Tuesday, August 26, 2008

My “Personal” PS Renewal Vision


Whenever I’m walking on the street, strangers often approach me and ask: “What’s your vision for PS Renewal?”

Well… maybe not ;-) But on a couple of occasions, some federal public servants have asked me what I would see as priorities for PS Renewal. Here’s my personal vision.

First, in order to determine priorities, we have to set some criteria. My criteria would be:

  • It must have a long-term, sustainable impact: There are more potential projects than what we can reasonably undertake. All of them would undoubtedly be a lot of fun to work on, and most would probably generate quite a bit of excitement… at least for a little while. Then the initial enthusiasm would wear off, and we would most likely end up forgetting altogether about these nice projects we delivered. What PS Renewal needs in order to be successful are initiatives that may have only a moderate impact in the short-term, but if sustained over a long period of time, might ultimately have a lasting and more profound effect on the public service.
  • It must address the source of the problem rather than the symptoms. How often have I seen public servants – including managers and senior executives – confuse the symptoms with the problems and consequently opt for “quick fixes” that only took care of the symptoms but left the source of the problems unaddressed. One recent example I can think of are the long delays in external recruitment campaigns. Many managers say – rightfully – that we need to shorten the delays in external recruitment in order to hire the “best and brightest”. In order to address this, quite a few managers have suggested that they should be able to make “on-the-spot job offers” to students at job fairs. While I agree with the fact that we need to drastically reduce the delays in recruitment campaigns in order to attract top talent into the public service, the real source of the problem is that too many managers still rely on traditional / long / cumbersome assessment processes and tools to do external hiring. If we would go to the source of the problem and opt for different recruitment processes and tools, the delays in recruitment campaigns would be significantly reduced as a result. We would then address both the symptoms and the source of the problem. (Furthermore, if we innovate with our external hiring methods, perhaps we could also use these methods for internal staffing processes as well!)
  • It must foster personal responsibility and individual ownership. One aspect of the public service culture I have a real hard time with is the fact that so many people are simply not willing to take any responsibility for their own actions, let alone for their destiny. These people would rather point the finger at someone else – even if it doesn’t solve the problem – than take any ownership. I have witnessed this exact phenomenon during the e-polling session at the 2008 National Managers’ Professional Development Forum in Vancouver. The answers to two questions in particular proved my point. The first was the question where 42% of the middle managers said that in order effectively manage poor performers, they would benefit most from senior management leadership to provide the support and resources they need to effectively deal with poor performers! The second was the one where 69% of all middle managers disagreed or strongly disagreed that their organization was adequately preparing future managers to replace employees who retire. The result itself wasn’t really surprising, but when Ruth Dantzer took the mic and suggested to the middle managers that they could take some simple steps to adequately prepare future managers, like bringing some of their employees to meetings in order to expose them to things they wouldn’t see otherwise, it was met with a resounding silence!! (I personally wanted to stand up and applaud Ruth Dantzer because she was inviting managers to take some ownership of the problem!) That’s why I believe that the most successful initiatives to support PS Renewal will be those where managers – and even employees – share at least some of the responsibility for success.

Based on the criteria above, and the long reflection that preceded my active involvement in PS Renewal, my vision for PS renewal would consist in the following:

  1. Put in place a mechanism for employees to provide ongoing input and feedback on the issues that matter to them. It is one thing to be invited by the Clerk to “get involved, speak up, make suggestions, become part of renewal, be proud and make a difference”; it is quite another to have a mechanism or forum to do so. Although public servants like me and the guys at CPSRenewal.ca have taken the Clerk’s advice to the letter by launching our own blogs (actually we didn’t even wait for the invitation!), it must be stated clearly that we operate on the fringe. We “get involved” mostly on our own personal time – not our work time – and even expose ourselves to some risks in doing so. (I can’t speak for my friends, but I would much rather be able to blog on an official government site, be allowed to do it on my work time, and do it without fearing to be treated as a criminal for expressing my opinions, than blog from home late at night with the constant anxiety of not knowing what surprise awaits me at the office the next morning.) Federal departments and agencies must be willing to provide a “feedback loop” to employees and take their input seriously if they want to address the concerns of staff without getting blindsided.
  2. Make “people management” an overarching theme for the next five years. If there’s one thing I am proud of, it’s that I feel I have contributed to put “people management” on the forefront of the PS Renewal agenda with my paper “An Inconvenient Renewal”. While the awareness that ensued is a nice starting point, it is not nearly enough to bring about the behavioural changes the public service so desperately needs. One way to get there is to centre the best initiatives around an overarching theme for an extended period of time. Only then may new habits become part of “the way we do things”. “And just what those initiatives should be?”, might you be asking. Well, here’s the (my) answer…
  3. Focus on the on-boarding experience of new employees during their first year in the public service. One inherent danger of setting specific priorities and objectives for PS Renewal, is that we may pursue them at the expense of equally important factors that might impact the end results or even cancel off all our efforts. Such is the case with recruitment. There’s no question that shorter delays in external recruitment campaigns are critical in order to get the “best and the brightest”. But assuming we can get them in, how long will they stay? If the public service keeps welcoming new hires the way it currently does, maybe not that long… If you think the public service does rather poorly when it comes to recruitment, here’s a news for you: it’s generally downright awful when it comes to the on-boarding process, i.e. the first few days, few weeks, few months they experience inside the public service. If we want to have the slightest chance of retaining the recruits we relentlessly worked to get through the door, we better take them seriously once they are in. That means welcoming them into the organization “as if they mattered” (because they do!). It means giving them all the tools they need to be the best employee they can be (because that’s what they expect!), giving them in the first few weeks all the training they need to do their job properly (because that’s what they want!) and giving them all the performance feedback they may or may not wish to receive during their first few months in the public service. Why? Because if you are their manager, managing their performance is YOUR JOB!!!
  4. Make performance management a top priority. Oh… did I just implicitly alluded to the “P” word – performance management? I’m sorry… I know you’re already under a lot of stress and pressure. You probably think you deserve a break, and you’re partly right. But unfortunately one thing that won’t get off your plate is your responsibility to manage the performance of your staff. If I was the boss of you, the annual performance of your staff would be minimum requirement. For your new recruits, I would require mandatory performance appraisals every three months. Why? Because not so long ago, I was a new hire too. I received the feedback I needed, mostly because I asked my manager to give it to me. And it was most helpful. I knew what I needed to change, what I needed to improve, and what I should keep doing. Most importantly – and because I had good managers – I also received the positive feedback I needed to keep me going and get better.

Well, there you have it. My personal PS Renewal vision. Does this vision makes sense? Does it speak to you? Am I totally off-track? Please take a moment to take the poll on the top right-hand of this page and vote for the priorities you feel are the most important.

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