Renewal
May 7, 2012

Renewal and communications

Renewal is an ongoing process demanding hands-on commitment across a broad front. While centrally-driven efforts are important, they must be reinforced and complemented by concerted and sustained action at the “grass roots” level. Ultimately, success or failure depends largely on the willingness of both individuals and organizations to take ownership. In short, renewal cannot be about waiting for someone else to solve the problems.

Functional communities are particularly well-positioned to assume a leadership role – they are best positioned to identify irritants, obstacles to effective work, and are best able to develop concrete and tailored solutions.

The Clerk of the Privy Council’s recent 15th Annual Report to the Prime Minister on the Public Service paints a comprehensive portrait of the changing demographics in the public service, and the communications community in particular, and its impact on today’s federal public service. In doing so, he has set out a compelling call to action.

Massive changes have occurred in the past 25 years: the increased role of women; the increased numbers of knowledge workers, and decline in support groups, as illustrated in Table 1.

Compared with 1983, there are now five times as many computer and systems specialists, four times as many lawyers, three times as many economists/sociologists/statisticians, physical scientists and biologists. Conversely, there are 95% fewer secretaries and stenographers, 66% fewer people employed in general labour and trades and 40% fewer clerks.

Following significant cuts in the mid-1990s, the public service has returned to its previous level, while the population it serves has grown nearly a third – suggesting productivity gains.

There has been dramatic change (with pronounced implications for renewal) in the age profile. Today, 66 percent of federal public servants are over 40 years old (up from 42%) and the average age is 44 (up from 39). Half of executives will be able to retire with non-reduced pensions by 2012, although actual retirements usually lag by a few years. Almost a third of ADMs could leave today. Combined with the tight labour market, this presents challenges and opportunities. Positioning ourselves to take advantage of those opportunities is what renewal is all about.

There is a tendency to only truly appreciate the importance of effective communications at times of crisis or, worse, in the wake of some sort of communications misadventure. When everything is working smoothly we tend to take good communications for granted and overlook the contribution that professional communicators make in helping to ensure that policy and services are both in-tune with public desires and preoccupations and are explained in a clear and coherent fashion. In performing this function, communicators help to shape the public face of government and foster trust in public institutions.

The Information Services (IS) community generally serves two masters – the Canadian public, as civil servants, as well as the public service and political leadership for whom they act as counsellors and advisors. It is in the interest of both that the IS community continues to attract and develop exceptional talent as well as take up the responsibility, as a collectivity, for advancing renewal.

Government communicators are generally several years younger than their colleagues – half are under 40 years. The community has more than doubled in size in less than a decade – rising from 1,567 to 3,443.

The “feminization” is pronounced – 70 percent of the IS group is female. The community also tends to be more francophone than the rest of the public service.

The implications from a renewal perspective are:

1. The relatively recent influx of new recruits has brought new ideas and vitality. The presence of more Generation X and Y communicators will facilitate the use of new technologies to engage the Canadian population. As we move to realizing some of the potential of Web 2.0 and the promise of more truly collaborative and open government, the need for technological virtuosity will only grow. At the same time, however, having a generally younger workforce has implications on institutional memory and continuity. This clearly speaks to a need within the community to develop effective knowledge transfer tools as well as robust development mechanisms such as mentoring.

2. The mobility out of the IS group is a challenge. Of the 1,500 IS employees in 1999, only 604 remain within the community today. Another 400 have shifted into other occupational groups. The rest retired or otherwise left the public service.

This suggests that communicators are much sought after and that their analytical and writing skills are both highly portable and valued by other business lines. It also suggests they are interested in developing cross-cutting career experiences and assuming as many professional identities as possible. The benefit is they are especially well-positioned to build bridges across sectors and between different areas of departments, and to help inculcate a deeper awareness of communications sensitivities within the policy making and service delivery processes. They gain a deeper appreciation of the business side of the department or agency. Such knowledge is critical because effective and credible communications advice must be rooted in a significant depth of content expertise. On the negative side, too rapid job changes can destabilize the community.
     
3. The traffic cannot simply be one-way. Policy and operational shops cannot just raid the Communication Branch for talent. Incentives need to be put in place to ensure that people from these areas bring their experiences and insights to the communications fold. The government needs communicators with holistic perspectives of departmental business and whose professional advice and expertise is rooted in a firm appreciation of their departmental clients’ needs and priorities. Such insight is gained from exposure to broad experiences. But such insight also needs to be brought back and shared with the next generation of communications colleagues.

Of course, crossing professional boundaries needs to be broadly encouraged. Effective long-term renewal demands that greater effort be made to “ventilate” the public service and to break out of the bubble within which the institution occasionally functions. In many respects, the most important thing that communicators can bring to the table is a better understanding of, and connection with, Canadians.

At its heart, effective communications is about appreciating how ideas will play in the “real world.” Communicators need to be plugged into the interests and priorities of stakeholders, organizations and the public at large. There is a clear need for greater cross-pollination of ideas that can only be achieved through more effective engagement and mobility between sectors. Communicators must be at the forefront of driving change in this area.

A great deal of the emphasis on renewal has focused on recruitment. While attracting and welcoming new public servants remains important, the demographics suggest that the vast majority of the people who are going to be here when the Baby Boomers leave are already here. Over 104,000 permanent employees have been hired since 1999 – almost half of the whole permanent population of the core public administration. This means that most of the future executives and leaders are already public servants. Renewal cannot just be about bringing in new talent. It is also about developing the talent we alre

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