Robert Parkins, editorial director, met recently with Shirley Howe, Public Service Commissioner in Alberta, for a discussion on key issues there. Following are excerpts from their conversation:
The big issues in public sector management generally these days are accountability, transparency and openness, recruitment. What tops the list in Alberta?
In a practical sense, from a public perspective, I think there’s a lot of interest around accountability, because that grabs people’s attention. But we are a hugely accountable public service. I think that if you stack it up and ask what problem are you trying to solve here, around accountability, there are very few places that you’re going to be able to point to where we’ve not been accountable or open or transparent. And where there are issues, you follow up by saying: Here is (what) was absolutely dealt with and taken seriously and put back on the right path.
This is a $30 billion business, so you’re going to have some issues at some point. But I think there are lots of processes in place to keep people accountable, and I think generally our public service employees are accountable by nature – that’s something they want to do.
So I don’t want to downplay that, I think it’s hugely important. I think though from the practical side of what’s really hitting us, it’s attracting talent. I think the whole ability to position public service employers as credible, exciting, challenging places to be, so that the talented folks who are interested in public policy are drawn here . . . we’ve been worried about this. It’s shifted a little bit, as people didn’t retire quite as quickly as we thought they were going to. But it’s going to happen. 2011 is going to see a huge dropoff of talent, and so from a public service perspective, I think the biggest thing is getting the right talent and keeping it, and if you’re focused on that one thing, all of the other things will fall into place, because you’re going to have better provision of advice to politicians, you’re going to have better public service, better perception of the public service. So I think that’s the critical thing – having the best possible talent.
The federal government is particularly concerned about the middle to senior management range – DGs and ADMs in their structure, and where they’re going to come from, because they’re retiring at a huge rate over the next 5 to 10 years. Do you see the same thing in Alberta?
We’re looking at that every which way we can, from growing our own people to focusing on the kind of environment where people’s ideas are valued and heard, where there’s lots of development opportunities. It’s a combination – growing your own but also trying to attract people (because they) feel they can come into an environment where you can be innovative and creative and make a difference. That’s what really motivates people to come to the public service, and I think we need to be better at doing it.
So just how do you do that? Work the campuses? Advertising?
We’re doing a whole lot of things. From the recruitment side, we have an ambassador program – over 200 ambassadors going to campuses, not just universities but all post-secondary. They’re also talking to people at professional organizations. And we’re part of a global TV program that’s called Alberta’s Best Is Hiring. We’ll have the Premier have a clip on there, as well as people talking about why it’s great to work for the public service. . . . We’re also focusing on our website – our jobs board – because that’s where we know people are interested in coming to learn about us.
We really want to use our people more as ambassadors, so it’s not just HR folks giving you a brochure. If you want to be a corrections officer or a sheriff or a social worker or a geologist — whatever it is, you’re going to be hearing from people who are in that role, and they’re talking about what attracted them, what kept them, why it’s exciting to be here. I also have a deputy minister steering team on attracting talent, and we’re looking at a number of initiatives; deputies are really engaged in this.
Then there’s a whole other structure – complementary – on the developing side. Because we know you can attract the very best talent, but if they come here and then find in the first two years they’re not doing much – they’re off, and we haven’t done the job we need to. So it’s got to be attractive, longer “onboarding,” with orientation, mentoring, career growth opportunities – not necessarily advancement right away, but growth: They have to feel like they’re growing, and their views are being heard, and there’s ability to move and develop develop develop. And we measure for it. We measure on engagement, annually. And that also gives an idea of productivity.
How do you think morale is in the Alberta Public Service these days?
Well, our engagement scores are really good, our satisfaction scores are good. Do we want to be better? Of course. But I think morale is very good. And I think that people really want to do the very best job. And I think we see that time and again, in whichever area you want to look at. I think we’re a very hard working public service – maybe even too much so, in terms of a balance between work and life.
To get back to accountability – what kinds of structures and processes do you have in place, or in development, to address accountability issues?
Well, accountability is very broad. You can look at it from the financial side, from the human resource side, from the materiel side. The basic thing that we are focusing on for accountability is our values. We believe strongly as Albertans – the Alberta Public Service is a subset of Alberta – that if you’re looking at accountability as one of your values, then that’s the place to start. So when you come on board, we’re saying: You know what? The thing that is most important is respect. People need to feel they’re treated respectfully, whether by their colleagues, or by Albertans, or by supervisors; subordinates respect accountability, integrity and excellence. And that’s basic. We’re going to ask you about this every year. So if you can live those values. . . .
Then of course we have all the same structures as everybody else does. You’ve got internal audits, you’ve got an auditor general’s office, you’ve got financial controls of all kinds, you’ve got IT controls, I have all of my HR policies and directives, we’ve got a code of conduct and ethics which we will include in a way that leads up to and including dismissal if that’s what’s required . . .. We’ve got an ombudsman, we’ve got an ethics commissioner, we’ve got a union that has a grievance procedure. So we have the whole suite of accountability structures. I think there are lots of structures in place – solid structures.
The basic question though, to differentiate our public service from any other employer, is: Are you living those core values? Are you committed to that? Is that something that’s more than a poster on the wall? All of these structures are there as parameters, as guidelines, because I respect you. I respect and trust and know that when I give you a job to do, you’re going to be accountable. I expect you to be accountable. And yo