Thanks to demographic shifts, climate change, energy shortages, global economic meltdowns and local economic booms, more is being asked of governments than at anytime in a generation. Are they ready?
“If the question you’re asking,” says Thomas Homer-Dixon of the University of Waterloo, “is whether crises like the one we’re experiencing in the economy are going to increase, I would say my answer would have to be: indisputably, yes.”
Homer-Dixon’s book, The Upside of Down, anticipated the global economy’s meltdown. Stresses like climate change, energy shortages, economic disparity and crises are leading us to an era of “non-linear change,” he says. Moreover, citizens are looking to public institutions to help – even lead – the response to these challenges.
But public services are coping with their own internal stresses. The wave of retirements that has been anticipated for years is finally having a real effect.
New projections from an actuarial study commissioned by the Office of the Premier in British Columbia confirm that the B.C. public service will shrink at least 30 percent by 2015. When compared to a provincial population that is expected to grow by a million people and, due to aging, ask much more from health care and other services, the mismatch between capacity and demand is glaring.
The upshot for B.C. has two parts: the first is potentially the most competitive public sector labour market – and perhaps the most competitive labour market, period – in decades; the second is that the province will need to rethink how it delivers services to make up for losing such a large portion of its employees.
Jessica MacDonald, Deputy Minister to the Premier and Head of the Public Service, says: “The challenge is great but the right response is straightforward. We need to make sure the B.C. public service can compete and win in attracting skilled people, and at the same time we need to make some major changes to how we work so we become a much more innovative organization that can meet the service demands of the future despite having fewer public servants.”
Jim Lahey, outgoing deputy secretary to Cabinet for Public Service Renewal for the federal government, sees the recent economic downturn as an opportunity that will invigorate and reinforce renewal efforts. Speaking to the Hill Times newspaper, Lahey said: “I wouldn’t want to say that we like crises, but I think we can prosper in terms of attracting and retaining talented employees and keeping them motivated at least as much during crises as during regular times.”
Others are preoccupied by the different but “high quality” problem of high-speed economic growth. Newfoundland & Labrador and Saskatchewan are economic leaders for the first time in their history. They are scrambling for people in the private and public sectors. Saskatchewan has even passed legislation tying public sector growth to population growth to ensure the public sector does not grow too soon, too fast.
Throw into this mix the sort of stresses Homer-Dixon references, and the idea of public service renewal begins to look like more than a robust HR strategy. It begins to look like a big think about the future of government in a period of serious and long-term challenges to the well-being of Canada.
So how are jurisdictions taking on this challenge?
Hiring, recruitment and retention is the foundation of renewal. Across the country, the aging boomer population is getting set for retirement – a cohort that exceeds half of the senior leadership in many governments.
Meanwhile, a new generation of public servant is working its way into the system. Some are new while others are more experienced, and are preparing to take on more responsibility. Others have to be found and encouraged to consider a career in public service.
In the next ten years, the competition for people looks to be fierce. Talent will be in demand across all sectors of the economy. And public services will find themselves fighting for that talent with the private sector as well as with other governments.
For B.C., there is no waiting around. It is determined to get out in front of other jurisdictions when it comes to recruitment and retention. From aggressive recruitment advertising with a focus on skilled streams and northern communities to working its way onto the list the province’s top 50 employers, the public service is increasingly recognized as a top place to work.
The urgency is palpable elsewhere in the country. Manitoba Civil Service Commissioner Deb Woodgate says that in her jurisdiction leadership has been very engaged: “Executive buy-in is critical. Here in Manitoba we’re lucky to have it. Deputies are meeting every three weeks to oversee the implementation of our HR strategy. Our committee is essentially taking on a corporate HR role.”
Clare Isman, chair of the Saskatchewan Public Service Commission, says her province’s rapidly tightening labour market is pushing them to do things differently: “We are being far more proactive than we used to be. We are actively reaching out to Aboriginal communities and have opened a recruiting office on the University of Regina. Before we were much more passive. We expected people to come to us.”
Compensation is another issue for Saskatchewan. “We have to be competitive,” continues Isman. “That means finding a balance between meeting needs and not lagging behind other sectors.”
Newfoundland and Labrador also has its sights set on competitiveness. It wants its public service to be an active contributor to the prosperity of the province. Marilyn Field, ADM of Human Resources in the Executive Council Office, says, “we want a high performing public service, and so are taking steps like workforce planning, integrated talent management programming, and planning for the future to make sure that this happens.”
While generally supportive, some public sector commentators point out that even the best recruitment and retention strategy is not going to be enough to sustain the levels of public service that Canadians have come to expect. Instead, they contend, governments are going to need to think differently about how they work.
“What we’re seeing, I think, is a shift away from ‘top-down’ government,” says Don Lenihan, chair in Public Engagement at the Ottawa-based Public Policy Forum.
“Governments must come to terms with the fact that they can no longer solve many public problems on their own. Their own numbers are telling us that they won’t have the people to do it. To remain effective they will have to look outside their own walls to accomplish the things the public wants. That means they will need to collaborate with other governments, with stakeholders, community leaders and citizens in choosing and acting towards their goals.”
Author and researcher Anthony D. Williams, who co-wrote the best-selling Wikinomics, agrees. He sees potential for collaborative Web 2.0 technology to play a role in bringing the public into sharing the work of services that were once strictly provided by government.
“A terrific example is the Peer-to-Patent project that was sponsored by the U.S. Patent Office. That project helped reduce the incredible backlog of patent application approvals by involving a community of citizen researchers, scientists and engineers in determining those approvals. This idea of ‘crowdsourcing’ the right kinds of public services might be a necessary part of dealing with the shortage of resources it seems governments are bound to encounter over the next decade.”
Governments are just at the margins of exploring these ideas, according to Kim Henderson, the ADM responsible for B.C.’s Public Service Initiative in the Premier’s Office.
“There is a great opportunity to tap the talent of the public that we can ben