The Ontario Public Service (OPS) is at a crossroads. The 2018 Throne Speech stressed that government needs to innovate and find new ways to deliver programs and services. At the same time, it is struggling to find tangible ways to keep employees engaged. How can it do both?
The answer may be in adopting a program like Interchange Canada, which facilitates temporary assignments in and out of the federal government. Enabling public servants to leave and welcoming external experts supports knowledge transfer, builds cross-sectoral understanding and networks, contributes to professional development goals, and may assist with organizational needs and priorities.
Reasons to move forward
There are numerous benefits associated with this approach – for the OPS, individual employees, private or civil society organizations, and the community at large.
First, it would infuse new life into the OPS. Need to find efficiencies? Need to be more service-oriented? Looking for a tech solution? You can find the staff support and ideas you need by participating in such a program. For example, consider the consternation that moving to an open workspace has caused many OPS staff. Having an employee seconded from Google to help manage the move, share recommended practices, and reassure staff would be invaluable to change management. It would also give OPS staff a chance to build on innovative ideas rather than feel stifled by the bureaucratic process. While new hires already bring their past experiences to the OPS, a government-sanctioned program would foster a culture that accepts change and outside ideas more readily.
Second, it would reinvigorate ambitious employees, especially Millennials who are not yet able to advance in the OPS but are seeking new challenges. 2017 OPS Employee Survey Results indicate that less than 50 per cent of employees are satisfied with the way their career is progressing. However, almost 80 per cent choose to work in the OPS because they want to serve the public. Internal secondments are useful, but this program would open many more opportunities to find out-of-the-box ideas and give staff a chance to gain new skills. It may also lessen the impact of younger staff moving organizations and jobs multiple times during their careers.
Finally, if the program allowed for secondment and recruitment outside Ontario, the OPS could do jurisdictional scans and build more networks. For example, international delegations could benefit from visiting Ontario to learn about its education system. Ontario could also benefit from a more in-depth, on-the-ground understanding of other systems. This could be accomplished to some degree through information sharing and short visits. But true understanding comes from spending quality time immersed within the system.
The usual cautions
As with any new initiative, there are possible drawbacks. Are there potential conflict-of-interest issues? Sure. But as with Interchange Canada, the Ontario program would only move forward with the proper policies and guidelines in place.
Will business and community organizations want to participate? Some may not, but there is a variety of benefits to consider. First, this type of program would give their staff a deeper understanding of how government works – which is invaluable to those funded, served, regulated, or overseen by government. Second, consideration could be given to additional incentives, like tax breaks for those that qualify.
Might OPS staff enjoy their time away and choose to stay? Absolutely. But regular reporting of lessons learned and a built-in “non-compete” clause that requires employees to return to the OPS for a set period would mitigate the risk. In certain cases, loss of prime OPS staff to other employers might be a positive policy outcome for Ontario.
The details of the program need to be ironed out and adapted for Ontario to avert risk. It could be trialed over two to three years, with a set number of secondments and hires in a handful of OPS ministries. The program would be outfitted with central coordination capabilities, as well as guidelines on monitoring, evaluating, and reporting results.
Fostering exchange, collaboration, and innovation will enable the OPS to serve Ontarians better. It will also sustain institutional relevance and develop the capacity to lead and grow. Staff may leave in the short term, but they will thrive – and they will always come home.