Lessons from PSMA review – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

Lessons from PSMA review

The Public Service Modernization Act, which came into force in 2005, was the most significant change to people management legislation in the federal public service in over 30 years. Two of the statutes it introduced – the Public Service Employment Act and the Public Service Labour Relations Act – contained requirements for a five-year review. Susan Cartwright led the preparation of the review report.

While staffing the team and finding office space for our review in 2009, I reflected on our objectives. Producing a high quality, readable and cogent report was obviously critical. But I wanted to focus on making a difference in the workplace by addressing some of the challenges managers and employees face. The review process needed to be useful, an opportunity to bring people together in a neutral space to discuss challenges, to share, to learn, to dispel some myths and to begin to make changes without waiting for the review to be completed.

The review team was deliberately small and comprised of individuals with varied expertise. Small teams force collaboration, in this case with our “partners” the Public Service Commission, the Office of the Chief Human Resources Officer, the Privy Council Office, the Canada School of Public Service, the Public Service Staffing Tribunal, and the Public Service Labour Relations Board.

The independence of the review was an important consideration. Despite the decision that the review would be led by a public servant, we were left to work independently. We never felt constrained in our engagement, analysis or conclusions. We were deliberately transparent about our work and met with our partners periodically, keeping in mind that they were also subjects of our review.

Perhaps the most important step was defining the scope of the review. Determined to avoid scope creep, we were mindful that legislation does not cover all aspects of HR management in the public service, although we could not in some cases ignore the linkages and interrelationships. We established a governance structure, laid out our principles, and developed terms of reference. Where possible we used existing resources including data, information, events and committees.

Given the subject matter, we successfully engaged employees at all levels and from a variety of communities across the country. However, our attempt to use Web 2.0 was disappointing.

The task would have been easier if a clear end-state and indicators had been developed in 2005, against which progress would be measured. Despite this shortcoming, once we graduated from legislation “boot camp” and had a sound understanding of the statutes, we set about developing performance indicators and dividing our inquiry into themes.

Over the next 18 months we engaged stakeholders, collected and analysed information, debated with our partners, and developed and road-tested our findings. An interesting phenomenon emerged: recurrent issues and challenges appeared for each theme. As a result, our recommendations were clustering in a way that we had not anticipated, which we concluded was significant and revealed the underlying reasons why this major change initiative is not yet complete.

This led to a “proposition for change,” which we believe applies equally well to any large change initiative and offers suggestions to increase the likelihood of success.

Finally came the actual writing of the report to be submitted to the president of the Treasury Board. Each team member drafted a section of the report, integrating what we had heard and learnt, enunciating our findings and developing possible recommendations. The disparate drafts then had to be integrated into a cohesive whole that, along with editing, translation and publishing, took longer than we had anticipated.

From this process, there is some useful learning:

  • There is no substitute for the basics: sound problem definition, strong fact-based analysis and openness to new ideas.
  • Process matters: even those who disagree with our recommendations recognize the review was thorough and thoughtful and appreciate our transparency.
  • Notwithstanding our attention to scope, expectations for the review remain high among some stakeholders.
  • Despite a discussion guide and background material, it was surprisingly difficult to get beyond the myths and into fact-based discussions.
  • Small teams can indeed foster collaboration and learning, but no matter how collegial and likeminded, there can only be one pen, possibly two.
  • It was important that we were flexible and ready to adjust, and hear what our analysis was telling us, despite the frustration of revising the work based on our original themes.
  • Our most useful and lively engagement sessions were those that mixed participants from different organizations, levels and functions. Learning and sharing good practices happened on the spot.

 

Susan Cartwright spent 21 years with Foreign Affairs and International Trade, serving abroad five times, before serving with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, Health Canada and the Privy Council Office.

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