Changing the human resources conversation - Canadian Government Executive
HR
May 7, 2012

Changing the human resources conversation

Janice Charette is Deputy Minister, Human Resources and Skills Development Canada, a portfolio department of over 24,000 people with a budget of almost $100 billion, responsible for three business lines: 1) Human Resources and Skills Development; 2) Service Canada, and 3) Labour Programs. They support life transitions, from childcare to seniors, from school to work, from one job to another, from unemployment to employment, from work to retirement. She spoke with editors Paul Crookall and Robert Parkins about renewal, leadership, and managing one of the largest, most complex departments in government.

How is renewal affecting your department?

I’m fortunate to be on the Deputy Minister’s Steering Committee on Public Service Renewal so I’ve been involved in public service-wide renewal from the start, and have helped shape the renewal action plan. It’s important to be able to deliver on the public service-wide plan while also adapting the plan to the realities of individual organizations, so at HRSDC, we’ve asked ourselves: What are the renewal priorities for us? What do we need to do so that five years from now, we have a staff with the skills and experience, organized in a way that will allow us to meet the needs of Canadians and advance the public interest?

We also realize that what it means to be a public servant is changing. We have the challenges of the changing nature of government, the pace of change in our environment, the demand for 24/7 service, and the increasing expectations of our clients for direct interface, fast response times, and a focus on client service.

At HRSDC, we deal with issues of policy design and program development, service delivery, and regulatory functions. The desire for citizens and other stakeholders to be part of the conversation about how policy is being created and implemented is changing how policy is developed. Working with a minority Parliament has also increased the need for public servants to work in new ways with Parliament.

We’ve adopted a three-part renewal strategy. We started with the four pillars of the public service renewal action plan – integrated planning, recruitment, employee learning and development, and enabling infrastructure – and then made it our own.
 
We began with our Integrated Business Plan, which we communicated to our staff. That’s been a very interesting journey – we used to plan our business at one table, our financial resources at another, our human resources at another. This re-alignment was critical to our success and hard to achieve, but definitely worth the effort. We need to continue to refine this plan.

Second, we made some top-down changes to our governance structure, to strengthen the synergies across our business lines, to leverage how operations can inform policy and program development, and vice versa, and how the enabling functions can best support the entire portfolio.
 
Third, and probably the most important, was to engage our employees in the renewal process. We have a renewal champion from each branch and each region. They meet with the ADM Champions for Renewal in the Renewal Advisory Council and, over the past year, they have been talking with employees about what renewal should look like in this department and defining what employees think is important. We also tap into our functional communities, with a network of young professionals (YMAGIN), a middle managers community (NMC), an administrative professional team, and an executive community. We have vertical and horizontal connections.

Each branch, region and community was asked for at least one specific renewal commitment to implement this year. One of the most successful engagement activities that we have held to date was an interactive webcast, town hall meeting style, with close to 200 sites across the country. We wanted to give employees a direct communication line to the Deputy Minister. Questions came up on a screen and I responded in real-time, by video stream. We need to do more of this kind of interaction session.

The important and consistent messages we received from all sources are: a) create a healthy, respectful workplace; b) focus on learning and career development; and c) help our leaders hone their skills to lead people in the face of tremendous pressure and change.

These kinds of suggestions are a hugely positive sign to me. It’s a sign of real commitment to our mission and shows enthusiasm on the part of our staff to want to stay, progress and do well within this organization.

What advice do you have for new professionals wanting to maximize their contribution?
 
Don’t be afraid of a big challenge. If you have an opportunity to make a difference, take it. Have the courage of your convictions. Work hard and try to have fun along the way. Enjoy the variety and the challenges of the many types of work available in the public service and the opportunity to learn from your amazing colleagues.

What should the baby boomers be doing to help youth and new professionals in the public service?

There’s a hunger and a thirst for coaching and mentorship. Young professionals are concerned about colleagues retiring – that’s our corporate knowledge that’s walking out the door. To share that knowledge and experience is both an obligation and an opportunity to continue to make a positive difference.  

There have been multiple re-organizations at HRSDC. What’s the impact been?

Anytime there is organizational change, it does take some time for the organization to be able to adjust and adapt. I think we have come a long way in the HRSDC portfolio. We used to think of our different parts as independently moving pieces; it took us a while to see how to use this as an opportunity to all work together for improved synergy across our business lines. The Service Canada initiative, for example, has strengthened our attention to client service and service excellence. It’s been a huge success, and it has changed the way we think about client service across the portfolio.

What will this department look like in ten or twenty years?

Technology could absolutely transform the way we do business. With aging, there will be a change in how we deliver programs. We may even set up a Service Canada office in Florida (smile). I think policy will be developed more collaboratively with more citizen involvement. Governments will work more closely with community organizations, NGOs and civil society. Grants and Contributions could well be managed differently. We will shift our focus – from how to deliver programs, to how to solve problems. We will work locally while connecting and learning internationally. It will be full of dedicated and motivated staff.

Performance management and productivity improvement are governmental priorities. How is that going in HRSDC?

Performance management requires setting clear objectives for people and having meaningful measures and feedback. To provide positive feedback well, to be constructive where changes are needed. This is easier to do with superstars, but more difficult with poor performers. We need to dissect the problem, why is it occurring? Is it a wrong fit? Do they not understand? Do they need more supports? As we move to a work style more dependent on teams, we will need to refine our practices to focus on high performance by all team members.

There’s a push and pull between embracing innovation and avoiding risk.
 
Three things are necessary. First, we must h

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Have you ever had a stellar employee on your team, but were unable to turn their contract into a permanent position because someone returned from their secondment, or because their position opened up to competition? Perhaps you have been in a similar situation at some point in your career, and you might be able to...