Renewal
May 7, 2012

Hiring for collaboration

In the fifteenth annual report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service of Canada (2008), the Clerk of the Privy Council and Secretary to the Cabinet stated: “Renewal is about making sure that the federal public service preserves and strengthens its capacity to contribute to Canada’s successes through the delivery of excellent public services and policy advice. We face two key challenges in this regard: first, an aging workforce nearing retirement in substantial numbers, especially at the senior levels; and second, the increasing complexity of the issues affecting Canada and its place in the world.”

How can the federal public service’s hiring practices more purposely respond to the challenge of increasingly complexity? (Note that this is not a comprehensive analysis of policies and practices for hiring and managing people, rather it is a perspective from a federal public servant who has managed horizontal initiatives over the past ten years.)

While much emphasis has been placed on hiring new recruits to the public service, an equal amount of attention needs to be placed on ensuring that public servants have the appropriate skills and abilities (especially as they relate to collaboration and partnership) to meet today’s complex societal challenges.

There is a growing body of research on horizontal management and coordination. I often joke that the number of articles and books dedicated to this topic has amounted to a tower of paper that has a prominent vertical presence in the corner of my office. And, yet, all of this research and all of the talk about the importance of working together has not fully embedded itself as part of the culture of the public service.

In my opinion, the lack of a strong collaborative culture within the public sector is something no modern government can afford. In fact, the Auditor General, in her report of November 2005, indicated that weak horizontal management could:

  • pose serious risks to public service effectiveness by reducing the likelihood that the expected collective results will be achieved;
  • jeopardize the efficient use of resources; and
  • increase the risk of program overlap and duplication.

So, why is it that we continue to struggle with the concept of horizontal coordination?

As there is not enough space to outline all of the factors, let me focus on how the existing hiring and people management practices are contributing to the difficulty in shifting the current operating style from protectionism of departmental perspectives to the promotion of a whole-of-government perspective.

We have built a public service that has predominantly hired, promoted and rewarded individuals on a competitive model that favours those who can best represent departmental perspectives. This was and is still important because doing so effectively is an essential component of the contest of ideas that leads to good public policy. However, protecting a department’s perspective steadfastly may be pursued at the expense of a whole-of-government view, thus impeding our ability to continue to serve Canadians with excellence.

Can we do things differently? Yes. Leaders, managers and human resource advisors should identify hiring and people management activities that place a greater value on collaboration and partnership. Some practices that I have found to be particularly helpful in achieving a culture of collaboration include:

  • Facilitating and promoting interdepartmental assignments or interchange assignments or other exchanges with outside organizations such as the Government of Canada’s Fellows Program.
  • Identifying “collaboration” or “partnership” as essential qualifications within the statement of merit criteria for many positions across all classifications and all levels. To be more specific, the types of experience and abilities could include the following: excellent interpersonal skills; big-picture thinking; solution-brokers/facilitators; ability to develop, maintain and strengthen networks/partnerships; willingness to share information, ideas and perspectives; experience in working with various stakeholders; and experience in coordinating activities across organizations.
  • Advertising job opportunities beyond the boundaries of any one federal department, not just at senior levels and not just for positions advertised to the public.
  • Inviting members of a network to be part of the hiring process, either within the interview stage or through reference checks to ensure that candidates being considered will be a good fit in maintaining and nurturing existing relationships.
  • Using simulations that require candidates to demonstrate their abilities to work collaboratively.
  • Asking candidates to undertake a 360º assessments, including feedback from key partners outside the public service.
  • Linking performance contracts to collaboration as a means of promoting collaboration as a valuable organizational objective across all levels. More to the point, for those eligible to receive performance pay, departments could identify “collaboration” as a corporate commitment requiring every executive to demonstrate how they are contributing to a culture of collaboration.
  • Rewarding public servants who embody the culture of collaboration through pride and recognition programs.

These are just some ideas; I know there are many more. We need to establish an inventory of helpful practices, but more importantly, we need to start to implement these efforts as normal business practices.

I am optimistic about our future. As part of my research, I reviewed the statement of merit criteria for positions currently being advertised at the mid- to senior-level for policy positions within the Government of Canada. I was pleasantly surprised to see that every notice included a qualification related (directly or indirectly) to collaboration or partnership. Another reason for my optimism is that Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, like some other departments, has dedicated resources to promote greater horizontal management and coordination by establishing designated work units mandated and empowered to promote coordination. These are important steps to creating a culture of collaboration and to helping renew the Public Service of Canada.

Paul Crookall, editor-in-chief of this magazine, recently wrote that excellence cannot be a solitary journey. I agree. Public servants need to work together – across departments, across governments and across public and private sectors – to continue to serve Canadians with excellence.

Susan Anzolin is director general, Federal Relations and Issues Management, Policy and Strategic Direction, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

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