The President of the Treasury Board has promised that under the Liberals, we can look forward to a new golden age for public service workers. For the sake of our children's and grandchildren's future career prospects, I really hope that's true. They have an ambitious agenda ahead of them; on the other hand, many public servants who have survived a decade under the Conservatives are feeling that almost anything would be better than the status quo!

On May 3 2012, I wrote a piece in praise of formal credentials, expressing the view that in the shift towards competency-based human resource regimes, recruiters were placing undue emphasis on the "soft skills" at the expense of professional knowledge and experience. While I still stand by what I wrote nearly four years ago, it has since occurred to me that there are definitely some soft skills or competencies in which the baby boom generation tends to excel.

The first of these is loyalty, both to the organization as a whole and to one's specific department and work unit. When overwhelmed by bureaucratic red tape and the stresses and annoyances of office politics, we could always shrug and say "Oh well - it's all pensionable service!" Even when faced with having to defend a policy that we didn't personally agree with, we would try to reframe things a bit and emphasize the positive aspects. And because there was such a diversity of types of work in the public service, we could always meanwhile start applying for jobs that were more to our liking, or more in synch with our personal values and ideals. Because when we signed up for a public service career in the 1970s, it really did look as if we would be guaranteed a job for life. Maybe not one with a fabulous salary, but certainly a secure one, where our credentials would be recognized and we would get our annual increments, if not promotions, and have a decent pension at the end of it all.

Supplemental to loyalty was discretion. We would generally refrain from making public statements that related to policies or directives that were still in the works, or were seriously at odds with what our political bosses were trying to implement. In return, as long as we were performing our job duties properly and in good faith, we enjoyed a certain immunity from prosecution or the duty to testify in public fora, via the doctrine of ministerial responsibility and deputy ministerial accountability. This was - and, I would argue, had to be - something that came from within. And of course, public servants' freedom to speak out depended on the level and nature of their jobs! I'm not talking about penning a song about the prime minister on your own time while fulfilling your job responsibilities to study migratory bird patterns during working hours. Nor about those who argued - again on their own time - that metrication was a misguided direction for the government to take, even though the performance of their own job was in no way compromised.

Once politicians, political appointees and senior public servants began to chip away at the founding values of the public service - "downsizing" and "rightsizing" those who had been led to believe their jobs were secure, watering down the doctrine of ministerial accountability, eliminating severance pay, trying to eliminate banked sick leave that had already been negotiated at the bargaining table, and so on - then all bets were off. It's something that our new government will definitely need to address if it truly wants this new golden age to come about.

Another area where I believe the boomer generation excels is in terms of patience, analytical skill, and the ability to take the long-term view. The organization I worked at for the last eight years of my public service career was big on management training. To be honest, I don't think in retrospect that it was an ideal environment for me. But I tried to do my best and play the game as I saw it at the time. During a "learning circle", one fellow boomer participant lamented, "Whatever happened to the days when you just came to work and did your job?" She felt that the new recruits were wanting to know right away when they would be promoted or when they'd get to go to a conference or when someone was going to come and ensure their workstation was ergonomically correct or whatever. In short, they seemed to be preoccupied with everything EXCEPT the day-to-day logistics of their work. I guess these newbies were, in a sense, taking a broader view of their work life - it's just that they wanted their personal medium- and long-term goals to be achieved right now, if not yesterday, and there seemed to be no sense of aligning their own goals with those of their work unit!

All of which brings me to another competency that I believe baby-boomers can offer: that of bridging the generation gap. Boomers have been the eager young pups just starting out and they are also finding themselves in an environment where their skill sets and personal values may be seen as quaint or obsolete. Outside of their work environment, they may well be performing sandwich-generation roles as caregivers to aging parents or other elders, while they themselves are dealing with some of the health concerns associated with aging. While every generation may have slightly different priorities and preoccupations, I would suggest that the baby-boom generation often has a lot of practice in mediating between the various age-groups.

So by all means, let's put in place the conditions that will attract young people to the public service. But let's not throw out the baby - or in this case the older generations - with the bathwater. We need a diverse workforce that will represent the range of values and priorities of our national mosaic.
About twenty years ago, armed with my newly-minted Masters degree in Public Administration, I survived the last major round of public service cuts under the Jean Chretien Liberals. Too young then for the Early Retirement Incentive (ERI), I nonetheless took a close look at the Early Departure Incentives (EDI) that were being offered at that time. Could I perhaps find myself a job OUTSIDE the public service, even at a slightly lower rate of pay or with less generous benefits, but bridge the gap with the money I would get from an EDI?

In fact, there was one opportunity that looked promising. It was a researcher-type position with one of the (then) relatively new public service unions and I felt that my librarian skill-set, in conjunction with my Public Administration degree (in which I had taken a particular interest in labour relations, as it was also directly related to the job I was doing part-time while studying for my degree), would equip me quite well to do the job. The salary would have been quite a bit more than I was then earning. As for the benefits... well, I found them a little difficult to evaluate.

In the end, it was a moot point. Although I successfully jumped through a number of hoops, completing a respectable written assignment and being one of perhaps ten or twelve people (out of hundreds of applicants) who made it to the interview stage, I did not ultimately get offered the job.

During that interview, one of the board members asked me something about "mean to mean vs. mean to Q3". In other words, is it reasonable that government workers should get a compensation package that corresponds to the AVERAGE of compensation packages in all sectors of the labour force? Or should the government sector strive to be a LEADER in progressive compensation packages, comparing itself to the top quartile of compensation packages in all sectors of the economy?

A very reasonable question, I think. I've got a pretty good idea of how our current federal government would answer it, and it's not the way I would! After all, the public sector is not constrained by the bottom line in the same way that the private sector is. It has a duty to be representative of the Canadian population as a whole, and to be a leader in respecting human rights legislation with regard to prohibited forms of discrimination. Then there are principles like Ministerial accountability and security of tenure that relate to the requirement of loyalty and impartiality on the part of public servants (senators, too, but that's another story) - something that our current government seems simply not to understand. In economic and political terms, today's government keeps saying that we can't offer or enrich social programs until the budget is balanced - completely ignoring the principle that governments, unlike private charities and other organizations, can (and arguably SHOULD) afford to offer countercyclical stimuli, spending MORE when times are bad and LESS when times are good. Is Keynesianism dead?

In the course of my career with the federal public service, I saw many people accept lower salaries than they could have earned elsewhere, simply because they wanted the security and benefits that went with a public service position. Little did any of us suspect that the government would engage in the kind of concession bargaining we've seen in recent years, eliminating severance pay, "reforming" sick leave and performance evaluation, making pay equity (and perhaps eventually other basic human rights) something that has to be "negotiated" at the bargaining table, upping the retirement age, shifting new hires from a defined-benefit to a defined-contribution pension plan, and the pièce de résistance - picking on retirees and making us pay 50% rather than the previous 25% of the premium costs for our extended health care benefits, something which we had already won fair and square at the bargaining table. That's a low blow. After all, what are we going to do if we don't like it - go on strike??

The School of Public Administration at Carleton is celebrating its 60th anniversary next week with a day-long conference and dinner with Bob Rae as guest speaker. I plan to attend at least some of it. I'm looking forward to seeing some people I haven't seen in ages and learning what is being done to at least attempt to reverse some of the alarming trends we've seen lately.
This is Public Service Week, the week when the government highlights all the important work done by federal public servants and tells us how much we are appreciated by offering free burgers and concerts at lunchtime.

So what better way for Tony Clement, President of the Treasury Board, to kick off the week than by making his big announcement about gutting public servants' sick leave plans to combat malingering and save the taxpayers (except those who happen also to be public servants) a whole pile of money?

Believe me, I forfeited quite a few days' pay due to illness in my early days in the federal public service, back when I was a "casual", a "summer student", a "co-op student", a "term of less than six months" or a contract employee (and certainly not one of those high-priced consultants making a few thousand dollars per day, either!) Is it too much to ask that, once I've been employed for long enough, I get to accumulate sick-days to insure against financial disaster once I'm plagued with the inevitable physical and mental illnesses that may hit me later in my career? Illnesses, I might add, that may well be partly CAUSED by my work environment?

Luckily, I did not need, in my younger, minimum-wage days to take anywhere near the 12 to 18 days that the average federal public servant allegedly takes per year. By the time I got my first major in-service illness, a nasty bout of pneumonia in 1985, I had enough accumulated paid sick leave to cover the month or so I required off from work. Late in my career, when I developed rheumatoid arthritis, due in part to (or, at the very least AGGRAVATED BY, the stress I was undergoing at work in the wake of perpetual reorganizations and downsizing exercises, I likewise had plenty of sick leave built up, although it was far more difficult to take time off as I felt stretched to the limit as it was.

The federal public service demographic is an aging one as it is, and if the government persists in setting the retirement age ever later, that's only going to intensify over the years. The accumulated knowledge, skills, experience and wisdom of the vast numbers of aging baby boomers - and the knowledge transfer to younger generations - is invaluable to the smooth functioning of the federal public service, as it no doubt is for most other organizations and employers. But older people do tend to have more in the way of chronic health issues and sandwich-generation family care demands. It's not a question of the sick leave and disability plans being unaffordable. Indeed, the Government of Canada cannot afford NOT to provide such benefits.

This announcement follows hard on the heels of another one regarding performance appraisal. The Harper Government seems to believe that performance reviews are a new idea in the public service. On the contrary - all the government departments I worked for during my 33-year career had annual performance appraisals. As for firing public servants due to incompetency or incapacity (not to mention laziness, unethical or criminal behaviour, or other obvious unsuitability) being so rare compared to firing of private sector employees... dare I speculate that part of the reason is that in the public sector, they take the time and energy to select the right people in the first place? Public sector recruitment and hiring is notoriously slow, with lots of hoops for the candidates to jump through. Safeguarding the merit principle, human rights, official languages requirements and representativeness in terms of the population to be served, all take quite the network of time-consuming administrative procedures. But in a free and democratic society, we ignore those procedures at our peril!

And I'm sure we'll hear more announcements over the next few weeks and months attacking the supposedly overly generous salaries, pensions and benefits of our public servants.

Happy Public Service week, everyone!
In 1999, during my dad's final illness, he asked me if I was still working for the government. When I assured him I was, he said something like "That's good. You always know you're well looked-after if you can work for government."

I used to think so too. But while I don't regret my 33-year career in the federal public service, I'm not so sure I would necessarily advise a young person today to pursue a similar career path.

I've just been reading Donald Savoie's recent book, "Whatever happened to the music teacher?" Savoie argues that efforts over the past few decades to make the public service more like the private sector have failed miserably. The easy part is changing the lingo. Public servants talk about "business lines" instead of government programs, but whatever you call them, the public and private sectors are different and always will be.

With government power now concentrated in the Prime Minister's inner circle - notably himself, his Chief of Staff and other political appointees, the Finance Minister, the Clerk of the Privy Council and the office of the Auditor General - long-cherished public service principles such as security of tenure and the doctrine of ministerial accountability via the Deputy Minister have fallen by the wayside. The cry over the past few decades has been "Let the manager manage" but as staffing has been delegated to line departments, the administrative and reporting burdens ("feeding the beast") have increased exponentially, resulting in a situation opposite to the stated intention of the reforms. Layer upon layer of managerial or head-office functions have been added, to the detriment of front-line professionals delivering actual services - music teachers and librarians, for example - and, I would add, to the detriment of numerous behind-the-scenes professionals whose work is highly specialized and critically important but which doesn't necessarily yield short-term results and "quick fixes" or enhance the public image of the government of the day.

All too often, senior management seems to believe we can just bring in the "Subject Matter Experts" and "Train the Trainer". As a colleague of mine frequently lamented, "He wants the 10-minute MLS (Master of Library Science). If the skills, talents, knowledge and experience of a government professional could be distilled into ten-minute or ten-second sound bites, one wonders what the rationale might have been for recruiting and hiring them in the first place! Moreover, with the emphasis on frugality and cost-cutting, surely it's false economy to get rid of librarians, who typically save the time and money of the researcher through their organization and knowledge of information sources, their network of professional contacts and their extensive participation in reciprocal resource-sharing arrangements (interlibrary loan, co-ordination and collaboration in bulk purchasing of resources and online subscriptions, consistent collection development policies and guidelines to avoid unnecessary duplication, etc.)

MDs, nurses and veterinary doctors are being muzzled or laid off to make way for spin doctors. Scientists are no longer able to engage in pure research; even applied research is only valued if it bolsters the party line.

Once the "music teacher" is gone, he's gone. The corporate memory has walked out the door and organizational human capital has been irreparably eroded.

Perhaps rather than letting the manager manage, we need to let the music teacher teach music, the scientist and statistician conduct research, and the librarian ply her profession. But I'm not holding my breath.
Oh gosh. I need to go to a:

(a) librarian
(b) archivist
(c) genealogist
(d) website
(e) all of the above

Soon, your only option, if you want some assistance or advice with gathering information, performing research, or even selecting leisure-time reading, may be (d).
That's assuming you have internet at home. If you don't, or if it's not working, you'll have to go somewhere where there IS functional internet. Time was, you could rely on your friendly local public library for that. But now, Industry Canada in its wisdom, has cancelled its Community Access Program, which funded public access internet stations in public libraries across the country. To be sure, some public libraries will still offer the service but if they do, they'll have to review their already-strained budgets to find money that was previously earmarked for something else.

In the federal public service, we hear every day of yet another departmental library closing its doors and laying off its librarians. Librarians are trained to gather and organise information and provide research assistance that is invaluable in supporting informed policy- and decisionmaking. In the public as well as the private sector, that can save time and money, not to mention the reputations of high-powered officials. Then there's the Library and Archives Canada, whose mandate and reach extend far beyond the bounds of the public service. They are cancelling their interlibrary loan service, which will affect ALL kinds of libraries all across the country and to some extent internationally. It will disproportionately affect smaller libraries with more limited staffs and budgets. They have already eliminated the National Archival Development Program and pulled out of the Association of Research Libraries.

There almost seems to be a conspiracy of silence surrounding all the layoffs. On the other hand, if I were having to compete with a dozen former colleagues just to keep my own job, I readily admit that I would be hesitant to stick my neck out and risk offending my prospective managers and employer.

Libraries in schools and postsecondary institutions are feeling the pinch too. Many colleges and universities have converted all or portions of their libraries to a "learning commons" type of environment, consisting mainly of computers and chairs and roving student geeks to assist students and faculty in navigating the cybersphere. While I wouldn't want to turn back the clock to pretechnological days, I AM bothered when I hear that perhaps 75 to 80% of a library's collection (only a minuscule portion of which is available electronically) is stored offsite in relatively inaccessible locations.

This month, the Canadian Association of University Teachers will hold a Librarians Conference in Ottawa. The blurb describes librarianship as "threatened by Wal-Mart style corporate management that cuts costs by deskilling work, outsourcing professional responsibilities, misusing technology and reducing necessary services and positions." It goes on to ask,"How can our community push back against this destructive agenda?"

Well, I'm hoping to find out. I've registered for the conference, which takes place on October 26 and 27.
Thus far, I haven't really commented on the draconian cuts announced to the Library and Archives Canada, as well as numerous other federal government libraries. However, they have been very much on my mind as I've been going about my work with the Ex Libris Association (a group made up mainly of retired librarians, from all types of libraries and other organizations). At the Canadian Library Association's annual conference, which took place in Ottawa from May 30 to June 2, May 31 was a Day of Action to support federal libraries, and we were urged to wear a white shirt and/or black ribbon. There were at least two people I knew at the conference handing out these ribbons and cards with information on them about the cuts, but one of them somehow managed to get herself ejected (and no, she wasn't being obstreperous - she was just calmly standing there handing out the cards and ribbons and conversing in a normal voice with anyone who was interested in talking to her).

The opening keynote speaker was Daniel J. Caron, whose job title is Librarian and Archivist of Canada, though he doesn't actually have a library degree at all - he's very much a number-crunching businessman, though he managed to get a PhD in something. Disappointingly, he read his entire speech - in English only, strangely enough - and did not have a Q&A session immediately following it, though there WAS one after lunch, in a much smaller room - which I attended. So I guess he deserves a limited number of kudos for (a) showing up at all (rumour had it that he might bail); and (b)returning in the afternoon for the Q&A (which I had expected to be much better attended than it actually was).

In his address, Caron pointed out that the move from analog to digital did not mean leaving old formats behind: we do not stop speaking when we learn to write. Instead, he said information was moving from being something solid and fixed to being fluid and participatory. He said that people are reading and creating more texts than ever before. He said the library is no longer just a knowledge repository but a learning commons and a knowledge production centre. He spoke about information being "liberated from its containers". He pointed out that the milkman no longer delivers the milk, but people do still drink milk. And he cautioned about our cognitive bias, saying that a feeling of loss of what used to be could mask exciting new opportunities.

So when I got my chance to ask him a question, I picked up on some of his metaphors. Maybe we are indeed freeing information from its containers. But whatever happened to the idea that the medium is the message - or at least PART of the message? Poetry (usually) is meant to be heard but not seen; drama is usually meant to be heard and seen (but not, at least as the primary experience, to be read). You can smash your milk bottle and the milk still exists, but it is so contaminated by bits of glass and dirt that it's no longer stable or fit to drink - and so it is quite often in the case of the Internet: when it's no longer read-only, we're often not quite sure what was put there by the original author and to what extent the author's creation or intellectual output was either polluted or enriched by other contributors. Freshness and context are very important. Containers don't just restrain, they also preserve and give shape to their contents. So what, I asked Dr. Caron, does he see as being the role of the information "container" in this day and age. Is it still important?

I'd have to say that he did actually seem to be listening and thinking about my remarks and my question as if he was actually interested and he did answer in a thoughtful manner, without becoming unduly defensive. Needless to say, I still am not happy with the policy directions being taken, but I think perhaps I managed to reinforce the importance of, for example, preserving originals when it comes to our "documentary heritage". I'm all in favour of things like art galleries displaying works from their collections over the Internet, but the image on your screen does not have the richness of content, nor the artistic and emotional impact of the actual work of art.
When I joined the federal public service in the mid-1970s, it was much more credentials-based than it is now. If you had a 3-year general Bachelor's degree, an honours (4-year) degree, a Master's degree-without-thesis or degree-with-thesis, or a PhD, you were guaranteed a specific minimum starting salary. And it was expected that for the first few years at least, you would have a good chance of getting regular raises and promotions based on your increasing value to your employer. Even somewhere around the late 1980s or early 1990s, I recall being asked, when I applied for a competitive process, for "certified copies" of my degrees, a request which even the degree-granting academic institutions were unsure how to handle! (The eventual solution? I was to bring the original degrees in when I came for my interview and someone from Human Resources would photocopy them and attach a note stating that she had seen the originals.)

Nowadays, it seems everyone is into "competencies". Sounds great in theory, right? After all, no one wants incompetent employees, especially when even the competent ones are stretched much too thinly to cover the work that needs to be done.

Parallel to that is the demand for "generic" job descriptions to streamline the recruitment and hiring processes. Again, most people would love to shorten the time required to get qualified staff in place. (Though as an aside which merits a blog entry all on its own,I think it must be said that safeguarding the merit principle takes a certain amount of time and energy. An equitable public service with a composition reflecting that of the country as a whole is a value worth striving to protect. Private sector employers, while they might do well to emulate the public sector in some respects, simply do not face the same constraints.)

The problem is that the skill set of knowledge workers is NOT made up primarily of generic skills, and that's precisely what makes those workers so valuable in the first place.

Faced with demands for "competency-based" recruitment and "generic" job descriptions in order to expedite staffing, overburdened human resources officers are understandably inclined to craft job descriptions based mainly on what we used to call the "soft skills", things like being a team player, having a superior service orientation, having good communication skills, being committed to life-long learning, and so on. Certainly these skills are important. But how do you measure them? And should they be valued at the expense of that body of scarce professional and technical knowledge and expertise that is implied by an advanced degree?

What seems to me to be happening is that the "personal suitability" cluster of attributes, which used to be weighted at about ten or at most fifteen percent of the ultimate hiring decision for a professional employee, is now accorded more like eighty-five or ninety percent weight in the decision. The relative weights of the "hard skills" and "soft skills" have been effectively reversed.

But is that just a question of different needs in today's workplace, I hear you ask?

Well, look at it this way. Supposing doctors were chosen strictly on the basis of their "bedside manner" with no regard to their area of specialization. It's all very well to reduce wait-times, to have doctors who truly listen to what their patients have to say, to make the patient's experience in the doctor's office a little more pleasant. But at the end of the day, if that wonderfully personable, service-oriented doctor lacks the expertise and professional judgement to make a reliable diagnosis and prescribe an appropriate course of treatment, the lives and health of the patients will be needlessly placed in jeopardy.

There is a similar problem with this emphasis on "front-line" services at the expense of "back-room" services. Fact is, front-line service is often merely the tip of the iceberg. The back-room services are the rest of it - or perhaps more accurately, the foundation that keeps the building standing and working the way it should. We've seen a few scandals over mismanagement of medical records and to my mind that can only get worse if we continue to focus only on those activities that are conducted in public areas.

A degree or diploma or certificate is, or ought to be, a shorthand guarantee that a prospective employee has at least a certain minimal set of skills and attributes - a necessary and often sufficient condition for at least an entry-level job in that person's field of expertise. And if you had to make the choice, wouldn't you rather hire people based on what they've demonstrated over a period of years that they are capable of, rather than on their bubbly personality that won you over during an hour-long interview?



October 2017



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