Change Management
May 7, 2012

Role reversal

Don’t trust anyone over thirty, Jerry Rubin pronounced in 1967. Jerry, head of the Youth International Party, the Yippies, appealed to the Baby Boom generation then beginning to enter the workforce, to reject the norms of their predecessors and make a better world. In a remarkable inversion, the Boomers, who now occupy almost all the seats at the executive committee in every government department, have concluded they don’t have confidence in those under thirty, while those under thirty want to make a better world.

There is much talk of the retirement tsunami and renewal. Although often seen as a first, this is actually the third major staffing/renewal wave since WWII. In 1946-47 the Public Service Commission placed about 50,000 veterans in public service jobs – about half the total public service at the time. They clogged up the system for 25 years, until the 1970s when they retired en masse creating space for the new generation of university-educated Boomers, who quickly advanced to management ranks, where they then clogged up the system for 25 years. Now as they retire, the NetGen is eager to take over.

So how do we make the transition this time?

Don Tapscott makes some suggestions in his article (page 6) and his new book, Grown Up Digital. But how accurate is his diagnosis? And, more importantly, what are the implications for public service managers? We asked five NetGens who are in the public service to comment.

Pierre-Luc Pilon is an IM/IT project coordinator for the Integrated Communities of HRSDC and an eMarketing teacher at La Cité College. He has been working for YMAGIN, the HRSDC youth community, for the past year. He is completing a MSc in Environment at Université Sherbrooke.

I see the NetGen as hopeful. We know about the mess we are in, we know we have permanently altered our environment, wars are raging, and we might live shorter lives than our parents. But we are hopeful. No, we are faithful. We are genuine problem solvers. We master one of the most powerful tools known to mankind: the Internet. We see this as a chance to improve our situation – dramatically.

As Barack Obama said early in his campaign: “There’s nothing false about Hope!”

Some may say that NetGens are self-centered, money-hungry and don’t give a damn. Let me tell you, it could not be more false. Talk to your interns, students and new recruits and ask them why they joined the public service. It’s not the job security, the health plan or the pension. We are in it because we want to be a part of the bigger picture and be a part of making a difference.

I help and guide NetGens new to the public service. I agree with all seven ways Tapscott proposes to get NetGens to work effectively, but the top three I see are:
1.    Don’t just use them as foot soldiers. Too many are being assigned to do filing or to man the copier. They came to the public service to make a difference. Give them a chance to make one.
2.    Show integrity yourself. With this generation, respect is not given; it is gained. Treat your Net Geners with respect and transparency and they will pay you back with loyalty and honesty.
3.    Let them develop your web strategy. Internet is part of their language. They actually think in terms of the web. They are the pros; let them feel like it.

Jodi LeBlanc is an operations support analyst with the IT section at Veterans’ Affairs in Charlottetown. She was on loan to the public service branding project last winter. She is a representative on the Canada@150 project, which invites young public servants to think broadly about Canada and its future, identify the challenges Canada will face when it turns 150 in 2017, and propose solutions.

Tapscott provides really sound advice when he talks about how to get NetGens to work effectively in organizations. “Don’t just use them as foot soldiers – treat them as peers, listen to their suggestions. Give them power and they will surprise you positively.” This couldn’t be truer. So many new employees are given very little responsibility to start, and rarely get asked for input – despite their education, experiences and eagerness to contribute. The more I feel valued, the harder I work.  

Contrary to the jokes, most new employees don’t expect to be given the keys to the executive suite; they know they have to earn their way up. But disengagement begins when they aren’t involved and appreciated.

Baby Boomers, GenX and NetGen differ in age, experiences and skills, yet we share similar public service ethics and values, and have the common goal of making a difference in the lives of Canadians. That is the reason we all chose to work in the public service, isn’t it? We all want to feel like we have contributed as part of a team and we want to be proud of what we have achieved collectively. It is good to have a wide range of opinions and ideas to consider before making decisions, so get your NetGen involved, let them be heard.

Our generation tends to bring a culture of collaboration with us to work. We like to be in touch with our networks and be able to discuss ideas, ask questions, share what works. We are the relationship generation. We are part of virtual social networks and are comfortable using online tools to communicate. As employers, rather than limiting our creativity by blocking social networking sites at work you can support these generational norms and take advantage of the skills and knowledge that will be gained by your employees having access as one of the many tools in their communication toolbox.  

The web portal we use to communicate on the Canada@150 Project is built on Web 2.0 technologies. Our groups work together virtually, when unable to meet in-person – it’s better than a conference call. We share ideas through blogs and discussion forums, create documents through the use of wikis, and reach common goals and collective outcomes for each phase of the project. Greater use of Web 2.0 will help our generation feel more comfortable in the workplace and allow us to be more resourceful and efficient in collaborating on work.   

On the service side, the government must ramp up its high-tech offerings to meet NetGen needs. Instead of having websites that simply post information to be accessed, create communities and new models of service delivery. Using Web 2.0 technology, each individual would be granted access to a secure MyGovernment portal that the public service could personalize and customize based on the needs of each individual, and could offer valuable information on eligible programs and services from cradle to grave. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to have all government services under one umbrella? Other features include allowing users to login to their personalized portal from their digital platform of choice and having information accessible 24/7. This may be idealistic and years away, but it is definitely what the NetGen anticipates as well as what future generations will grow to expect.

Heather Orr is a senior policy analyst with British Columbia’s Ministry of Environment. She has a MSc from Oxford (Environmental Policy, 2004), joined the public service in 2005, chairs IPAC’s New Professionals Committee, was conference chair for “Minding the Gap,” an inter-governmental cross-country effort, and is acting chair, Provincial Employees Community Services Fund.

In order to genuinely engage with the NetGen, public sector organizations must begin to move away from a risk-averse culture, moving beyond the traditional “change is bad” and “we’ve done thi

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