When I worked at DFAIT, and worked for a shouter, I thought I had pretty strong tolerance for bad behaviour. In fact, up until SDC, I was known for having worked for or with some people that others wouldn’t even consider. And honestly, I never had a problem with any of them. Until I worked for the DG that got fired in the last post. I needed a bit of a cleanse after that, and so I went to work with a Director that I had worked with previously.
t. Manager, Strategy and Integration, HRSDC — When I look back at this job, it is extremely difficult to separate the final result (bad) from the experience of working there (good). There are times afterwards that I felt like I wasted 18 months of my life. I didn’t, not really, but it sure felt like it at the end.
I was the manager in this group, and our team had three major deliverables — medium-term planning, an integrated policy framework, and the policy work to support creating HRSDC as a Centre of Excellence. MTP was with another manager, I was responsible for the other two. In actual fact, our team had more deliverables than just three, but these three were significant — they were three of the four commitments in the ADM’s performance agreement. Do the math and you see that two of my files equated to half his year’s commitment.
No pressure, right?
The team was virtually non-existent when I started, and I quickly reached back to my old division and plucked Tim from a pool. We didn’t have my five-year plan for world domination anymore, but we could at least try to dominate HRSDC. Rather than go blow-by-blow, I’m going to talk about four things during the 18 months, and you’ll see why they were good near the beginning and soured at the end.
First, on the HR side, I loved working with Tim again. Don’t get me wrong, we didn’t always agree on stuff, we pushed each other on certain areas, but we could make it work and create ideas and synergy that were re-invigorating. Working with the Director was always good, lots of trust and autonomy, etc. and she reported to a nice DG. Plus I got to hire some other support staff in the team, it was good. After the bad taste left by the previous DG, it was nice to just “be” at ease with a team. No drama. Mostly.
Second, on a related note, I got to see that how other people approached HR was not even close to how I approached HR. I mentioned another manager was in charge of the MTP side of the shop, and his people routinely struggled. A sister division also had challenges. Their staff was unchallenged at times, often complaining they didn’t get opportunities at certain files, people all thought the bosses were playing favorites. A policy person came in at a senior level, and while she came in with lots of oomph behind her, she was new to government. It took her awhile to get up to speed on how to “do” horizontal policy. Meanwhile, there was someone two levels below her in the hierarchy who had been doing the job for 2-3 years, and was great. So imagine the dynamic in a division when the boss would routinely bypass the more senior person who was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in favour of an experienced workhorse who was more junior. The optics were terrible, even when the manager was settling for the “easy” answer that got work out the door, and it sucked for individual development.
And I noticed that happened a lot. The easy answer.
I had an opening in my team, and I was looking for someone who could do comparative research, approaches of other countries. I was essentially looking for almost “bilateral” profiles, but the international group didn’t really have any. They sat nearby but I didn’t like their approach to international, one of the same challenges when our groups had merged. Too responsive, too “one-off”, no real policy approach. So I needed some work done to support our framework. And there was someone on the other team, at the level I needed, who could do the work and wanted to do it, plus I had worked with her before back at CIDA so she wanted to work with me too. But it would look like “poaching” from the other team. I put it to the director another way…how could I staff a job that someone else in the same division wanted, would utilize her talents better, and who I would be happy having, just because it inconvenienced the other manager? And when I ran it, we knew she would apply and I would choose her. Why would I run a full comp to get her? Good point, and the move was underway. He was furious. He said I should have asked him first. I pointed out that this was a business deal in the labour market between employer and employee. He didn’t “own” her, nor was I asking to date his daughter.
This wasn’t a small point to me. There is a “professional” agreement amongst managers to, you know, be collegial. That you won’t run around and poach staff. That you’ll talk to the other manager first. But what exactly am I talking about? Am I asking permission? No. Am I informing him? Perhaps, but why would I do that before I even know if the person wants to leave or is interested in the job? If they’re not interested, it could damage their relationship with the manager for no reason. So why would I talk to them first? Nobody had an answer to that, it was just “nice” to do. Except then you ran into a guy like this who thought it was a rule, and that he could say “no”. That’s not how an open labour market works. Ironic since one of our files was removing barriers in labour markets.
The same manager had been brought over with a promise of a promotion to ES-07 or EX-01, and so they were running a competition. I was caught a bit off-guard when it launched as no one had mentioned it was coming. All of the managers in our group were surprised. I spoke to the Director to ask why she had never mentioned it to me, despite talking about HR regularly, including my career plans. Mostly I just wanted to know if she thought I wasn’t ready or just didn’t need to mention it as I was self-sufficient in managing my career. Neither, she just thought everyone knew it was coming because he was acting and it had to be run at the end of a year. She fully expected me to perform, succeed, and potentially even outperform the incumbent. Oh, okay.
Except two days later when the poster came out, they had played with the educational requirements. It now required a Ph.D. The only position in the entire government doing that type of work that had a Ph.D. requirement. Not an asset, an actual requirement. Nobody else in the entire group of managers and only a very small handful of people in the whole Department could even apply. I know it wasn’t entirely her decision, it was the DG who dictated final requirements, but she was the one running the comp. Everybody else was PISSED. I was pissed too, but more disappointed. This wasn’t just an accident. They were guaranteeing him his promotion through some questionable HR practices. It was the easy answer. No muss, no fuss, exclude everyone else.
I haven’t talked about something in these posts, as it is more extraneous to the work, something I did on the side. I was getting good at HR comps, good with the rules and processes. I had been giving presentations on how to apply, write and prepare for interviews. Not from a manager perspective, but from the applicant perspective, but I was getting more expertise on the management side too. Even other managers were starting to seek me out for advice, as I was getting a reputation for being “one of the good ones”. One thing I did, and still do, is read the administrative tribunal decisions when someone challenges an appointment. There are certain red flags that administrators look for in reviewing cases. And one of them was when an essential requirement was suddenly drastically inflated without cause. It was clear abuse of authority and process. A deliberate bias in favour of one candidate over everyone else. And they weren’t even being subtle about it.
I thought about applying just so I could get screened out. That might sound counter-intuitive, but once you are screened out, you gain certain appeal rights. And I thought very seriously about doing it so that I could file an appeal at the end and get it tossed. I only did a year and a half of law school, but at this point, I had almost six years of learning from HR decisions by courts and tribunals too. I’d have a challenge bypassing the union, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve to do that too.
Did I want to do that? Absolutely. Nothing pisses me off more than bad HR. Integrity of policy, integrity of process, integrity of operations. Violate any one of those and you get a bad result. Maybe an easy answer for a one-off, but a bad way to run a railway.
But here’s the problem. I was also part of the management team. I did not always agree with them, but there was some residual duty there too. Plus it was a director I liked. I wouldn’t just be smacking the manager being promoted, I would be smacking the person I liked, cared about, and had worked with a lot. A person who I modelled myself after for a long time. A role model, a mentor, a friend. And my boss.
I waited until the application process closed, and didn’t apply. But I didn’t want it to pass unchallenged. The only thing I could do was send her a strongly worded email, if only to create a paper trail in case someone else outside our group decided to challenge the appointment. If someone else challenged, they would have to turn my email over in any grievance procedure / litigation request / ATIP request. I removed any reference to the individual that would get it held back, and talked only about the process.
How it had been openly communicated when the manager arrived that he would be getting a promotion. How he had been put into an acting position that nobody else had been offered a shot at, including me — who was offered both jobs (mine and his) at level. Only when he came did it get bumped up a level. Not for work, for the individual. How the comp was run, was said to be for everyone, and how it was suddenly restricted to Ph.Ds. only against an evidence-base that they had looked at other jobs around the government, and used a similar job poster, but none of them had required Ph.D. Even PCO and Finance, who routinely went higher on their qualifications for these types of jobs, had only gone to the Masters level. And, not for nothing, they had done so when they had a viable alternative.
All they had to do was make it an MA requirement for education, and use the Ph.D. as an asset. They even had a way to justify it…the person occasionally dealt with outside academics, many of whom would respond better to someone with a Ph.D. It wasn’t a significant part of the job, hence an asset not an essential requirement, but it was EASY to do. And they could STILL have given him the job at the end, but others would have had a chance to apply.
Instead, they went for the easy answer. And any long-term commitment to the division by any of the other managers was now gone. It also changed the relationship for awhile with my boss. I didn’t quite see her in the same way anymore. If she had given me a nudge to say, “Not right, but what can you do?”, I might have been okay with that. That she didn’t completely agree with it either, but it was what her boss wanted. But she hadn’t done that, and it bothered me. I knew why, she was a Director. It wasn’t her job to make me feel better about the decision, it was her job to defend it. But it made me question my previous evaluations.
Something that started a small snowball rolling down the hill, except I didn’t see it until it was too late.
The third thing I experienced was the challenge of a file that nobody quite understood. The buzzword of the day was “centre of excellence”, and the Department was “seized” with the idea. Except nobody really knew what it meant. Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, was popular with PCO, and around town, and it was driving the conversation, but like most best-selling business advice books, it was hard to adapt directly to the world of government.
And like with HR, it was easy to default to the lowest common denominator, i.e. the easy answer. Our deputy was no slouch, one of the biggest DMs in the community, and even for her, it came down to “excellence in every thing we do”. It’s a viable approach, but honestly, I disagreed. I don’t believe you can really commit to excellence in everything at once. You can commit to improvement, you can commit to removing stupid things, but true excellence? That requires something else. Which is what the book was also saying VERY clearly. Commit to ONE thing, not EVERYTHING.
In my view, that requires something akin to the approach to policy coherence. Back when I wrote about my time at CIDA doing the OECD Peer Review, the big discussion in OECD circles was around policy coherence. And like being a centre of excellence, it requires something more than just doing “more of the same” and yet most accept the easy answer. Policy coordination or even collaboration. Certainly not “coherence”.
As we were situated in the policy branch, we were tasked with looking at what it would mean to be a policy centre of excellence. Not just for the branch but for the department. Our ADM wanted to go in that direction, and we prepared memos and docs for his use, but we weren’t really influencing him. He was already there. But it wasn’t what the department wanted since most of them would not see themselves in the result. In a department of 26K, only 3K or so were officially doing policy. If done right, that wouldn’t matter who was the lead, all could support that “model”, but there was no traction and eventually, the Department moved on to creating pockets of Centres of Expertise everywhere. A major lost opportunity.
Yet after I left, over the course of the next year, I heard from the Director that she was using a lot of the material we created in those eighteen months. Call us ahead of our time, perhaps. On a bad day, I just felt like I was wasting time.
For the fourth heading, an Integrated Policy Framework, if I was wasting time on the CoE, I don’t know what to call our IPF work. We were doing cutting-edge stuff in some ways. Attempting to combine learning policy, social policy and labour market policy, we managed to come up with an eventual framework that was a little bit Amartya Sen’s and Mubub Ul Haq’s view of human development, a little bit Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a little bit lifelong learning, and a little bit Robert Putnam’s Social Capital theory. We’re not talking small potatoes here. We were trying to meld some pretty heavy philosophy and social theory into a working model for the department.
I’ll digress for a moment to talk about how I saw it (I’ll leave Tim out from my summary, he may have had other views!). Essentially, we would have three elements to our model.
a. The inputs — these were the standard drivers, trends, etc., all part of the operating environment, including political pressures, views, announcements, etc. It was basically the external “view” of what was important vs. what the evidence told us was the current situation. In terms of actual operations, it is where medium-term planning would get us with initial diagnostics and political review — what was the state of Canada and the world, and what we would do about it?
b. The “machine” — in the middle was the model. I would have just called it the model, except in retrospect, it was far too mechanistic for the powers-that-be. It was going to be our actual view of the world — how learning translated into income, how income turned into resources, how resources turned into social capital, how social capital turned into capacity, how capacity drove learning. The virtuous circle. It would talk about research, best practices, policy instruments, maybe even down to functional direction and delivery design. We didn’t get that far, but it was possible. Put in its most simplistic form, this was the model that would say, “This is how HRSDC thinks the world of learning, social and labour markets work”.
c. The outputs — depending on which “levers” you pulled, so to speak, you would generate a structure for your corporate reporting, or public reporting, or policy responses to new initiatives, whatever.
Does that sound rather academic, mechanistic even? Of course. But I’m also not an idiot.
If the Minister said in “a” that youth were important, that would mean the “machine” would treat that as gospel and generate priorities outputs for helping youth. The inputs and outputs were not irrelevant, nor unimportant, they were just “separate” from the actual policy framework. If inputs and outputs always changed, how could they be “part” of what was to be a stable framework?
The point was to separate them from the model in the middle. Inputs could change, outputs could change. The model should be relatively static in the middle. Some people said, “But if your government changes, your model changes.” Well, not really. No, I’m serious, and that isn’t me being naïve either.
The non-partisan advice wouldn’t change, in the ethical world, nor the model. Which instruments were deemed more important than the others would though. Put more accurately, the political views/philosophy of the current government might put a thumb on the scale to tip the balance in a specific direction, but it wouldn’t alter the original full menu, just which options were currently available. We still had to know ALL the options available, regardless of the government of the day.
In eighteen months, we did the equivalent of a Masters degree in policy frameworks — what they were, how they worked, what was viable, what was not.
To make progress though, we needed three main things, and we didn’t have them.
First and foremost, there had to be demand. HRSDC was a huge department, and it had and still has a distributed policy model that separates strategic policy (the branch I was in) from program policy (one each for learning, social and the labour market) from service delivery (two huge groups that vastly outnumber the policy people). While our bosses thought an IPF was a good idea, nobody really wanted anything aggressive. Some didn’t want anything at all that might constrain what they did. Some were open but wanted something light. Something mainly with the inputs and the outputs, and very little policy in between. If the Minister said “help youth”, then they spent more money on youth. No analysis if that was the best or even if it was the only option. It was simple. One input, one output. In short, there was no broad-based demand, some outright opposition, and no deadline. It didn’t help that in the previous fifteen years of operation, the Department had bopped along without one, so why start doing it differently now?
Second, we needed a vision and direction. I had one, sure, but that didn’t count for much. After about a year, we got into see the ADM to show him a draft of what we were thinking. As an aside, this ADM was known to be a tough brief. If he didn’t like something, you would know. Fast. Heck, he would rip it to shreds. He was tough. But he never made it personal, it was always about the document in front of him. As expected, the brief was tough.
He had major problems with the mechanistic nature. He didn’t want to separate the inputs and outputs form the model since those were the two things he had to live and breathe daily with the Minister’s office. Why would we separate them? Plus, he wasn’t sure we had the balance right between the models…maybe it was more Sen, less Putnam, more lifelong learning, less Maslow. I hadn’t expected to sell him, but he gave us his views for about 45 minutes. Almost all negative.
When we left, my DG and director were a bit rattled. It had been a tough brief. The Director asked me if I was okay. Okay? Why wouldn’t I be? Well, she said, that was pretty rough. Rough?
That wasn’t rough, that was AWESOME!
A senior policy ADM, head of the second-largest policy shop in all of the government. Years of experience. Engaged. Wrestling with our model. Having views, a vision, a direction.
That wasn’t rough, that was HEAVEN. I wanted to do a new version and immediately go back in that week. I wanted to strip his mind and experience and craft something he saw as useful. It was like we had finished all our course work and were going into to propose our approach to our thesis, and our advisor told us we weren’t there yet. Alrighty, let’s do this!
Alas, that was the last time I got to meet with him.
Because we were missing the third thing. Buy-in and support from our immediate management. My director was mostly deferring to us and the DG, which was fine most of the time. Except our DG was not the risk-taking type. He was not prepared to go back in to see the ADM until he was sure we had what the ADM wanted to see. He wouldn’t risk another rough ride.
By the time we reached the end of the 18 months, I was on version 89 of the deck. And nothing was sticking with the DG. None of our ideas, none of our approaches. I was on fumes. We tried putting some different staff on it, younger staff for a fresh perspective, but it wasn’t jiving with him either.
When my director suggested that perhaps we could move the file to another manager, the Ph.D. guy, I was done.
And honestly, I thought I was the most useless manager on the planet. I couldn’t get ANYTHING going. I couldn’t do the job apparently. The small snowball that had started down the hill after being excluded from the competition earlier now grew into a complete lack of self-confidence in my ability. Maybe they hadn’t steered the competition TO HIM so much as AWAY FROM me? Was I really this useless that I had to have my files taken away?
The spiralling was out of control. I took a week off to regroup, although mostly to lick my wounds, and I realized that I couldn’t stay either. I had lost the confidence of both my director and my DG, and after 18 months of pushing string, I had no energy left to keep pushing. I needed something concrete.
A chance encounter with a contact mentioned that another branch was looking for someone to do planning work. Something concrete. Tangible. No pushing string. Hard, real. No soft theory there.
And my director had suggested that whatever I pursued, I aim for something that I wouldn’t necessarily invest in personally. Because that was part of the other problem. After spending 18 months defining an IPF from almost nothing, crafting with Tim and others a vision that was as much the source material as it was now us having adapted it, the rejection of the IPF was almost like a rejection of us. I internalized that, I couldn’t help to do so. So much of ME was in the model, the way I saw the world from a professional and personal perspective that dumping it and starting over was tantamount to dumping me and starting over. Bear in mind too that I was still relying on the fact that a director I trusted and a DG I admired and respected both were of the opinion that I wasn’t doing the job right and we needed someone else to take over. That stung.
I met with the Director of the planning team. He had an opening, and he was looking for an experienced manager with some corporate planning and business background, plus exposure to performance measurement. He actually needed two managers, and he thought he might have a line on a second one, but I had some choice in which I did. I was open to either, and the other was more experienced with planning, so I angled towards the performance measurement side. I didn’t know the director. I didn’t know the team. But I knew the DG and thought highly of her. I hid my insecurities, he checked references while I held my breath. I had no idea what the Director would say. I wasn’t being “fired”, but it was next to it.
My references held, he took me on. I had my escape route.