Recently, CGE Editor-in-Chief George Ross sat down with Patrick Borbey, President of the Public Service Commission of Canada to talk about his role, priorities, leadership approach, the role that PSC can play in the reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people and more.
Patrick Borbey was appointed President of the Public Service Commission in May 2017. He has held a number of positions of significant responsibility with the Government of Canada, including Associate Deputy Minister of Canadian Heritage, President of the Canadian Northern Economic Development Agency (CanNor), Senior Assistant Deputy Minister of Treaties and Aboriginal Government, Assistant Deputy Minister of Northern Affairs, and Assistant Deputy Minister of Corporate Services at both the Privy Council Office and Health Canada, to name a few.
Patrick hails from Elliot Lake, Ontario, and holds a degree from the University of Ottawa in Social Science and has a Master’s of Business Administration.
Patrick, you’ve been President of the Public Service Commission of Canada for almost a year now; tell CGE a little bit about what brought you to this role given your long, distinguished career with the Government of Canada.
It all started with two summer jobs I got through a program back in the day called COSEP, the Career Oriented Student Employment Program.
In the summer of 1982, I was looking for a job and was willing to take anything. An interesting opportunity came up with the Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce, as it was called back then. I knew of the stereotypes around government and so I was expecting a bit of a boring job; but I figured it would pay for my studies the next year, and that’s what really counted. What I discovered was absolutely the opposite. It was an amazing experience. I worked with great managers and I was given an assignment with responsibilities that stretched me beyond my comfort zone. I learned a lot and it really did whet my appetite for more. The second summer job – as I was finishing my MBA, I returned to government and the experience was just as enriching and valuable as the previous summer. So I thought to myself, “Well it’s not a fluke. I know what I want to do. The public service is where I want to be.” That’s how I started my career in the federal public service. I’ve had tremendous support and opportunities throughout, culminating in this pretty unique and important role that I’m playing here at the Public Service Commission.
If I take a moment to reflect, my varied past experiences have actually prepared me for this job. I’ve been a hiring manager for over 30 years. I was a corporate ADM responsible for Human Resources in two different organizations. I was involved in some of the work that led to the modernization of our HR regime in the early 2000’s. I was also a delegated deputy head. So I have basically played a lot of different roles that involve the management of Human Resources and, of course, recruiting, staffing, looking for talent, and developing talent.
For me, it was a natural evolution to take on this role at this stage in my career.
Fascinating. Patrick, can you describe the mandate of the Public Service Commission of Canada for CGE readers and what the priorities are for the PSC?
We are the organization that helps to ensure we have a merit-based, professional and non-partisan public service. The authorities for staffing and recruitment are delegated or vested by Parliament to the Commission. We then delegate those authorities to deputy heads. Of course, we ensure that those authorities are exercised in a responsible way. We have oversight responsibilities as well, which allow us to test whether the system is working appropriately and ensure that merit is protected.
That includes using audits, monitoring programs, surveys from time to time, and we have investigative powers when, at the end of the day, there might be a concern over a staffing process. For example, in situations where there may have been fraud or political interference.
We are also responsible for ensuring the non-partisan nature of the public service. We review and provide authorization to public servants who want to run for elections, whether at the Municipal, Provincial, Territorial, or Federal levels. We set the conditions that have to be respected to ensure, again, that employees exercise their rights, but that it also doesn’t affect – either directly or indirectly – their impartiality when it comes to providing services to all Canadians.
Those are some of the key roles we play. To do this, we have systems, policies, programs, and services in place. For example, we run the Post-Secondary Recruitment campaign for the Public Service. We also provide student employment programs that are used across the public service for summer employment as well as co-op placements. We have a number of other programs, and we try to add value to departments who, if they were individually to do recruitment, probably would not be cost efficient.
We work in a delegated, de-centralized model, and we have the tools to be able to make sure that model is producing the results for Canadians.
Of course, I should mention that it’s the 110th anniversary of the Public Service Commission. We have a proud history, and we’re celebrating the contributions we’ve made over that long history. Some of the foundational reasons for our existence are still there, and they are reflected in our priorities. I talked about maintaining a merit-based, professional, non-partisan public service. Oxford University’s Civil Service Effectiveness Index ranked Canada number one. Part of the reason for that is because of our professional, non-partisan public service. So maintaining that is a priority.
We also recognize that we need to modernize our policies, programs, services, and systems to better serve the needs of the hiring manager and candidates. We know there is frustration with respect to our systems or processes that take too long. Candidates quite often wait months or more to hear back after they’ve applied for a job. Managers end up in situations where positions go unstaffed for a long period of time. Part of modernization is also to focus on ensuring that we have the right results in terms of reducing the time it takes to staff positions. We work with hiring managers and the HR community to find ways to streamline our process without compromising its integrity.
Diversity is another priority. It is part of our mandate to ensure there is equal access and opportunity for all Canadians in terms of job opportunities. As part of that, we need to address barriers wherever they may exist, in terms of access to jobs. We need to improve our reach to communities across the country that we want to invite to be part of the public service. Sometimes, that may involve targeted initiatives when we’re trying to improve, for example, the hiring of persons with disabilities or Indigenous People. We also need to make sure that we address regional diversity; that Canadians from across the country see themselves as being able to participate in employment opportunities in the public service.
I’m also particularly concerned about diversity from the perspective of age diversity. We have an aging workforce in the public service, and we’ve not been doing a great job at recruiting millennials. They represent about 21 per cent of our workforce, while they make up about 34 per cent of the Canadian labour force. We clearly have gaps and need to adapt some of our approaches to be able to target and attract millennials to join the public service. Our student programs are a great way to do that, but they only last for a few months. We need to make sure we follow-up, develop and nurture relationships with those students we want to keep for future career opportunities.
We also need to look at a broader definition of diversity that includes the LGBTQ 2+ community. There are some challenges there in terms of addressing the needs of that community. When I talk about diversity, I’m also including official languages. This is a core value for the public service and for ensuring that our future recruitment needs also help us continue to maintain our capacity to serve the public in both official languages.
Lastly, I should also mention our veterans. We have a special responsibility to place veterans into jobs. They have a priority in our system, and we have to work hard to help them transition from serving their country in the military to serving their country in the public service.
I would put all that under the umbrella of improving diversity.
These are just some of the priorities we face at this point.
Great, thanks for that. I understand that the Public Service Commission of Canada, by legislation, is an independent body and is accountable to Parliament. Patrick, can you tell us how this independent role is different from your previous experience as a line executive in the Government of Canada?
It is quite an adjustment to go from constantly working with Ministers and their offices into a situation where you don’t have a Minister. Well technically, I do have a Minister – the Minister of Public Services and Procurement Canada is our Minister for purposes of tabling documents in Parliament, but of course there’s an independence there. I am the ultimate decision-maker along with Susan Cartwright and David Tucker, the other two members of the Commission. So there’s a great responsibility that comes with that authority.
Our relationship with Parliament is also unique. I’ve enjoyed my interactions with Parliamentarians. I’m always happy to appear before committee to provide my insights into issues that may be related to the future of the public service. I also meet with individual Members of Parliament and Senators to hear their concerns and provide the information they need to understand what the Public Service Commission is doing and how the staffing regime works; not only here in the NCR but from coast to coast to coast. There are reports that I have tabled in Parliament, and clearly, I do take that role seriously in terms of keeping Parliamentarians informed.
I want to switch gears and get your views on leadership in the public sector. Patrick, I think you’d agree that strong, progressive leadership is the underpinning of a modern public service and, in fact, is key to achieving the modern HR practices that the PSC is champion for. I’m wondering if you can tell CGE readers a little bit about your leadership values and approach.
There’s a lot I could say here in terms of my approach which I’ve developed over the years. I’ve learned from my mistakes along the way, and I’ve adjusted my style to be able to better suit the needs of my employees. I can tell you that I favour teamwork and collaboration and open sharing of information. That’s extremely important to me. I like to bring a certain informality to the workplace, ensuring that people feel they have access at all levels of the organization. I’m not a big fan of hierarchy. I always say to people who call me Mr. Borbey: “I’m Patrick. I’m a part of the team.”
I am engaged in the day-to-day work of my employees, and I respect their ideas and contributions. At the same time, I’m not afraid of challenging the status quo and pushing people to experiment, to try things differently. I sent a signal through our organization, which we don’t do enough, to indicate that risk is not to be avoided. We can accept risk in our organization; we can manage the risk. We need good mitigation strategies, but risk is part of the process of innovation and experimentation. Inevitably, from time to time, there will be failure. What’s important is what we can learn as a result. Do we become better as a result of that learning?
Other things I’m big on are measuring and reporting on results: being able to demonstrate to Canadians that we’re making progress, that we’re serving them, and they’re getting value for money in terms of the work that we do here. It’s about being transparent and accountable.
I like to bring a certain amount of humility to my work, and I like to see that around me as well. I’d rather have people prepared to admit there is still a lot of progress to be made rather than just celebrate our achievements. It is important as well, but I think in this kind of job we have to admit that there is a lot of work to be done. We don’t have all the solutions, we have to reach out and work collaboratively to identify those solutions.
The last thing I would say is about the importance of a safe, respectful workplace. I’ve always been a big fan of work-life balance. I’ve tried to model it myself. Of course, supporting employee well-being and, particularly, no tolerance for harassment is key. The fact that we still see in our public service-wide surveys a number of employees who report having been subjected to harassment is just unacceptable. It’s something I would love to eradicate in my organization.
Let’s talk longer-term now. Position yourself five or ten years out and you’re looking back at your time as the President of the Public Service Commission of Canada. What would you like to have achieved in that time?
This is a seven-year term, which gives me the luxury of being able to plan ahead, to experiment, to try to make adjustments. If something works, then let’s see if we can replicate it more broadly. If it doesn’t work, how can we adjust and do things a little bit differently? Having that long-term mandate is quite a gift.
Clearly, we have been talking about the renewal of the Public Service for a number of years. We talk about people who are going to walk out the door with huge corporate memory and experience and the fact that the next generation of public servants is not necessarily completely ready to take over that leadership role. I think that is an important legacy to realize over the next five-plus years.
Can we change the way we recruit and staff in the public service to focus on preparing for that transition, preparing the next generation of public servants to achieve the same kinds of great levels of excellence that we have over the last generations?
We haven’t been hiring sufficiently. I talked about millennials earlier. There is a gap, and we have some catching up to do. Our role here is to make sure our systems and our recruitment platforms are working in such a way that managers will choose to use them, and will hopefully and increasingly go outside of the Public Service when it comes to filling vacancies. Unfortunately, the data shows that about 68 per cent of our staffing is done internally. That creates a lot of churn and is also a barrier to improving diversity. Other countries such as New Zealand, Australia and the UK have either gone or are going towards a system where all positions are advertised externally. We could probably benefit from having more external staffing as part of renewal.
I think to a certain extent, we have some mindsets to change amongst our hiring managers. Our hiring managers are sometimes too risk averse, preferring the safety and expediency of internal candidates rather than looking outside of the public service, whether at entry level or mid-level, mid-career level. If you look at our organizations, we suffer from inverted pyramids, where we don’t have a lot of entry-level positions to bring in new talent.
The other thing I’d like to see is getting away from a fairly regimented, strict approach to hiring with purely artificial processes, such as interviews where everybody’s taking copious notes and having to check all the boxes for all the criteria that has to be assessed. Perhaps spend a bit more time talking or assessing someone’s potential for growth. I think if we could hire for potential, we would probably do much better, and we’d probably have a better experience between the candidates and hiring managers as well.
I’m also concerned about the balance between our staffing in the National Capital Region versus our regions. We’ve seen a concentration over the last couple of years of public service jobs in the NCR. I think that’s not a great direction for the country. We need to balance that out a little. There’s a lot of great talent across the country, and we’re not tapping into that talent sufficiently.
Those are some of the challenges. I hope we can make good progress over the next six years. Oh, the other thing I should mention is I think that some of our hiring practices are just not sustainable. We’re underutilizing our programs such as Post-Secondary Recruitment and we are, unfortunately, too often hiring highly qualified graduates into positions for which they are over-qualified and under-challenged. I don’t think that’s the best use of their talent. If I had not been challenged when I came in as a student, I would have said, “Yeah, okay. This’ll pay my bills for the next year but I’m out of here. I don’t want to have anything to do with it.” So we do have to change some of those behaviours.
Lots of challenges there, indeed. Let’s drill down a little bit here on some of those areas of focus for the Human Resources Management system now. And perhaps focus on imperatives such as diversity, inclusiveness, and the need for the public service to be a part of the action associated with reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people. What role do you think the Public Service Commission can play in that?
We have a strong role to play in diversity. As you may know, we share responsibility for the Employment Equity Act with the Treasury Board Secretariat, and I believe we have to go beyond the Employment Equity Act and the four Employment Equity groups.
I think even if women are overrepresented in the Public Service, we must do a much better job of attracting women into careers that are related to STEM. I’ll give you an example. We ran our Post-Secondary Recruitment campaign this year for computer science positions and, as you know, that’s an important part of the public service, an area that’s growing right now. Unfortunately, less than 30 per cent of the applicants were women. How do we get more women applying to those jobs? I know some of that is downstream working with universities, working even before university to keep women involved in math and sciences, and I know there are some interesting initiatives that have been done by some departments to try to tackle that.
In terms of persons with disability, I think we are above labour market representation when it comes to their representation. About 5.6 per cent of our employees self-identify. However, that’s a bit of a misleading piece of data because we know that participation amongst persons with disabilities in labor force is much lower than for the rest of the population. So we have work to do there, and we have accessibility legislation that is expected to be tabled by the government, hopefully by the spring. When that happens I think it’ll be clear that the federal government has to play a stronger leadership role as an employer, and we have some work that we can do here at the Public Service Commission. We are finding that in our programs, the application rates for persons with disability is lower than what we’d expect. We’re struggling to figure out why that is. Is it that we’re not seen as an employer of choice or are people afraid to self-identify because they don’t think they’ll be accommodated in the workplace?
Visible minorities are an interesting situation. When we go to processes such as our student programs or Post-Secondary Recruitment program, we get a healthy level of applications. Generally, we are appointing above the labor market availability, but there are still some issues to address. Recently, we experimented with an Anonymized Recruitment Pilot Project. You may have heard about it. We used an anonymized approach for the screening of applicants and we tested that approach to see if that led to better screening outcomes for visible minorities. That pilot was non-conclusive in that it did not show any difference in anonymizing applicant information. We’re going to be using our audit responsibilities to do further work to better understand the barriers specifically impacting visible minorities.
In the spirit of reconciliation, we have work to do in terms of not just recruiting or attracting Indigenous People to join the Public Service but keeping them. I saw some statistics a few months ago which indicated that more Indigenous People are leaving the Public Service on an annual basis than are joining. That’s very worrisome. That goes beyond just staffing and recruitment, it goes into what kind of supportive environment do they find? What kind of development do they have access to? Learning respect for culture, for language … those are all issues that at the end of the day will affect our ability to be able to not just attract Indigenous People but retain and develop them.
In that context, we were very happy to take over an initiative launched a year or two ago by the Treasury Board Secretariat: the Indigenous Student Employment Opportunity Program. As part of our summer employment programs, we have a specifically targeted program that aims at attracting Indigenous students into public service jobs across the country. We’re running it ourselves for the first time as a national program this year. That’s an example of a targeted approach to try to address some of those gaps. We also have an Aboriginal Center of Excellence here at the Commission that takes a look at all of our programs, working to ensure there are no barriers, and that our testing and assessment methods are culturally appropriate.
You mentioned the work that you’re doing on the Anonymized Recruitment Pilot Project, and I’m wondering if there are any other innovations that you’re seeing, either across the country, in Canada or globally that kind of excites you and that you could incorporate into our HR practices here in Canada?
Over the last few years, we’ve experimented with some pilot projects and have been inspired by other jurisdictions. We have a lot in common with Westminster-style governments, so we are constantly looking at Australia, New Zealand, and the UK to see what we can learn from their experience. We also are looking at how the private sector, in some cases, manages these challenges. Even though we have a different mandate, there are perhaps some techniques that we could adopt.
At the Commission, we like to experiment first, or be part of the first wave of experimentation when it comes to new techniques. One we’re currently piloting, on a small scale, is with respect to employee referral programs. This is a way the private sector attracts or finds talent in particularly hard to staff positions by simply tapping into their employees’ knowledge and networks, and seeing if their employees know somebody they could refer. Now, of course, you have to protect against nepotism, and so that’s something we are building into the pilot. We’re looking at doing this for the external hiring of psychologists. That’s an important part of our workforce here, and they’re hard to recruit. Our efforts with recruiting at universities over the last two years have not been very successful, so this is an area that does warrant a different type of approach or thinking. We’re going to test it and see if that’s something that could be applied to a public service setting.
We’re also looking at completely transforming the experience that hiring managers and candidates have when they access our recruitment platform, which dates back to the 80’s and is certainly not adapted to the needs of today. So we’re working on prototypes, applying User Experience principles, to come up with what that new system of the future might look like. Definitely inspired by the ‘Amazons’ and the ‘Turbo Taxes’, in terms of that intuitive experience that you have when you’re using those systems.
We are doing interesting work that could significantly transform that experience, and in that process reduce the time it takes to staff positions.
Lots to do, but we are up to it.