Daphne Meredith, the government’s first Chief Human Resources Officer and a champion of change, speaks with editor-in-chief Toby Fyfe.
Why is great human resources management so difficult to achieve in the public sector?
I believe the most exciting, important and rewarding job of public sector leaders is to demonstrate excellence in HR management – our ability to serve Canadians depends upon it. Achieving this excellence requires that we strive to reflect Canadian values in everything we do. It is not enough for us to organize our people to deliver results for citizens; how we lead our people to achieve these results is just as important. This includes everything from creating diverse organizations, to using and promoting official languages, to rewarding and motivating our employees, to prudently allocating resources, to ensuring we and our employees are meeting the highest ethical standards expected by citizens.
The federal public sector has some particular traits that demand that we, as leaders, perform at our peak in managing our people. First, the federal government is big – the largest organization in the country – and complicated. By some measures it has over 500,000 employees, and is comprised of dozens of lines of business and operates 1,600 points of service. And accountabilities are complex, with ministerial accountability to Parliament, with deputy heads responsible for managing their organizations, and with central agencies playing their role to support a coherent government agenda. Our work is further complicated by the fact that the public sector values we strive to reflect are often in tension with one another – meaning the best course of action is not always clear. And, finally, how we manage our human resources is scrutinized more closely than anywhere else.
None of these challenges make it impossible – or even necessarily difficult – to exercise excellence in HR management. Like anything worth doing, great HR management requires time, effort and discipline from public sector leaders. Despite what we often hear in the news, we have solid performance that is well documented in the extensive reporting we do annually to Parliament. And perhaps most important, our employees have a strong values and ethics foundation and are highly committed to and engaged in their work – which is the best measure of a productive organization.
For the last 30 years, we have been facing the same HR issues: staffing, over use of casuals, and the inability to deal with poor performance. Why is it so difficult to resolve some of these issues?
The first point is that we’re not unique. Staffing and performance management challenges exist across similar public sector jurisdictions – those working in the public sector in Washington, in the U.K. or in Australia all face the same challenges. But that is not to say we can’t do better in these areas.
A group of deputy ministers has taken a look at practical problems in areas such as staffing and found that there is incomplete knowledge and understanding of values underpinning appointments and the latitude available to run quick but fair and transparent, merit-based appointment processes. There is also often a disconnect between human resources advisors and hiring managers in understanding and delivering on their respective roles in the staffing process. And there are improvements we need to make collectively in planning our resource needs well in advance – two to three years in advance – which would help our staffing activities enormously. Deputy ministers have become much more involved personally in leading activity in people management and this leadership will drive improvement.
We are also providing managers with the tools they need to fulfill their people management responsibilities effectively. For example, with the collaboration of managers and human resources advisors across departments we’ve launched an interactive performance management website which helps managers navigate the guidelines and policies pertaining to performance management, on a case-by-case basis. We’re also getting ready to publish a handbook for managers on disability management.
Do you think that the decentralization of accountability for HR to deputy heads under the Public Service Modernization Act has made it harder to manage HR issues on a government wide basis?
We need to recognize that the decentralization that has occurred with the Act is part of a trend that has been underway for over 40 years. At the same time, the decentralization has not been absolute – there are areas such as collective bargaining and pensions and benefits that we continue to manage centrally.
I think the decentralization is a good shift, one which will pay dividends. One sees good practices emerging from departments in many different areas of HR management, including labour relations, performance management, diversity and staffing. Departments are trying different approaches and some are working well. As managers within departments continue to test and refine their HR practices, they are well advised to look at what others are doing, what practices they can learn from.
That leads to the role of your office. Do you see yourself as being a champion of the leading practices?
I think we are now playing that role well in many ways. As one example, with a number of departments we won a GTEC award for HRAid, an initiative that allows departments to share the benefits of each other’s innovations in HR tools and processes. We have developed a common human resources business process through capitalizing on the leading process standards in departments, and we have a new public service management dashboard that can be used to compare departments’ people management practices. We need to expand our role as facilitator of discussions with departments and collectively determine where we’re seeing the best practices.
But while my office and I can help to create an enabling environment for effective HR management, it is up to individual public sector leaders to develop strong relationships with the HR practitioners who support them and to try innovative approaches to fulfilling their HR responsibilities, share the results of those innovations, and build on the innovations of others. In a time when we have access to online tools such as GCForums and GCPedia and GCConnex, this has never been easier.
A review of the Public Service Modernization Act that has recently been concluded. What do the findings tell you about how the government has done in modernizing HR?
I would not want to get ahead of the review team, which has not yet concluded its work. But I will say that, in general, they are finding that five years is a short time to implement substantial cultural and behavioural change as was required to reach the goals of PSMA. Moving how merit is determined in our appointment system – from searching for the “best qualified” candidate to finding the “right qualified” candidate – is a big change. Changing the basic principle for hiring opens up new staffing possibilities that takes longer than five years to experiment with and learn from. Understanding what a values-based regime really means and how to make it work is key.
Greater latitude is available to departments, not just through the changes introduced in the PSMA, but also through the streamlining of Treasury Board policies. It will take a change in mindset and culture to take advantage of th