we can't improve, it just means that we have a strong enough foundation to do those things in safe and productive ways. I was frustrated a few weeks ago and everyone on the team knew it, they quietly got together, wrote a very thoughtful card and organized a lunch for me. I've never been a part of a team that was as thoughtful, let alone been privileged enough to be at the helm of it.

As I embark further down this people management journey and start to look at (and yes, apply to) executive positions, I am focusing even more attention on turning good personal habits into strong management practice. Below are some of the tools / approaches we're using in the team right now. Remember, this is all in flux, we oscillate often, try new things, etc.

Flexible Work Schedule 

We have recently created a weekly schedule that outlines when each of us will be in the office and when we will be teleworking (and over what hours). We are pairing this with phone number and a ground rule that we are to call anyone teleworking in the case of urgent requests, and that those calls will be answered and/or returned promptly. We will share the schedule / contact numbers with those who need it up the chain and make a hard copies available outside our offices to help deal with the passersby that might prefer to pop in on an item and be (unintentionally, and unfairly) frustrated to find us not in our office. The schedule acts as a baseline for our flex work but can be modified on a week to week basis. We are aiming to have modifications to the schedule known at least one week in advance for planning purposes. We also want to retain a critical mass in the office and have all committed to being the office on Wednesdays for our weekly moderated team meeting (detailed below). Within the flex work package, we have employees working compressed hours and in other cities.

Weekly Moderated Team Meeting 

We diagnosed the need for an alternative approach to team meetings because they were largely caucus style meetings that weren't getting the best out of the team as a whole. We started a discussion about how we ran meetings, shared some reading, and decided to try to move to moderated format. Admittedly, this felt very weird at first but we are getting the hang of it. My biggest mistake when trying the moderated meetings was declaring victory too soon, assuming that we could do away with the formalities because the new culture had taken root, when it hadn't. I had to backtrack the next meeting. I apologized for the mistake and we paired back some of the formality without doing away with it altogether. By and large the team seems to dig the format and we are getting greater participation from everyone in the team. We have started discussing whether or not we should try to inject the format into broader divisional meetings, but that's still TBD. The moderated meeting can last between and hour and ninety minutes and is broken down into three parts: management updates, formal agenda items, and a priority round table. We start with management updates because its mostly just me sharing information and answering follow up questions. I transition into a moderator role when we move to formal agenda items. Agenda items are determined and communicated in advance of the meeting. Team members may put themselves on the agenda and lead the item or they may ask their colleagues to prepare something and lead. Everyone is given amble lead time to prepare their item. After formal agenda items are complete, we move to a priority round table. Team members can use the time to flag issues, ask for help, or signal their availability to help. No one is allowed to put another person 'on the spot' with a demand during this time and team members are free to 'pass' if there is nothing that they need to raise. I remind everyone regularly that the round table is not a 'justify your work week to me' meeting or check in. We try not to juggle these meetings and prioritize them as they represent a cornerstone our time together. That said, we proceed regardless of numbers of people and with our without me.

Stand-up Meetings

We run 15 minute stand-up meetings twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays) at 1pm. Given that these are flex days for some, we are using Google Hangouts as a platform for a video call. This is largely to cover off anything that is 'exploding' and/or needs attention. I also try to flag any absences or (corporate) reminders that need flagging. These proceed regardless of turn out. We've only been doing this for a few weeks but I think they can be effective, especially as a quick check in on a flex day (I flex Tuesdays), although the video call element does mean we need to look presentable!

Bilats (aka Office Hours)

I reserve thirty minutes each week for each team member to be used (or not used) at their discretion. We treat them like a university teaching assistant's office hours. Team members know I will be available if they need me, but they don't always need me or are dealing with work that takes priority. We often speak about work, career development, and even personal matters. We often do it in my office, while going for a walk, grabbing a coffee, or even over lunch. Its a two way dialogue and forms much of the basis upon which I get to know my team members. Again, this isn't a 'tell me why you are getting paid this week' meeting. My only rule of thumb here is that I check in with the team member if they haven't been to office hours for a couple of weeks.

Information Sharing & Tools 

I'm an over sharer generally speaking, so its no surprise that I share a lot of information with my team. Not all of it is actionable or required reading but I think its important for them to see what information flows in the department look like and know that I'm not intentionally holding things back from them. Often I will share something with a qualifier, i.e. this is important to this context, or see page 5 for the crux of the argument. The qualifier allows people to cut to the heart of the issue, it also gives them a sense of how engaged I was or wasn't with the content I am forwarding.

We are also experimenting with tools like Slack and Trello but we don't have those things locked in culturally yet. Slack will likely cut down on general email chatter, esp. with offsite employees and I'm mainly tracking to do lists on Trello.

Friday Appreciation Emails

Every Friday I have half an hour blocked in my schedule to send the team an email outlining what I appreciated about them that week. At the start of the week I open an email and write each of their names down. I save the email to my draft folder and anytime throughout the week I see something impressive, I jot it down in the email. I write it up in greater detail on Friday afternoon and send it before leaving for the day. I make a concerted effort to also use the opportunity to practice my second language, drafting parts of the email in french.

Parler ma deuxième langue

Je fais un effort concerté pour parler le français le plus que possible avec mon équipe. Cela comprend à la fois les francophones qui apprécient l'effort et les anglophones qui (au moins dans mon équipe) essaient d'apprendre le français. It's not perfect, but it creates more space for french in the workplace.

Succession Planning

Rather than hire from outside the team, we are moving through a succession plan that will give each team member an opportunity to act in the position prior to opening it to a competitive process. As a hiring manager this is significantly more difficult than simply pursuing an external hire. It takes more time, it takes more paperwork, and creates the risk of hard feelings and/or flight after the results are in. Investing in your people is also (in my view) probably the right thing to do.

Performance Management System 

Last Performance Management Agreement (PMA) cycle I drafted standard language for objectives and criteria for everyone on the team, we vetted the list together, I incorporated feedback and distributed the list to the team. Individual team members were free to select objectives from the list for use in their PMAs. We are also documenting any/all training and acting assignments for posterity. It's not the most useful tool in the tool kit but I did find being regimented on the language helped bring the team together around a set of shared objectives and understanding.

Other things I'm thinking about

  • How to better balance and value work, work styles, and preferences against dichotomous variables such as longer tasks vs short turn arounds, big picture thinking vs detailed and discrete tasks, etc.
  • How to hold team members to account on things you are encouraging them to do (i.e. meeting new people)
  • How to better acknowledge the traditional lands we are meeting on (i.e. prior to interdepartmental meetings, etc.) 
  • How to best honour the spirit of ideas brought forward by team members


Things we tried but didn't work


  • We tried to discuss the team's training and development in the context of participatory budgeting -- which was brought forward as an idea by a team member -- but ultimately failed in part because our resource base eroded but also because training and development can sometimes be something that people don't feel comfortable speaking to in a larger group setting. 
  • We created a shared outlook calendar for flexible work but it got unwieldy, creating a table in word was much easier.

Friday, January 24, 2020

How to interview (For an entry level Government of Canada Policy Job)


by Nick Charney RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Nick Charneytwitter / nickcharney

I've interviewed a lot of candidates over the past few years supporting my department's Policy Analyst Recruitment and Development Program (PARDP). I love helping out on interview panels. It gives me a window into new talent and role in shaping the future of the organization. That said, not all interviews are created equal, In my experience, the difference between a good interview and a not so good interview really boils down to two things: structure and preparation. 

Structure

As a candidate you will almost always receive information about what knowledge and competencies will be tested in advance of the actual interview. Sometimes you can glean the list from the job poster, other times it will be in email / correspondence from the department, and it will also usually be repeated by the interviewers during the actual interview. 

Knowledge criteria is pretty straight forward, you have to know about the department, its mandate, priorities, and relationships with other governments departments and agencies, etc. All of this is publicly available information on the department's website. 

With respect to competencies, while It seems obvious, it is paramount that you speak directly to the competency being tested in as concise a manner as possible. Being short and direct can often be a more effective strategy than spinning an elaborate tale. Interviewers are looking for specific things and the more explicit you can be about serving those up the better. Your job as a candidate is to make it as easy as possible for the interviewer to screen you in.

You may wish to restate the competency when you frame the response. For example, if you are being tested on 'collaboration', use the word 'collaborate': 
"In my current role as a junior policy advisor I collaborate with my colleagues on a regular basis..."
Then speak to how you do it,  use the words again if you have to:     
"This collaboration often takes the form of email exchanges, meetings, jointly writing documents, assisting in briefings ... "
Speak to how you approach the issue and what result it yields in general. 
"When collaborating with colleagues I prefer in person meetings because I find it helps build consensus. It allows us to work through issues in real time. My colleagues appreciate my open, down to earth style, and I appreciate theirs. It lets us build rapport."
Then speak to a hyper specific example (if possible) where your competency was required to overcome an issue or solve a problem. Provide as many pertinent details as you can. You want to demonstrate that you can put the competency into practice:
"When I was working on the division's TPS Report I was responsible for X ... We faced Y challenge ... Ultimately we were able to overcame it together by collaborating on Z."
Finally, circle back to the competency in your concluding statements (close the loop):
"In sum, I collaborate regularly as a part of my core responsibilities, this takes many forms but my demeanor always garners positive response from my colleagues, especially in more difficult situations such as the one I outlined previously. "

Preparation

Again, knowledge criteria is pretty straightforward -- do some research (study!). 

On competencies, questions often take the form of "Tell me about a time when ..." (e.g. you faced a challenge, you took on additional responsibility, you tried to innovate, you had a workplace conflict, etc). Therefore I recommend identifying compelling, work-related stories that demonstrate competencies in question, 

Further, for ease of use / re-use, I would recommend that you use some of your down time to identify situations that you could use to speak to multiple competencies during an interview.  You want to be able to tell a compelling story during the interview, so think about these scenarios as short vignettes and write out the important details in advance (remember, preparation!). It doesn't have to be overly complicated but even having a rough sketch of the situation, most important details, and knowing what competencies the story demonstrates in advance can prove incredibly helpful.

I did this type of advanced preparation when I interviewed for my current position. I took note of the competencies being tested, thought up ideas days before the interview, chose the best among them and gave each vignette a title that included the competencies being tested. I then took some time to write out the pertinent details (think story board). When it came time to do the actual interview, the first thing I did when I walked into the prep room (for my 30 minutes of prep time prior to the interview) was write down the titles of my vignettes. I used the remaining time to flesh them out on paper, writing down key points I wanted to get across. The interview itself was probably the smoothest one I have ever participated in because I walked in with a plan and was able to clearly articulate my story and demonstrate the competencies in question. Being prepared also has the ancillary benefit freeing up cognitive resources that would otherwise have to be expended thinking about an example on the fly and triangulating that example against the competency profile. 

One other thing about preparation: it will almost always feel awkward to use some of the question answering time to quietly outline your approach but resist the urge to just jump into the question and start talking. Don't be in a rush, it is very rare for a candidate to use all of the allotted time actually answering the questions. So take your time. If you jot down key words before you launch into your answer you can check them off as you speak to them. This helps ensure that you hit all the major points you wanted to hit. Also, don't be afraid to come back and add more details later if you missed them on the first round. You aren't penalized for coming back to revise an answer, but you would be penalized for an incomplete answer. 

Putting it all together: Structure and Preparation

I've had a lot of discussions over my career about the usefulness and effectiveness of formal interview processes, and while they aren't perfect and can obviously be improved, I think they can be incredibly useful.  In short, in the absence of actually being able to get to know a candidate, or when dealing with high volumes,  using interviews is an effective way to determine if a candidate can bring structure to their ideas and whether or not they take the time to prepare, both of which are incredibly important to me as a hiring manager.