The Tellier-Mazankowski advisory committee on the federal public service delivered its second report to Prime Minister Stephen Harper and PCO Clerk Kevin Lynch on Feb. 22. A follow-up to an earlier study on recruitment and leadership development, the second report focused on issues of performance management and human resources governance. Co-chair Paul Tellier, a former PCO clerk who later ran CN and Bombardier, discussed the latest report with editorial director Robert Parkins.
Your recommendation with respect to poor performers is likely to catch much of the attention as this document is read and reviewed. What lies behind your thinking on this front?
Well, the whole thrust of our report was that the accountability structure has to be improved if we are to have good people. Two things have to happen. First, it is essential that deputy ministers assume full responsibility for this. The accountability has to be crystal clear: you are the deputy minister, you are accountable for the management of people. This is not a job for the Public Service Commission or Treasury Board or an agency or PCO. You are where the buck stops as deputy minister.
Secondly, we say you have to simplify the process. The human resources management process is far too complicated. And when we listen to various people, the situation is not improving; another agency was created in 2003. Therefore, we say, can’t we simplify? And, of course, this is going to take time, it’s going to be controversial and so on. But using whatever means are available today, you’ve got to simplify; there should be one unified agency organizing policies that should be implemented by the deputies.
And in that context, when we say the deputies should be held accountable, they have a responsibility first of all to ensure they have the right people. This is where it starts. If you’re in charge of an organization of 2,000 or 20,000 people, when you sit down on Sunday, and you think about the job the next day and the next week and so on, the first question that has to come to mind is: Do I have the right team? When the deputy sits down with an ADM or a director-general, the first question should be: Do you feel that you have the right people on your team? Do you have enough new blood? Do you have enough expertise? Is the gender mix right? Depending on the agency, is regional representation adequate? And so on.
As soon as you start dealing with questions like this, you tend to categorize people in three categories. First is the high potential, the high flyers, the high performers who always exceed, who always perform. You’ve got to make sure that you keep promoting them. The second category is people who are doing okay. But then you have to ask yourself as a manager of people: What can I do to bring them into the first category? Therefore, it’s training, development, grooming, mentoring, coaching and so on.
And then you’ve got the third category. They’re not performers…and you ask yourself why. Well, he or she is tired. Or, they’re about to retire and they haven’t much imagination. Or, the job is just too big for them. And then a manager has to ask himself or herself: Can we salvage them? Can we provide them with support and training and coaching that would move them into the second category? Or should they be terminated?
On this question of termination: we met with many deputy ministers, we spoke to many officials, and unanimously people are saying, when we ask whether they get rid of non-performers, well, it’s complicated and so on. And everybody feels that this is very unfortunate. And this is why it’s not the prime recommendation in our report. But when you put it in context, it makes a lot of sense. Some of (the media) put the emphasis on this, because when you talk about firing people it usually makes a headline. But it has to be put in that context.
Based on my experience in leading large organizations, non-performers are anywhere between 2 and 5 percent. In some kinds of very old organizations, it can go up to 10 percent because it’s been neglected or what have you. We’re not talking about a great many people. But the issue has to be addressed. We have asked Kevin Lynch and Wayne Wouters and the others to come back and tell us whether there are major impediments to getting rid of deadwood. And if there are, what do you intend to do to change the situation?
On a related note, there’s no formal advice in the report on change management, and government can sometimes be pretty change resistant. Is there advice as to implementing some of these recommendations, or do they wait for government to move on or not?
Well, a couple of points here. The first is that we are very pleased with the Prime Minister’s interest in this. This is an advisory committee that, I submit, is being taken seriously. We’ve had a couple of very serious in-depth discussions with the Prime Minister – and you know how much he’s got on his plate. And for him to show up at 8:30 and spend an hour or an hour and a half with us…he’s not reading from a briefing note, he has reflected on this, and he’s got some genuine concerns. So we find this very encouraging.
As for the clerk, Kevin is with us most of the time. Every time we want something like a survey or what have you, he gets it done for us. And if you look at what we said in our first report about recruitment – we had been “on the job” for only a couple of weeks when we wrote that first report – he took action. We said, listen, if you have a succession problem, make sure that you recruit in indeterminate positions with university graduates. And he instructed deputy ministers to do this. The end result by the end of the year should be 3,000 new faces. Therefore, I like to believe that the way we can play a useful role is that we serve as a sounding board, but we also forward recommendations. And I think they are well thought through. We won’t have to crack a whip – it’s not our role – and action will take place.
On another side of poor performance, we did an interview with Ken Blanchard of One Minute Manager fame not long ago. With respect to poor performance in the public sector, he thought it was because managers are not good enough at creating a vision for the organization. That means the employees don’t know and get enthused about what they’re really doing. What you need to do, according to Blanchard, is to set the vision and then reach out to engage poor performers. What’s your take on the vision question in performance management?
I agree. To be able to articulate a vision is very, very critical. But sometimes, in the public sector, it’s more difficult than in the business sector. What really matters, I think, is to be very practical and to state the objectives, precisely and concisely, and repeat and repeat and repeat.
When I came to CN, for example, there was no sense of urgency. So the first message, for many months, was: it is urgent, we don’t have all the time in the world, it is urgent that we do this or we do that.
Then the message was: the customer matters. They pay our salary. And, therefore, you cannot tell a customer we’re going to pick up your goods on Friday and do it the following Monday.
Then we articulated the downsizing. And we decided initially to take 5,000 off the payroll. Well, 5,000 was mentioned 14 times a day. And there was a reporting process and so on.
Then we decided to privatize the company – there was an IPO, and we explained to the 30,000 employees what it meant to go public – Joe Pub